Like many of us, I have been fascinated by the brain and human consciousness for many years. While the general structure of the brain has been understood for nearly two centuries, we learn more every year about its complexity, what is connected to what, how it’s connected, and how stimuli set it to action. Sadly, we may know more about “outer space” – that which surrounds us on earth – than our “inner space.” In the last 50 years or so, various disciplines of science and sophisticated tools have allowed us to begin to explore and understand how the brain functions. Among those disciplines are biology, chemistry, physics, cultural anthropology, neuroscience, and cognitive science. Technologies such as computers, MRI, micro-surgery and lasers, non-invasive surgical instruments, electronic probes, etc. have gone way beyond the microscope and post-mortem dissection to open doors leading to the treasures of our brains and close others whose mother loads of information were long depleted.
While we know vastly more fact and information about the brain, we are still in an infancy of sorts over how it really works to form our daily consciousness. I have had insights recently that may answer questions about the brain that others have raised and are answering scientifically. What is consciousness? Or a variation: Where does it reside? Or yet another variation: How does it work?
At this moment in time, no one is quite sure or in agreement about the answers. And there are many. They are old musings by philosophers, writers, poets, and early scientists. They are brought into the debate today by new biologists, evolutionary science, physicists, and neuroscientists, to name a few. They gather in that chat room referred to as the Executive Function (EF) – the frontal lobe that’s been labeled in brain mapping and research.
One historian and professor of philosophy, provides a current example of where we are in collective science regarding consciousness. Not as answers but more about the evolving theory and credible speculation. He refers to Francis Crick, a physicist and biologist, and Kristof Koch, a neuroscientist, as being on the cutting edge of this arena. Crick was looking for where consciousness might reside and how it happens. He believes that science is the way to discover the answers. That is probably true. So far his hypothesis and study fall short but open interesting speculation for further research. However, he does discuss a concept and a process which, to me, gets close to an answer to “how” but not “where”. They call it “binding”. It is that instantaneous moment in time that all the stimuli we receive are bundled in order for us to understand, differentiate, translate, decide and act or not act (probably ignore and forget). Not acting, as we think of that word, may still be an “act” if we store that “bundle” from that moment in our amygdala or hippocampus.
I believe he and Koch have the answer, for the near term anyway, but can’t see it because Crick was a “materialist”/physicist who assumes that consciousness resides somewhere in the brain. Or could it be in the millions/trillions of cells and neurons throughout our physical and nervous system? Others may address that so I’ll have to read further.
However, my answer to “what, where and how” is likely, and arrogantly, too simple. It is based on the notions of randomness, chaos, and interdependence. As important, it builds on the evolution of our species’ collective uniqueness mirrored by our individual uniqueness. I referred to this in an earlier essay as “snowflakes” and “fingerprints”. Underpinning this is a core process of our universal drive, to us and other living creatures, which is survival. It is primal and primary. (For you Star Trekkies, it is “the prime directive”). Layered on that and enmeshed inextricably are the processes (all now involuntary) of learning, creativity, and adaptation (innovation). Also, but within the boundary of collective cohesion, we accept and struggle with conformity which limits individual instincts that define our consciousness. That, as an example, creates a tension or competition within, that fires creativity. So the loop of this entire process is one of continual feedback guiding both conscious and unconscious behavior always aimed at individual and collective survival.
Survival is too immense a word, perhaps. Think of the individual who is trying to cope with the stimuli bombarding his or her senses (taste, touch, sight, hearing, smell) with sight and hearing being the prominent filters we use every day. It doesn’t trigger our “survival” imperative accept when we sense immediate danger and threat. Rather it triggers our coping mechanisms. We can’t respond to every stimulus. We can’t even admit through our senses most stimuli that approach our perception of what’s near us and out there. Our brains have evolved to “filter” what we do at any moment. In many cases we just block “it” without any awareness that we’ve done so. Or if we allow “it” in, we process it in ways that distort, flip, turn this way and that, reconcile with past “similar” experiences, shape it to conform to pre-coded or learned and remembered templates many outside of conscious manipulation. Automatic. Short-cuts. Heuristically determined. Memes that bind culture at this moment in time. Or we allow it, by choice or default, to enter the “EF” and another process of manipulation begins leading to a decision or an action – some behavior that helps us “cope” and, occasionally, “survive”.
