Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind, written by Annaka Harris is quite the mind bender, especially if you haven't been exposed to thinking about consciousness before. Consciousness is how we experience the world and all that is happening around us. I'm excited to share some of the main takeaways I had from reading this book.
Harris poses two fundamental questions:
- In a system that we know has conscious experiences—the human brain—what evidence of consciousness can we detect from the outside?
- Is consciousness essential to our behavior?
First, what is consciousness? "An organism is conscious if there is something that it is like to be that organism."
The concept that jumps right out of this definition is the fact that knowing whether something else is conscious does not appear possible. How do I know that it feels like something to be you? I only know for sure that I'm experiencing something—that it feels like something to be me.
You could make the assumption that any being that acts like you is conscious, but first consider the zombie thought experiment. Is it possible that you could encounter a being that in responding to inputs and producing predictable outputs, makes you think they are conscious? I could easily imagine a robot that acts in such a way that it would appear to be conscious, exhibiting what appear to be human emotions, but not actually experiencing anything of the sort. Harris observes, "once we imagine human behavior around us existing without consciousness, that behavior beings to look more like many behaviors we see in the natural world that we've always assumed were nonconscious, such as the obstacle-avoiding behavior of a starfish, which has no central nervous system."
On the other side of this problem, can you really say that something that appears inanimate is not experiencing a conscious state? If you haven't heard of locked-in syndrome, it is the condition in which a person is fully conscious, but cannot let others know this fact. Can we tell this person is conscious? They aren't doing anything recognizably human, so no, we cannot. But we know it happens based on experiences such as "anesthesia awareness" and from the account of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
Harris turns next to the binding processes that construct our experience of the world. Do the signals involved in touch, smell, hearing, and seeing all arrive at the same time in the brain? When you contemplate that question and consider simply the distance between receptors and your brain, the answer becomes an obvious no. So how do we experience a unified picture of the present moment? The brain performs complex binding processes to synchronize all of these inputs so that we have the illusion of perfect synchronization. This synchronization comes at the cost of time, which means that your consciousness is the last to know about sensory information being processed.
This brings us to an interesting thought experiment: "imagine if the process of binding were tampered with and you found yourself running before you heard the barking of [a] ferocious dog. Without binding processes, you might not feel yourself to be a self at all. Your consciousness would be more like a flow of experiences in a particular location in space—which would be much closer to the truth." Interestingly, this state of selfless experience of a flow of sensations is something that can be achieved through meditation and/or the use of psychedelics.
If there is a delay in receiving sensory information in consciousness, what about thoughts? Do we think things before we know we are thinking them? And what impact does that have on our actions? The seeming decision-making ability we experience has been proven to be an illusion through experiments which have successfully detected brain activity signalling impending movements before subjects feel they made the decision to move.
Consciousness is merely a witness of behavior rather than the cause of it. The concept of decision making that we experience almost constantly is in fact an illusion. Our conscious selves are the last to know about actions that we take. While we experience "decision-making" ability all the time, we are just watching the movie of our lives play out.
But wait! If people don't have conscious will, why can we put punish people for actions that negatively impact society? The fact that consciousness cannot be responsible for the decisions we seem to make does not change the fact that our brain is a decision-making machine that responds to inputs. If we know that we will go to jail for taking an action, we are deterred from taking it. That doesn't mean we consciously decided anything. It means our brain "develops through memory, learning, and internal reasoning."
Harris makes the point that "it seems clear we can't decide what to think or feel, any more than we can decide what to see or hear. A highly complicated convergence of factors and past events—including our genes, our personal life history, our immediate environment, and the state of our brain—is responsible for each next thought."
Back to the problem of detecting consciousness. If we can't really tell if something is conscious from the outside, how can we say for certain that some things are conscious and others are not? The typical intuition is that things that act like us are conscious: dogs are conscious; trees are not. But how can we trust this intuition? This brings us to the the concept of panpsychism, the idea that all matter has some degree of consciousness. Before you call it completely insane, we aren't talking about human level consciousness, just some sort of experience of what it's like to be that thing. When you drop the typical assumption that consciousness equals complex thought, a panpsychic view of the world seems plausible. The alternative is that there exists some radical shift from unconscious to conscious that happens at some level of brain activity. This radical shift could be seen as less plausible than the idea of smaller amounts of consciousness coming together to form human-level consciousness.
To wrap things up, what do I think about consciousness? I find it fascinating that the self is a construction of consciousness that doesn't really exist. That the self is an illusion is simultaneously interesting and helpful in navigating human experience. That inner monologue can be quieted or adjusted based on an awareness of it. This gives you an ability to short circuit the process that typically holds you captive. Anger and sadness can be felt, noticed, and then disappear. The longing for some future state of happiness can be replaced with an appreciation for the simple pleasure of experiencing the sensations of the present moment.
On an interpersonal level, knowing that people aren't willfully wronging you can be a source of understanding and forgiveness. While the language around willful behavior is a useful social construct with regard to ethics and society, dropping this illusion can be a powerful source of personal insight.
If you're interested in further exploring this topic, you can purchase the book on Amazon