What is Consciousness?
Consciousness is something all of us share, or rather without it, we’d cease to exist. It is what makes us the most advanced species on this planet. Consciousness is the most simple and common phenomenon on this planet, yet in the hands of hardcore philosophers and mystics it has become the most complex one.
So, the question I shall be answering today is — what is consciousness?
In short, consciousness is the basic awareness of being alive in any organism. It is the rudimentary biological phenomenon that enables an organism to respond to its environment. Every single organism on this planet has consciousness. And the higher we climb up the tree of life, the more complex and advanced the consciousness becomes. And the species that possesses the most advanced consciousness on earth is us, the Homo sapiens.
Consciousness has remained an enigmatic mystery for time immemorial, mostly by the exaggeration of the philosophers. However, with the advancement of Neuroscience in the last few decades, we have truly begun our journey to explore the true biological foundation of consciousness. And even though philosophers and mystics throughout the world want you to believe otherwise, the foundation of consciousness lies in the complex interplay of the brain circuits. Or in short, consciousness is born in your brain.
Human brain is the most complex organized structure in the universe. It is the biological organ with mind boggling capabilities. It is made up of a hundred billion nerve cells or neurons. And the relentless activity of these neurons gives rise to the fascinating phenomenon, which we call human consciousness. All our feelings, emotions, thoughts, ambitions, religious sentiments and even our sense of self are simply born from the activity of these little specks of jelly in our head.
Every living creature on this planet is conscious. It is the most common element of life. Without consciousness life doesn’t exist. Because consciousness enables a creature to understand the basic biological needs of survival. It is all in the nervous system. Even the plants have a kind of nervous system. The response of a plant to physical stimuli is a consequence of long range electrical signaling through the entire plant body. This is similar to the basic characteristics of the neurobiology in animals.
We can tell a lot about a creature’s level of consciousness by understanding their perception of death. For example, we see a fascinating behavior in crows concerning death. When a crow dies, other crows vigilantly gather around its body. They perceive the death of their fellow crow as murder. And their vigilance over the dead crow serves a significant purpose. By sticking close to the crow that was killed, other crows may improve their chances of learning about the predators that they need to avoid.
Human rituals for dealing with the dead are vivid and varied. While on the other hand, few animals show more than a passing interest in confronting a dead animal of their own species. For example, African elephants hold a funeral while touching and grooming a dead elephant. Similar behavior can be seen in bottlenose dolphins, chimpanzees and certain species of magpies. We are only starting to understand those behaviors and their level of consciousness.
In short, the more complex the neurobiology gets, the more advanced one’s consciousness becomes. And in humans this advancement has gone far beyond the primitive concerns of survival. So the bottom line is, your vividly conscious rich mental universe is simply a construct of your neurobiology. It is what makes you you. It is what makes you unique. It is what makes you attain unimaginable feats of excellence.
However, the air of mystery surrounding consciousness has provided the philosophers and mystics means for survival for ages, but as we neuroscientists keep on exploring further the mysterious domain of consciousness the majority of the philosophers feel threatened. Because the very existence of the philosophers and the mystics is predicated on their metaphysical approach towards explaining consciousness. Which means, the longer they keep it a mystery, the more they can manipulate the minds of masses with magical mysticism. The purpose of a scientist is to understand every single mysterious phenomenon of this universe, while the hardcore philosophers only attempt to sustain the mysteries as long as they can.
Every true scientist is a philosopher, but not every philosopher is a scientist. Philosophy enables us to imagine the infinite, while science helps us get there. As my dear friend and Mathematician Ronald Cicurel says “our brain works on hypothesis”. Here a hypothesis is nothing but a plausible future scenario that our brain simulates based on our predominant ideas, fantasies and beliefs. And then we start working on making that hypothesis a reality.
The point it, there is a fascinating mechanism behind everything in this universe. And we scientists attempt to understand those mysteries. Here one might say, it is typical materialistic perspective. While the reality is, there is no such thing as materialism. The very concept itself is an illusion. Our species evolved around 200,000 years ago in Africa. And we have spent most of our lifetime in the fear of the unknown. We have remained ignorant for thousands of years. And now that we have started to become the true master of the planet, and to reveal the secrets of everything that surrounds us, this very venture feels like a dreadful change to the masses. Thus, in order to sustain the mystery of the unknown, the concept of materialism was born in the human mind. Nobody is to blame here. It is plain subconscious behavior.
However, it is the responsibility of us scientists and all those young students of science to share our discoveries with the world in simple tasteful words. It is our responsibility to awaken the people into the new world of science and reasoning. The darkness of ignorance and fear only thrives in the absence of knowledge. Once the flame of knowledge is bright enough, there shall be no more darkness.
(This Article was first published on Goodreads.)
Abhijit Naskar, 2015, Neurosutra: The Abhijit Naskar Collection
Abhijit Naskar, 2016, What is Mind?
Miguel Nicolelis & Ronald Cicurel, 2015, The Relativistic Brain: How it works and why it cannot be simulated by a Turing machine