Discover the wonders of consciousness.
Our lack of comprehension regarding the nature of consciousness, where it comes from, and why it exists is not a reflection of a lack of effort. Humans have rigorously interrogated the nature of consciousness for millennia and in recent years, consciousness has become a popular topic of scientific inquiry.
The term ‘consciousness’ has eluded a precise definition for thousands of years. Summary definitions of consciousness fall short when it comes to capturing the dimensionality of the term. We might use the word ‘consciousness’ to describe perceptual awareness (I am conscious of the person in front of me), the nature of being awake and alert (when under anesthesia one loses consciousness), or self-awareness and intentionality (a heavily intoxicated person might not be conscious of their actions). Many scientists and philosophers would argue that ‘consciousness’ is better understood as the subjective human experience; the “I” you’re referring to when you say, “I love you”; and the experience of being you.
It’s unclear how or why the brain (which is essentially a fistful of electrified meat) would give rise to the depth and complexity of the human experience, but we have ample compelling evidence to support the conclusion that the two are indeed functionally linked.
One simple example of the functional relationship between brain processes and consciousness is the effect of anesthesia on consciousness. Anesthesiologists can turn consciousness off and on by altering your brain chemistry with specific chemical compounds.
Hallucinogens are another straightforward example of the relationship between brain chemistry and consciousness. Hallucinogenic drugs such as psilocybin (magic mushrooms) or LSD (sometimes referred to as ‘acid’) create an altered state of consciousness by changing the way in which different parts of the brain communicate with each other.
Consciousness has been a popular topic of inquiry for scientists and philosophers in recent years and several promising theories of consciousness have emerged. These include integrated information theory, higher-order theory, recurrent processing theory, and global workspace theory. It is important to note that these are not necessarily competing theories. The validity of one does not imply the inaccuracy of the others. Rather, each of these theories can be thought of as a different approach to understanding consciousness with different overarching goals (Seth & Bayne, 2022).
Integrated information theory
Integrated information theory is a sort of mathematical approach to describing consciousness. This theory proposes that consciousness is basically a form of information that arises from the physical and functional integration of elements within a system. The focus of integrated information theory is to identify the physical attributes that are necessary for a system to be conscious.
Higher-order theories of consciousness focus on understanding why some contents of the mind are conscious while others are not. Higher-order theories posit that mental states become conscious when they are the target of specific forms of meta-representations.
Meta-representations are basically the capacity of the mind to generate a representation that is built from lower-level representations. For example, imagine looking at a Magnolia tree. The higher-order representation of a Magnolia tree (the tree as it exists in your conscious experience) is the amalgamation of lower-order representations like color, size, shape, smell, context, and any memories or pre-conceptions you might have about magnolia trees.
Re-entry and predictive processing theory
The basis of re-entry and predictive processing theory is that conscious mental states are grounded in predictions about the causes of sensory information. Although it may not be apparent, reality is actually a noisy barrage of sense data that has to be filtered and interpreted by the brain. This theory postulates that consciousness emerged as a means to help us filter and unify noisy sense data in a way that allows us to adaptively interact with our environment. You might summarize re-entry and predictive processing theory as ‘consciousness is your brain's best guess about reality.’
Global workspace theories
Global workspace theories focus on what is referred to as conscious access. Conscious access refers to the perceptions and mental states that are available to awareness. As mentioned before, at any given point in time we are being bombarded by sensory information, only a fraction of which can actually make it into our conscious awareness. For example, most of the time we are not conscious of the sensation of our clothes on our skin because there are typically more important features of our reality to which we need to dedicate our limited attentional capacity. Thus, the sensation of clothing essentially gets booted from the “global workspace” of the mind in favor of more relevant information. Global workspace theory would suggest that when we focus on this sensation - when we bring it into conscious awareness - we are “broadcasting” it to the global workspace where it can then be used to inform our thoughts or behavior.
Though the true nature of consciousness remains elusive, its relevance for our lives is apparent. After all, what would life be like without it?
Years of philosophy and scientific inquiry have taught us a great deal about many aspects of consciousness like perception, intention, self-awareness, and, to some extent, subjective experience. The majority of the neuroscientific research done on the topic focuses on the role of the cerebral cortex (the outermost portion of the brain) in consciousness. Although the cortex is surely an important player in some aspects of consciousness, there is certainly much more to the picture.
Seth, A. K., & Bayne, T. (2022). Theories of consciousness. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 23, 439–452.