Our Human Consciousness

What is consciousness? Obviously, this is a very difficult question to answer since no one really knows what it is, neither scientists nor philosophers. The standard definition of consciousness, kindly provided by Wikipedia, is: “the state or quality of awareness, or, of being aware of an external object or something within oneself,” which really does not offer much of an explanation. Consciousness is also sometimes seen as the subjective factors of our human experience (thoughts, reactions, pain, emotions, or everything that can only be experienced by you and not by another person) as opposed to our objective experience, which is the material world and  accessible for viewership by everyone. This question had interested me for a very long time, and I finally did some research and formulated a coherent opinion and perspective about it, although I am still very confused.

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First, I want to discuss what philosophers call the brain in a vat thought experiment. Imagine your brain being suspended in a vat and hooked up to monitor that sends electrical impulses into the brain that mimic actual perceptions of a physical world and real experiences. In reality, it happens in a very similar way: information coming from our five senses is sent as impulses by neurotransmitters from the eyes, ears, skin etc into the brain, which processes the information and presents a perception of the real world. Based on our limitations in knowledge about consciousness and the brain, we cannot know if the image of the physical world presented by our brains is actually there. For all we know, our existence could be brain in vats. From her arise the questions that govern the quest into this very big question: What is the relation between our interpretation of our sense and consciousness? Can consciousness work in isolation or does it have to be viewed through a greater context based on the factors that influence it? What are those factors? Where does the objective computation of the brain end, and where does the subjective consciousness begin? We know it’s there, but what is it?

“What is it about the biophysics of highly excitable brain matter that turns gray goo into the glorious surround sound and Technicolor that is the fabric of everyday experience?”- Scientific American 

Let’s look at science, or, more specifically, the cerebellum of the brain, which is responsible for motor control and posture and is the most concentrated part of the brain in terms of neurons. When that part of the cerebellum is injured or surgically removed, it might be more difficult for us to play piano or rock climb, but our ability to think, have emotions, process information, or recall memories is not altered. Additionally, if the spinal cord is injured, the amount of active neurotransmitters going to the brain decreases and the person experiences severe physical limitations, but their cognitive abilities stay the same. This means that consciousness does not arise solely from excited neuron activity, and it is not inhibited by physical limitations. This is because different parts of the brain are responsible for processing and storing information. But does that mean that the parts of the brain where information is processed, the posterior cortex for example, is where the consciousness resides? Is consciousness just another function of the brain? What if your brain is separated from our body, will it still have a consciousness?

Here’s how I see it: If you think about what the world really is, it is just a collection of moving atoms and energy in the form of periodic waves of light and sound. Based on the laws of physics, the brain unconsciously computes this information, which we call our five senses, into something like a simplified list of the world around us. A disturbance of air particles at a specific frequency is computed to a specific pitch of sound, and a frequency of light is computed to color. This is something I’ll call algorithmic reasoning. But where consciousness comes in is in the ability to analyze each specific feature in our visualization of the world and to create a uniform image these features (similar to connecting the puzzle pieces to create on big image), and then deduces a unique response or reaction to this image. Each of the features of our existences are received and analyzed through different parts of the brain separately, for example the color and the shape of something, but we don’t respond to the color and shape of something separately, we respond to each cognitive computation as a whole, based on plausible reasoning. I don’t want to say it’s logic, because our consciousness does not follow the laws of logic, it takes into account personal desires and memories, which are stored in other parts of the brain. So, in essence, consciousness is what makes us human.

In short, the brain is the physical manifestation of our cognitive capabilities, and consciousness uses the brain’s abilities in order to make sense of the world and to create a mental model of how to navigate through life. Here is an analogy: say you want to build something. The materials and the directions on how to use each of the materials is presented by the brain. Consciousness takes those materials and instructions and builds something based on its own taste and perception of what the finished product would look like. Here is another example: you hear a bird. The frequency of that sound reaches you ear, the brain receives and analyzes that sound, telling you that it came from a bird, how far away it is, and the direction it came from. The consciousness takes that sound, looks at the other factors of your physical surroundings and  looks at your memories, and then decides whether to smile or scowl, whether you laugh or turn away.

“Consciousness, I know you’re in there, please tell me who you are!”

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Sources: An article from Scientific American: What is Consciousness? ; an article from Philosophy Now: A Role For Consciousness ; and my thoughts.