This process is individualistic but roles up to cultural behavior patterns, norms, rules, behaviors, beliefs leading to coping or surviving results. And those have built over the eons much the same way we understand the brain having evolved in layers from the reptilian through mammalian to the neo-cortex with all the folds and mass (weight and size) we see today.
“Coping” is an ambiguous word. Culture bound as we have come to use it over the decades. A meme having passed the test of time versus a popularization of a word today that will fade away as faddish. It is often seen as a pejorative. I don’t mean to use it that way. It also should imply getting through the day successfully, generatively, happy, and satisfied having solved problems and behaved acceptably to yourself and others around you.
Let me come back to “consciousness” as Crick, Koch and others have explored it. A big part of the debate and inquiry is what is it? My simple view is that it is what I define it to be for me. This gets confused by the philosophical debate through the ages as to “who am I?”, “who are you?”, “can I know you, you know me?” and “what is self?” Answers to these profound and perplexing questions all turn on one core notion: each of us is truly unique. You are who you think, feel, and believe you are – contradictions, inconsistencies, unfathomables, unknowns – bundled in your brain and body. So if you are unique and are bundled differently, I can’t possibly know in the fullest sense who you are. (Star Trekkies: there is, as yet, no such thing as a “mind meld” and why would we want one anyway?) So, yes, in our relationships even of the most intimate and longest lasting, I sort of know you and you me. But if I have “blind spots” or hide some awareness from myself about myself, I don’t know me fully either. So “knowing each other” becomes all the more improbable. Finally, self then becomes “who I am”. And from soon after birth that “who” changes and hits one key stage about age 6 when the brain is fully developed at that moment in time. If you believe, as I do, that our nature is to some extent defined at conception and in the womb, what follows in our personal “who am I” development is many variations on a theme. Our DNA is largely set but that initial hardwiring can be altered by the culture around us and the nurturing or tragedy that touches us. We learn, create, adapt to cope and survive.
So, if we are unique in many definable ways, (I’d assert – infinitely so) it stands to reason that the wiring of our brain and bodies plays a big role in how consciousness comes about. I don’t believe there is one or a few physical places in the brain/body where consciousness happens or exists. That is scientific reductionism in the extreme. While it may one day be discovered, I am not impressed with the evidence to date.
For me, the fact that the wiring of our brain and nervous system is so complex and barely understood, there has to be an answer in and among that jumble of neurons, chemicals and synapses that explain how we bundle or bind our experience of the world around and within us. Imagine millions and trillions among that jumble. Yours must be, by definition of our uniqueness, different from mine. If so, how about the process that fires yours into action? It too must be different since many studies show how we react differently to similar sets of complex stimuli.
Enter chaos theory and randomness. The process that develops our consciousness through the functioning of our brain and body are explained by those words, concepts and theories. So it isn’t a place or a physical structure in a limited sense. It is a process that is wrapped in a physical structure – our brains and bodies.
Given our infinite uniqueness, chaos and randomness are ultimately purposeful which seems a contradiction. But is it? We can never be sure how the process of consciousness will lead us but it seems to reach moments of stasis or equilibrium only to go out of balance again before it returns. Remember, consciousness in the human species can be seen as driven by learning, creativity, adaptability and, ultimately, survival – individually and collectively to repeat myself. I think it is fair to say that all living creatures have a built in coding to aspire to survive. They do so differently than we do because we are emotional and thinking creatures who can, but don’t always, act in our best individual and collective interests. Evolution shows countless species that survive over swaths of time and those that didn’t or couldn’t or weren’t allowed to adapt and, thus, survive.
And while we are a part of our larger global environment and a seeming infinite universe, there are no guarantees that the larger randomness and chaos “out there”, external to us near and distant, will not shorten our species’ “consciousness”. The extinctions we know of on our planet, thought to be 5 over millions of years, were unforeseen and unpredictable because there were no “intelligent” beings around then. While we think of ourselves as intelligent, aware, rational, purposeful, destiny-shapers, and all-around good guys, we have no control over unforeseeable events. Not yet anyway. But we will, in our infinite “wisdom” keep trying to “control” and shape our future along with the earth’s.
A fatal flaw in our intentional attempts to shape today and tomorrow is our inability to see very far out and predict the future. So we are left to try this and that; to do the best we can and to muddle through. We are learning, hopefully not too late, that much of what we do today and plan for will have unintended consequences. That is a rule that we have introduced to the consciousness that we create internally and project externally that then loops back to affect the next individual and collective steps of our evolution and that of the earth’s.