Monday, 7 November 2011

What is Human Consciousness?

Human consciousness has been discussed in philosophy for many years yet still there is some debate as to what it actually is. Consciousness is talked about frequently in ‘new age’ therapies as much as traditional psychology, it plays a huge part in everyone’s life and we've all considered it at one point or another. So what is Consciousness?

The Free Dictionary describes it like this:

1. The state or condition of being conscious.
2. A sense of one's personal or collective identity, including the attitudes, beliefs, and sensitivities held by or considered characteristic of an individual or group: Love of freedom runs deep in the national consciousness.

Being ‘conscious’ means being aware, the very fact you are reading this blog means you are conscious of it. Another way to describe it would be the active processes of the mind, what you are thinking of in the moment is what you are conscious of, and that could be anything from accessing memory, forward planning, emotions etc. We are conscious most of the time, unless we become ‘unconscious’ in blacking out, either through a head injury for example or being asleep, but even in sleep we can be conscious in certain forms of dreams.

What we are aware of is determined by the conscious aspect of our minds that processes everything in our unique environment much like looking at a computer screen to access different files and doing different tasks (like computer RAM). Usually only one or two aspects can be focused on at any one time, while the subconscious  (what we are not aware of) carries on behind the scenes doing the large proportion of the work (like the computer hard drive) such as regulating blood flow, body temperature, digestion etc.

So it is relatively simple to describe what being conscious is, the trouble philosophers and scientists have had for thousands of years is how we experience this consciousness. Welcome to the argument!

The brain is a living tissue that so far no one has been able to look into to see exactly how it works, we know certain areas do certain things, but consciousness seems to be invisible, immeasurable phenomena unreachable to us with our current scientific know-how. Does just thinking that it exists mean that it does? In science everything has to be proved with testable data, and for matters of the mind there appears to be very little.

There are many theories, some immensely ancient, that say consciousness is far bigger than something that exists purely in our own heads. Consciousness has been described as ‘everything’ like ‘God’; a ‘universal life force’ we are all connected to in order to experience life, like one giant all-encompassing WiFi system. Psychics and such people are said to be able to access into this ‘Universal Consciousness’ better than the average person and therefore gain insight where the rest of us cannot. In the same vein ‘Human Consciousness’ is the network all humans are connected to and affects only us. This consciousness is said to flow and evolve as directed by all the individual minds connected to it. My blog post ‘The 100th Monkey Principle’ discusses this a little further.

Another theory goes that consciousness does not exist at all, that we are simply highly evolved organisms that perceive rather than being part of some wider more complex consciousness. Our brains compute many different thoughts and theories, and especially over time many have joined together to argue we are something more than we actually are. We analyse our environment and nothing more.

But how would that theory explain mental experiences such as remote viewing, near death experiences, out of body experiences or the various psychic phenomena? Studies have showed humans have the ability to perceive outside the realms of the five senses, can that really be explained simply by chemical processes of the brain?

The subject of consciousness is certainly an open one and will probably remain so for a long time as the mind is such a tough entity to measure, especially when it is something that has not yet been ‘located’ so to speak, either inside the brain or outside. Current science is finding out more and more about how the brain functions but there still remains a very large gap to bridge in regard to understanding exactly how we think and the processes behind it.

For more information and current research on consciousness:

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