33 thoughts on “Our Human Consciousness

    1. The ancient Greeks and Egyptians had fascinating views about human consciousness. They’re worth reading if you’re interested in the topic from a philosophical standpoint, in my opinion. I don’t think we’ll ever really know all the answers…

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      1. It’s frustrating, isn’t it? The answer feels so close yet so far away. I read a lot about consciousness from both the scientific standpoint and I didn’t get any answers, but I did find new questions to ask, so I guess that’s progress. I actually bought a book about consciousness as a whole- the history of the philosophy of consciousness and the scientific advances of it, and modern theories about it. It’s called “the consciousness instinct.” I didn’t start reading it but it looks like a good book. 😀

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      2. I try not to think about it myself… It’s frustrating. I’ve explored different aspects of consciousness, but never as a whole. Looking at mankind as groups rather than individuals, (the social science stuff) sometimes we don’t seem all that bright, just another gear in the Machine, another aspect of Nature I guess. Looking at humans on an individual level is a whole different matter.

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      3. I guess you can call it a “group consciousness” that makes us act in the predictable patters that we do. Or maybe is it something within our own consciousness that makes us want to follow what other people are doing….I don’t know, but the thinking does become different when you think about a group of people. Maybe it’s easier, because then you become more of a statistic than a human?

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      4. Civilization could be called a group consciousness, I guess you’re right. It’s about systems, and everyday practicality, regimes, a whole bunch of different factors. I haven’t delved much into sociology, so I can’t really say much about it. It’s mostly history and mythology that I study, but there’s a lot of cross flow.

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      1. Yup, and they’re not very nice. This site gets messed up on my phone. I keep liking and unliking stuff because of it. Sorry about that

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      2. Yes, I looked up a picture of them, they don’t look nice. I also got the app on my phone recently and the site has been acting up a lot. It seems like You just can’t trust technology these days.

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      1. Yep science is definitely straight forward. It’s also the most accurate way to explain most parts of human consciousness because it pairs very well with our 5 senses. Our pineal gland in the epithalamus part of our brain has a lot to do with human consciousness. However, proving that isn’t very science friendly because that kind of consciousness lies beyond our 5 senses.

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      2. What I’ve noticed is that science can tell you what consciousness is not. Since science is studying the brain and figuring out more and more of its capabilities, the stuff that cannot be credited to the brain’s functions or any other laws of science is allocated to the work of the consciousness. That’s still a very gray area though. Like you said, some parts of the brain are associated with consciousness, usually the parts where information in processed, but we can’t know for sure. Also, there is no doubt that the brain is associated with the 5 senses, but the consciousness still needs the evaluation of the 5 senses in order to exist. But where exactly that line is drawn is still a mystery.

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      3. I think many aspects of human consciousness is to remain a mystery. To actually prove all aspects of human consciousness from a scientific standpoint would probably create a paradox of some sort. I don’t really know how to explain what I mean by that. I guess in order to fully understand the way in which certain aspects of human consciousness works would cause those parts to complete lose its meaning. We have intuition which is intrinsic in knowing without the use of our 5 senses. If we can scientifically prove its existence within the brain then the idea of intuition would not exist as its main meaning is to know without reason.

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      4. I totally get what you’re saying. It’s quite similar to the “ignorance is bliss” idea, but also kind of different. The difference between humans and robots is the factor of unpredictability, which comes in the form of emotions, opinions, desires, etc. If we try to take that factor of unknown and make it known, I think we will loose something essential about ourselves. We need to not have a reason to be human. I delved into the idea of consciousness with the tendency to hyper-analyze everything but realized more and more that that is not possible, and I am learning to appreciate that. Thank you so so much for sharing your perspective, I appreciate it immensely!

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    1. Thank you so much! And I agree with you. Consciousness resides beyond the physical world. It is intangible- like a reflection in a mirror. Consciousness is also the ability to analyze something and reflect beyond the physical world- your thoughts, desires, emotions. And it is also about asking questions that transcend the physical world- who am I? What do I want? What is my future? What is my past? Again, thank you so much for reading and commenting.

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  1. So many ways of seeing things! Perhaps there’s the body, the mind, and the soul – I read something somewhere about how the consciousness is in the fingers as much as the mind, since we perceive the feelings there, rather than consciously via the brain – something along those lines. For me it kind of ties in with this idea of the soul being the manifestation of the body and mind in unison, and also this whole idea of 3 in one, which occurs so much in religions which baffle me so much.

