‘In Search of Consciousness’ is a nicer title than the article itself, and you will find out soon enough! This topic is all about a self in search of itself. For what purpose? When the finder finds oneself, who will know the answer? The finder or the found? Sometimes philosophy sounds like this, doesn’t it! The purpose of this article is to capture key ideas about consciousness from the perspectives of philosophy, spirituality and science, and to motivate you to Google more – this is certainly not an exhaustive list. Not only that, this indexing type of article may encourage you to search, think and tinker with consciousness itself!
Let us start with a simple definition by Dr Christoff Koch: “Consciousness is everything that we experience.”
We have a physical body that performs many functions. Likewise, we all have, “Something in us that makes awareness or perception possible.” We know the simple sensory inputs of smell, taste, sight, touch and sound, which generate rich inner experience. The inner experience can be joy, pain or complex imagination, and so on.
Is the experience a physical phenomenon, arising out of complex information processing in the brain? Or is it a non-physical phenomenon associated with constructs like the soul or the self, or some universal field of energy?
Some philosophers consider experience as the hard problem of consciousness. Some scientists argue that once we understand how it works, it will be yet another physical process. This article will list some of the key intuitive approaches (spiritual approaches) and more mechanistic approaches to consciousness.
Way back in 400 BC, Buddhist philosophy proposed that consciousness is the life force that continues across rebirths, and also posited that there are 9 levels of consciousness:
Levels 1 to 5 arise out of the five senses: eyes – sight, nose – smell, ears – hearing, tongue – taste, and body – touch;
Level 6 is the mind consciousness related to ideas and thoughts;
Level 7 is the inner life that creates the sense of self and is associated with emotions and attitude;
Level 8 is the subconscious, the repository of all karmic effects, that lives beyond this life; and
Level 9 is pure consciousness – a life force that creates complete harmony of the internal and external, and a sense of connectedness or oneness.
Buddhism provides a set of practices to expand or deepen consciousness through meditation and contemplation.
Around the same period, Plato theorized that the mind receives information through senses, and the soul uses this information to create form and perception.
The allegory of Plato’s Cave is a simple thought experiment that gives interesting insights on how Plato viewed the problem of perception. Aristotle, who was Plato’s disciple, argued that the soul is seated in the heart and is the principal power by which life itself happens. Aristotle seemed to imply that consciousness is the property of the soul itself.
Many scientists have tried to derive an understanding of consciousness by starting with the laws of physics, and therelationship between consciousness and the brain is still a subject of deep research. On the other hand, Integrated Information Theory (IIT) is a body of research that seeks to explain consciousness by first accepting its existence, and then reasoning about what sort of physical entity could manifest consciousness.
IIT was first proposed by Giulio Tononi in 2004 and has since undergone many improvements. Some characteristics it attributes to consciousness are:
It exhibits composition where there are distinct elements in it that are part of the experience.
Each experience is distinct and differentiated from other experiences in the past or future.
It is unified and it cannot be reduced to smaller experiences of phenomena inside it.
IIT lays down certain postulates on what a physical entity like the brain that manifests consciousness needs to have. It should have cause-effect power, meaning it can influence other entities and can be influenced by other entities.
IIT also gives an account of why conscious brains might have evolved: brains that reflect the causal structure of their environment in their internal causal structure can adapt better.
IIT lays down facts about relationship between the brain and consciousness as well as providing certain inferences and extrapolations about consciousness. For example, the cerebral cortex is more likely to manifest consciousness than the cerebellum, because the neurons in the cerebral cortex can form a complex large enough for consciousness whereas the neurons in the cerebellum do not.
IIT also predicts that experiences can be had even when the cerebral cortex is silent, like in states of meditation. This body of knowledge has become an important step in advancing our understanding of consciousness.
Tononi and team have developed a tool to measure the consciousness level of a person. The Zap and Zip Technique involves sending an intense magnetic pulse through the skull and recording the induced electrical flow in the neuronal networks. A simple algorithm is then used to compute the complexity of brain activity. When tested on normal people, people under the influence of anesthesia, and people in a comatose state, the values obtained have consistently shown that it is possible to quantify and determine whether someone is conscious or not. Further research might help us understand how widespread consciousness is in nature.
Imagine you are seated in a theater, looking at the stage. On stage there are many actors, objects, the backdrop, movement, colors and sound. Now imagine a spotlight focused only on one actor and his actions. Everything else is still there, but it is not the focus. The director, technicians, audience and all other activities have slipped into the background and the spotlight highlights the one actor and his movement as the main focus. All the complex co-ordination, support and direction processes are all hidden. The conscious part is seen by the audience, directed by the spotlight. Hold on to this idea.
Now think that the whole brain is a theater, with many parts of the brain performing various functions. Now assume that our focus (spotlight) is on some set of thoughts or experiences; our conscious awareness is mainly on one thing, and all others are in the background. Global Workspace Theory proposes that all sensory and other inputs are communicated to all cognitive functional components of the brain. The conscious experience is generated as a result of some focused neuronal activities, and many others are hidden in the background to support this. According to GWT, consciousness in an integrative function of the brain to generate the rich experience. Bernard Baars is the architect of this theory, which provides an interesting perspective to origins of consciousness.
Many scientists have constructed new theories to explain consciousness. Karl Pribam, David Bohm and many others have believed that classical mechanics is not sufficient to explain the phenomenon of consciousness. They propose that the quantum mechanical phenomenon, the entanglement and superposition, may play a role in brain functioning and, in some way, provide the basis for conscious experience.
Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff have been working since the early ’90s on a theory of consciousness known as Orchestrated Objective Reduction (Orch-OR or OOR). OOR is a new effort to bring physics and neuroscience together to explain how the brain may be involved in the process of consciousness. The fundamental hypothesis is that the neurons have molecular structures (microtubules), which can potentially support quantum processes. This theory argues that consciousness is not because of some complex processing in the brain, but instead it is because of quantum processes inside neurons. Such a possibility in theory opens up large scale information processing, and even takes perception beyond the individual into the realm of a connected universal field. There seems to be some early evidence to prove the existence of quantum activity in brain cells.
In the Heartfulness philosophy, consciousness is seen as the integrated field of the subtle body, which has a spectrum consisting of the subconscious, conscious and superconscious. The expansion of consciousness from the current level of a person to the depths of the subconscious and the heights of the superconscious is known as spiritual evolution. And this evolution continues beyond the consciousness spectrum. Daaji has written extensively on the spiritual anatomy of the chakras, the subtle bodies and consciousness. Daaji’s integrative approach provides simplified and rich information, and many new insights for all who want to dive deeper in the mysteries of consciousness.
In search of consciousness, outwardly, will give you lots of theories. In search of consciousness inwardly, what will you get?
Deep within it is bliss; high above it is oneness.
Transcending consciousness; what lies beyond?
Integrated information theory, http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Integrated_ information_theory
Integrated information theory: from consciousness to its physical substrate, https://www.nature.com/articles/nrn.2016.44