When it comes to the evolution of science, decoding the human brain has been one of the greatest challenges. One mystery that is yet to be identified and understood is the experience of consciousness. For thousands of years, philosophers and researchers have been pushing their theories to the limits in a relentless attempt to comprehend the nature of the mind and pin down its essential properties.
Thanks to recent developments, consciousness has become a significant topic of research in psychology, neuropsychology, and neuroscience within the past few decades.
Here are some fascinating aspects of where science has led us throughout our quest to better understand the elusive quality of human consciousness.
The Complex Brain
The human brain is believed to be the most complexly organized form of matter in the known universe. The electric activity in the brain is known to play a key role in what gives rise to conscious awareness — the alert quality of being aware of ourselves as well as our surroundings.
With an estimated 100 billion nerve cells in the brain, this infinite amount of possibilities is what makes understanding the inner working of this process an enormous challenge.
What science has been able to detect so far is that reality as we know it is a product of the mind. This means that our perception is constructed and experienced in the brain.
The brain's unique ability to process information through neural activity gives us access to a wide range of behavior, emotion, and activity that we call human nature. But when it comes to understanding how this takes place, that’s about as much as we know.
Very quickly along the human exploration of the world through science, we realized that in order for our accumulation of knowledge and scientific understanding to exist, conscious awareness is absolutely necessary.
This turned our attention towards consciousness by raising such questions as: “Where does consciousness arise?”, and “How does the composition of tissue and cells in the skull provide us with a sense of coherent existence?” The result of this paradox is what we call the mind-body problem.
Mind Body Paradox
The philosophy of mind is an area of focus that studies the nature of the mind and its relationship with material reality, the body, and more specifically the brain.
Stemming from the perspectives of such philosophers as Plato and Socrates, the essential problem that is presented within this area of focus is the mind body problem — how does something physical create a mind? More so, how does a physical body support these feelings of free will that allows us to experience life so fluently?
Reductionism is the scientific idea that in order for something to be understood and explained, it must be reduced to its primary components. The problem is that consciousness can only be reduced to a first person experience; no one has ever been able to demonstrate scientifically that consciousness can be traced to any primary component.
This causes a theoretical problem because as science needs to explain things in subjective third person, we are the ones gathering the information from a first person perspective, which would make experience and reality two different things.
One theory that has been imposed as an attempt to satisfy this conflict is the concept of dualism. This theory suggests that the mind and body are distinct from one another. That the mind is something other than the material brain, and often referred to as the spirit or the soul. Dualism is the idea that the relationship between mind and matter is a mental phenomenon that is non-physical. This would indicate that consciousness is a system that contains two essential parts: the mind and body.
In Buddhist philosophy, ancient philosophers from 600-1000 CE such as Dharmakirti contended that dualism exists as a result of tiny particles (Buddhist atom theory) interacting with the physical brain. These atoms represent points of energy where nothing other than quantum particles and pure consciousness can exist.
Dualism supports some religious views in that the spirit or soul survives the body. But what dualism fails to explain is the philosophical principle of qualia — the examination of first person experiences; how we are able to touch and taste things or have individual experiences of subjective consciousness. In fact, every theory up until this point seems to leave this unexplained.
In neuroscience, the goal is to understand which parts of the brain correspond with specific functions and mental capacities. Physicalism (or materialism) is the idea that consciousness is located in the brain as a closed system, operating from within the complex activity of the brain.
The main principle of physicalism is that the natural laws of physics should be the first approach to scientific problems. This approach also carries much significance in cognitive sciences.
The main argument that physicalism presents against dualism is that no one has ever been able to demonstrate the interface between the brain and mind. This argument raises the question: if the mind or spirit is separate from the brain, on which level do they interact and communicate? Where is the information coming from that causes the brain to react and send signals to the body?
Another argument stems from the discovery that certain areas of the brain correspond to specific functions of the body. This has been made clear through some groundbreaking work done by neuro scientist Vilayanur Ramachandra — who is also the Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at UCSD.
