The sense of being.

  1. Intuitively, what does consciousness feel like?

  2. The richness of human consciousness.

  3. Does this hold true for all of us, and at all points in time?

  4. If consciousness is not unitary and indivisible, then what is it?

  5. Consciousness in other species.

  6. The stability of consciousness over time.
What is consciousness, intuitively?
Our bodies constantly experience sensations from our external environment. We perceive visual and auditory events, we feel pressure, touch, pain, and temperature changes, we smell and taste chemical substances.

We have trains of thought running through our minds, we constantly integrate new experiences with past memories, and make decisions about what to do next. As we perform actions, we evaluate their outcomes and adjust our behaviour accordingly.

In the midst of all these experiences, feelings, and stimulations, we each have the perception that all these sensations are happening to one individual- ourself.

Your experiences are all carefully knit together, forming a coherent identity that you relate to absolutely and uniquely. You don't, for instance, believe that you are a completely different entity from one moment to the next- you experience a sense of continuity as your history of thoughts and memories are bound to your identity as an individual.

Neither do you feel as if the events around you are happening to another person- you clearly perceive them as happening to yourself, and yourself only. You can imagine what other people might feel, but that's different- you know that you're using your own mind, and your own perceptions, not those of someone else, to create these impressions.

Our consciousness is able to lay dormant, and upon regaining consciousness (when waking up after sleep, for example), this sensation of awareness comes alive, and we have access to the memories and thoughts that we experienced and stored away before losing consciousness.
The richness of human consciousness.
Relative to most other animals, humans have relatively large brains, with a highly developed cortex (the layer that is responsible for performing advanced computations based on higher levels of abstraction. Our brain is equipped with vast memory stores and can perceive certain types of stimuli with great resolution and sensitivity. Thus our sensory perceptions of the world, as well as our emotional lives, are rich and complex.

We're keenly aware of the fact that we each possess a unique personality, a particular set of personal beliefs, and a distinctive way of perceiving, interpreting, and reacting to the events around us. Disparate thoughts blend smoothly and we view them through a single perceptual lens- this confers the strong impression that consciousness is an indivisible phenomenon, and cannot exist except as a complete set of its component elements.
Does this hold true for all of us, and at all points in time?
For most of us, the above description of how we experience life is largely true:
  • We've the ability to maintain a consistent point of view.

  • Our minds generate the sensation that all our perceptions arise from our individual experience.

  • We're able to instinctively understand that someone else’s perspective is separate and distinct from our own.

  • We just 'know' that although our opinions and perceptions may vary from time to time, they're tied to our person over the course of our lifetime.
These abilities come so naturally to most of us that they appear effortless.

Thus, it may come as a surprise to find out that this situation does not hold true, for many individuals.

Aspects of conscious perception that many of us take for granted are, in fact, missing in certain individuals. For example:
  • People may lose the ability to store memories of events in their lives, following accidents or strokes that damage parts of their brains.

  • People may not be able to distinguish between imaginary events in their mind and real events that occur in the external world.

  • People may experience a dissociation between their conscious and subconscious perceptions of the world.

  • People may fail to link their emotional associations of an object to the visual representation of the object.
Thus, consciousness does not exist as one unitary phenomenon- it's actually composed of dissociable, distinct components that are normally harmoniously integrated, but which, under the appropriate circumstances, can each be observed in isolation.

In cases where damage occurs to relevant parts of the cortex, individuals may find that one or more components are missing, but their faculties remain intact in all other respects. These cases cause one to realise that ‘consciousness’ is not an indivisible entity with attributes that are present in every single individual, but is instead composed of numerous components, and can exist even when one or more of these components is absent.
If consciousness is not unitary and indivisible, then what is it?
Can consciousness truly be broken down into discrete components? Is there an 'ideal' state of consciousness, which we can consider to be completely equipped with all the necessary tools for life?

One might choose to argue that for those individuals who don't possess a 'complete' range of perceptual abilities, their particular states of ‘consciousness’ are only partial and thus less well developed than those of others.

Following this argument further- one might, theoretically, attempt to define what consciousness is, by compiling a list of all the perceptual abilities that are known to occur among human beings.

An individual in whom all these abilities the present might be thought of as possessing a ‘fully intact’ state of consciousness, whereas individuals with some components ‘missing’ might be thought of as having only a partially developed state of consciousness.

In reality, however, this is a fairly crude and inadequate way of assessing whether an individual’s consciousness is 'intact' or not.

The fact is that our perceptual abilities are not simply ‘present’ or ‘absent’- instead, they are honed to a greater or lesser degree in every individual. One individual may have keenly developed skills in certain areas, and not in other areas, while the opposite pattern is true for other individuals.
Consciousness in other species.
In addition, we need to remember that there is a huge number and variety of perceptual abilities that are possessed by non-human organisms, which are largely absent among members of our species.

The set of perceptual abilities that characterises our species is only a tiny subset of the abilities possessed by organisms across all species on earth. The components that make up a human being’s state of consciousness are different from those that characterise that of an insect, or another mammal, or a plant.

We tend to think of our version of consciousness as the ideal standard to which all other versions should be compared, but this is an anthropocentric perspective. There are all kinds of perceptual abilities that we possess, which would be relatively useless to an insect or a rodent, just as there are perceptual abilities that are essential to insects that we lack, but without which we may still thrive.
The stability of consciousness over time.
Thus, it makes more sense to think of consciousness as a set of qualities that are shared in common by most individuals of a particular species, but which vary somewhat between individuals of each species. In a way, one could say that there are at least as many different states of consciousness as there are individual organisms.

In fact- there are more, because each individual possesses a slightly different set of perceptual abilities at different stages of life. As our bodies develop, our skill set gradually increases.

For example, we tend to think of the ability to form and retrieve memories as an integral component of conscious thought.

However, one is not born with a fully developed brain, capable of storing memories of experiences in the way an adult’s brain does.

Instead, over the course of development in early childhood, one’s brain forms the connections that are responsible for the storage of memories, and this process takes place gradually over time.

This is why we do not remember events of early childhood, until we reach a certain age- our brains were simply not capable of storing memories until they reached a certain level of maturity. In this sense, infants have only a ‘partial’ state of consciousness, in comparison to adults.

This holds true for many other perceptual abilities. Certain abilities emerge abruptly during highly distinct phases of development, whereas others develop more gradually. Some abilities continue to be honed throughout the course of one’s life.

Thus, even if a perceptual ability is present in two individuals, the degree to which it is honed differs between the individuals. The components that make up their consciousness are shared, but are present in different degrees.

Moreover, we augment our inherent biological talents with the tools of technology, acquiring new and more sophisticated perceptual abilities, with the help of optic lenses, measuring equipment, and so on. When people make use of these tools to enhance their perception of the world, they are, in a way, expanding and refining their states of consciousness.
comments courtesy of Disqus

background image