When you think of what it means to be conscious, or to experience consciousness. What comes to mind? Consciousness continues to be an elusive and mysterious subject being so central to our lives. One of the primary reasons for may be that we inclined to have different ideas as to what it really intended to have consciousness. In order to gain better understanding of what this “consciousness” is, we can begin by barring what it is not. But it would be helpful for us to understand in the first place that what we are talking about.
We will turn to the respected philosopher Mr. Thomas Nagel who suggested in 1974 that ‘a creature is conscious if there is something that it is like to be that creature’, which means that a conscious creature is one which has some sort of experience. In this way it would be something to be you at this very moment, since you are experiencing things currently. By keeping that in mind, we can start looking at things that are often very closely related to experience to see if they are actually aspects of our consciousness. However, it is worthy to note that when we do this, our instinct is playing a big role. Since no one knows what precisely consciousness is, we mostly rely on our instinct to tell us what looks right or wrong when we consider questions like which things in the world experience consciousness. Well, ironically, intuition is also a mysterious thing that science has yet to fully grasp. Basically it is that gut feeling you have when you know something is wrong and yet you cannot pinpoint why. For example you see a stranger getting on a road and sense that he poses a threat, and this threat could be due to his face being flushed or his eyes being dilated. These are signs that he may become aggressive, but this is only at instinctual level.
However, our perception can lead us lost as well, as early instincts of man told that the earth was flat until someone noticed that the stars in the sky suggested otherwise. Even today, many people (including me) intuitively feel more worried when board a plane than when they get into a car, despite that a car ride comes with a much higher chance of injury.
There are hardly things we can say for sure about consciousness, but one of them is that we the humans are indeed conscious. Why not? Our form of consciousness is the only one we directly practice and are therefore known to us. As a result, our instinct can direct us to believe that only things with human-like behaviors and qualities can have consciousness. However, if we look closely our own behaviors, we can see that they are not so exclusive after all. For example, consider the research regarding unseen behavior of plant world, as in studies of Douglas Fir and Paper Birch trees, researchers have found that there is a lot of activity going on underground, amid a vast system of fungi and roots called the mycorrhizal network. Ecologist were amazed to find out that these two species of trees routinely help each other, with nutrients being sent in times of need. Not only that, Douglas fir can identify a tree that is its offspring, but in order to help it survive against environmental threats, it also send it nutrients and communicate with it.
In general plants are well aware of and responsive towards their surroundings; they also can send toxins into the mycorrhizal network to fight off other plants that pose a threat. And, like ivy, some plants will even explore their surroundings above grounds, feeling their way around their environment to find ideal structures to support their growth. Looks like many plants also have some form of memory, as venus fly trap would not snap shut and entrap its prey until two triggers are set off, that means it must remember that the first trigger was initiated. More and more we learn about plants, it becomes obvious that they are not so much different from us, as we thought, as genes that cause plants to react light and darkness consist of same DNA which found in human. Which means that either plants have some form of experience and therefore have some consciousness, or things like memories, response in danger, helping others etc. are not related to consciousness at all.
Mostly human behavior is a matter of automatic cause and effect. If something happens, we react to it instinctively (I am talking about reaction and not about response, as there is a little difference between two of them) and these reactions have less relation with our consciousness. As a fact human senses reach the brain at different times and what we consider conscious experience happens only after sight, smell, touch and sound have gone through a binding process in the brain. So actually consciousness is “the last to know” about what is going on. Many studies have been conducted for deeper look into timing of our awareness and reactions, which raised interesting questions about how conscious thought goes into our actions versus how much of it is due to instinctual programming in our brain. In so many ways, system for deciding what you will do in present moment is actually like a system that controls driver-less car, as takes information about surroundings, then process that information and then react to it. What your conscious is doing is witnessing these decisions and fitting them into ongoing experience i.e. your life. Alternatively, your brain is in driver’s seat and your consciousness is just along for the ride.
Another aspect of human nature, associated with consciousness is, complex thought. For example you just had a thought about an old friend from grade school which you have not seen for a long time. Did you consciously bring this thought, or did it seemingly just happen? Generally, we have little control over the thoughts which come and go. Like anything else, these are reaction to what is going on and the result of our brain’s programming.
So here is the question that, if there are no human behaviors or characteristics tied to consciousness, is it possible that consciousness is not limited to humans? And once we started to look for answer of this possibility we can go to next level question i.e. what if all matter has some form of consciousness? Firstly, it may sound unbelievable to suggest that all matter is conscious, but this theory known as Panpsychism, is no more scientifically unsound, rather it agrees with everything we know about biology and physics. Even back in 1930s there were philosophers and scientists like J.B.S Haldane, who have been in support of Panpsychism. More we are able to inspect the matter that human beings are made of, it reveals that we are made of the exact elements as everything else in the universe i.e. from plants to stars.
The concept of Panpsychism is not acceptable nowadays, even in nearest future, as it calls for a big shift in our assumptions and instincts about the world around us. But as we know, sometimes our intuition is wrong. Since the 1960s, researchers have been studying patients who’ve undergone a corpus callosotomy procedure as a way of curing debilitating seizures. This procedure effectively separates the two hemispheres of the brain by severing the corpus callosum, which is responsible for all communication between the two halves.
Basically, patients began to have two different experiences, with information being received from one hemisphere no longer being communicated to the other. This gets a little complicated, since the right hemisphere of the brain controls the left-side limbs of the body, while the left hemisphere controls the right-side limbs. And here’s one more fact to know: the left hemisphere also controls a person’s speech. With that in mind, let’s say a patient was holding a key in his left hand, but couldn’t actually see it. If he was asked, “What are you holding?”, he would respond that he wasn’t holding anything. Why’s that? Well, the right hemisphere of his brain would recognize the sensation of the key in his hand, but his left hemisphere – and therefore the part of his brain that formulates speech – would be unaware of it.
Thus, it is possible for two different conscious experiences to exist in one body. And, in fact, this may explain how complex thought and brain functions actually came to exist.
Split-brain studies show that consciousness is malleable – that it can easily adapt when there are changes to the information it receives. This opens the door to the possibility that human consciousness, in all its complexity, is the result of the combining of matter that would otherwise have its own, less complex consciousness.
Unfortunately, we’re still far from truly understanding the answers to important questions like these. But it is important to keep thinking creatively about consciousness.