By exploring the theory that the nature of reality is constructed and experienced only in the brain, Ramachandra used insight gained from observing the effects of brain injury to investigate how the brain is able to map out our physical existence.
A perfect example of this is a phenomenon called phantom limb syndrome. It is a common occurrence for an amputee to feel the active presence of a missing limb long after it is gone. Ramachandra describes the image of our body that is held in the brain as our ‘body image.’
This conscious image is constantly being composed by neural activity in the brain and, in most cases, substantiated by the actual physical presence of the body. The phantom limb phenomenon reveals how our brains can dilute us into being conscious of something that isn’t there.
The conscious phenomenon of ‘blindsight’ is another paradoxical example of how much our brains run our lives without us being aware of it. Blindsight is the ability for someone who is blind to respond to visual stimuli that they do not consciously see.
In an article published in Scientific American, Ramachandra describes how blindsight can be understood by examining the anatomy of the brain. The main visual centers in humans occupy nearly half of the brain. From the eyeball to the visual centers in the brain there are two neural pathways, which serve different aspects of vision.
The more recent and sophisticated evolutionary pathway connects to the visual cortex of the brain. This part of the brain is needed to consciously see something.
The more ancient pathway goes to the brainstem — the earliest part of the brain responsible for main motor function such as breathing, eating, sleeping, and regulation of heart rate. Eventually, this information is relayed from the brainstem to the higher centers of the brain.
If the visual cortex is damaged and the other pathway remains intact, the person can still accurately distinguish the orientation and movement of an object in relation to where they are perceiving it from.
When someone with this mysterious ability is presented with a moving object, they can describe what is taking place with the object without being able to explain how they know. This response is prominent in reptiles, who depend on unconscious blindsight for survival.
This fascinating phenomenon helps us understand what consciousness is by figuring out why certain neural pathways act consciously while others behave in the background of our unconscious — known as the philosophical zombie argument. This also indicates that we operate using much more sensory information than the five basic senses that we are used to experiencing the world with.
Consciousness in the context of philosophy and religion is described as our relationship with the universe or in some cases God.
This universal connection is absent of explanation, or the need to analyze its existence because consciousness is experienced as pure being — a higher intelligence that has no beginning or end.
The mystical psychiatrist Richard Maurice Bucke distinguishes between three types of consciousness:
Simple Consciousness: awareness of the body, possessed by many animals;
Self Consciousness: awareness of being aware, possessed only by humans;
Cosmic Consciousness: awareness of the life and order of the universe, possessed only by humans who are enlightened.
This introduces the concept that consciousness is not only a human experience but something that resonates with us as the universal mind. This can be compared to a single frequency emanating through existence as a whole and something that vibrates through our physical being. We are aware of it as something that simply exists, not as an experience but as our true core nature.
A Landscape for Further Discussion
With consciousness being one of the most mysterious and elusive topics in science and philosophy, there has been no solid way to arrive at a definition absent of fuzziness or vague reference pointing in opposite directions.
Many philosophers believe that consciousness is understood intuitively by the majority of people, which makes the difficulty of defining it that much more fascinating, and maybe even a bit frustrating.
We all know what consciousness is because we experience it every day and often refer to it as “me”, “I” and “we”. At this point, however, that is pretty much everything we can say about it without straying off course into the theoretical territory.
Science allows us to observe nature and allow the laws of reality to speak to us. Through science and theoretical philosophy, we are able to explore what already exists, and are sometimes blessed with the opportunity to arrive at an illuminating conclusion. While some things will always remain a mystery, the perplexing concept of consciousness has survived centuries of curious examination.
As we enter a new phase of technological advance, it would seem that the answers are just around the corner. But from what we have learned so far, maybe our understanding rests on a much higher capacity of comprehension in which — with the exception of the enlightened ones — have not yet reached.