    They tell me there is a part of the brain concerned with religion and spirituality, I find in doing art, I need that extra pinch of superstitious belief in order to really create, or move – something additional and outside, towards which I am gravitating.

    Also, I’m thinking of studies from psychological development, like when a child first realises its own reflection is just that – and how they throw things and realise thee environment is out there, as opposed to in. ITs all totally amazing! 🙂

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    1. Hello!
      While researching this for this post, I found a lot of information about the body, mind, and soul- usually in the context of the three being separate entities. I kind of see it a different way. The brain is what processes and analyzes our word, the mind is like the consciousness (that’s where our memories, emotions desires feed into the evaluation of the physical world) but the soul is a combination of the mind and body – our consciousness in relation the the bigger physical world around us : kind of like consciousness in a much bigger context.

      It’s very interesting, the fact about consciousness being in your fingers and the implication that it extends beyond the confines of the brain. It really brings into question where else our consciousness is able to reach- could there be a limit?

      I consider myself somewhat of an artist, and I really don’t know much about religion, but I think I know exactly what you mean. Usually when I draw, I am sometimes mildly aware of my mind drifting, and I let it do so. I give my consciousness a break, although I know it’s still somewhere there. What I call my “thoughtless art” is the product of my mind wandering in the deep crevices of my soul while my hand draws what it finds (I’ve never really described my art this way but I think that’s what it is) Maybe one day I’ll have the courage to post my art on here.

      The word around us and the world inside us is so interesting the learn about, so much amazing stuff. Anyway, thank you for reading my post, I appreciate it a lot.

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      1. Oh yes, its all very interesting – I think I heard somewhere, or read something in an exhibition about newest discoveries, about how the brain is actually less compartmentalised than previously thought, I think it was the results of brain scans shows that the way it cross references and so on, I can’t find or recall the info at the moment, this was the exhibition. (https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/news/nr/university-of-sheffield-festival-of-the-mind-inspires-the-city-1.655640)

        I got into some of the information they were providing, it was amazing, a brain the size of a planet is a very real idea when you think about how it works and the balance that has evolved to make it what it is. Another thing that springs to my mind, about the animals, I should imagine they too are highly evolved, just that we utilise the brain differently, thats such a mystery, how that came to be the case – but who knows what they know?

        On your first paragraph, I looked at philosophy a bit when studying, they say that words are of great interest to philosophers, if there were no words, would there be no thoughts? Something like that – cos words and language are at the heart of reasoning, something like that – I think they talk about signifiers a lot, because a word isn’t a thing, but a signifier – sounds interesting, but I’m afraid I don’t really follow it well. Seems a bit Spock Logic to me! I suppose we have feelings naturally and evolved language to describe and assign meanings for further explorations.

        I read some stuff about the Universal Field, or Universal Soul (pop culture) which is pretty far out, its been a long time since I read that, but I’m sure its pretty inspired! 🙂

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      2. I read the article about the exhibition, and it sounds very interesting. It seems like a great way to engage the entire city to learn about science- and in a very fun way.

        As for animals, they’re all smart in their own ways, just not in our ways. For example, dolphins are apparently smarter than humans, but it can do almost nothing compared to what we do and we can do almost nothing compared to what they can do. Also, I have a dog and I’ve always thought that he was much smarter that he let on, just in his own very special way, for example: sensing someone’s arrival and understanding someone’s feelings. I guess the only reason why we rose to be the superior race is because of our large numbers and our large size, and probably the way in which our communication skills were developed. I think that our ability to speak what we think gives our thoughts some sort of materialistic value. I’ve always felt that speaking or writing down what I was thinking made it seem much more real. I guess that’s what makes human’s the dominant creature- there is more weight to their thoughts?

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      3. Yes, also they do say that having inverted thumbs or something helped to make us more dextrous – walking upright they say wasn’t good for our back / spine, but it enabled us to progress in other ways.

        I still like the idea that some aliens came from outer space and did something to our DNA – it just seems to grab my attention more than scientific explanation alone!

        Having said that, and then coming back to reality, its really great to accept science, and then begin to think about the animals in a more appreciative way, perhaps more enlightenment is in order, help to make us humans more guardians of the earth than we have been thus far!

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      4. I’ve watched a lot of documentaries about aliens and I am convinced that they definitely have some influence into our worldly matters.

        But admittedly, science has a lot more influence in our world, we should listen to it.

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