Consciousness Isn’t Hard To Explain
There are no images, videos, or sound bites in our brains. Nor are there words, definitions, or memorized Nantucket limericks. There are only patterns of synapses firing. That’s it. Just a clump of damp tissue processing patterns.
Everything our senses see, hear, smell, taste, and feel is converted into these patterns. This is the one and only way we know the world. The sight, warmth, flavor, and light crisp of a fresh, homemade buttermilk donut all exist for us only as synapses firing in specific patterns. Even our lust for buttermilk bar bakers is just a pattern.
Our brains process all sensory data in the same way, whether it comes from our eyes, ears, or special areas. Any pattern in the world that our senses can sense gets mapped by our synapses in pretty much the same way.
This raises the interesting prospect of what would happen if natural selection tweaked the brain so that its own activity became another source of sensory input. This one seemingly small change would allow our brains to become aware of their own processes, and themselves. To become conscious. And it would allow us–for the first time in history–to develop a sense of self.
How would our brain do this? I don’t frickin know. How do brains do anything? If they can process electromagnetic lightwaves, auditory sound waves, and molecules of aroma, then why not? It seems easier to me. It wouldn’t have to convert any complicated outside sensory data. All of the neural patterns already exist in the required form.
It sounds “simple enough,” but whoa, what a game changer.
Once humans evolved consciousness, our internal sensations, emotions, and thoughts were online and available to make us aware of who we are. Our internally observed neural activity tells us:
- what we like, and don’t
- who we love, and don’t
- how things make us feel, or how there is only numbness where feelings probably should be
- what we think, and what we think about what we think
- how we behave, and how we don’t
- what we want, and how far beyond our moral boundaries we’ve increasingly gone to get it
- a lot of other things we probably should discuss with our therapist or a very patient friend.
Because this inward directed, self-sensing part of our brain can itself be seen as an input, we can be aware of ourselves being aware of ourselves being aware our ourselves, times infinity. And this, of course, is more than enough to make anyone’s head explode.
I’m not at all minimizing the experience of having conscious awareness. It’s super duper weird, even when we’re stone cold sober. It can feel so extraordinary and exalted that it seems like it must be the result of something more than just brain chemistry. This is to be expected. Our nervous systems are a vast universe of sensations, feelings, and thoughts. Adding a window to this immeasurable and unknowable inner world makes having a neocortex feel astoundingly awesome and supernaturally staggering.
Consciousness has a bazillion ramifications. It has completely changed the nature of our experience, as well as the state of nature across the entire planet. But understood like this, its essence is less confounding. The real mystery isn’t what, or why, consciousness is, but what it feels like to have it. And how the heck to live with it.
That’s where shit gets real.
David Milgrim is a cartoonist and not a neurologist. He isn’t even sure what a neurologist is. His only qualification for writing this essay is that he has a brain.
And that he has read Jeff Hawkins’s brilliant book On Intelligence.