Ruminations on Consciousness

Twenty-five years ago, in the latter part of the eighties, while the Reagan administration was adventuring in Central America and the field of AI was in its symbolic slump, I jotted the following ruminations on consciousness. At the time I was a newly-minted pediatric nurse, registered and uniformed and caring for children with end-stage cancer, cerebral palsy, severe head trauma, and many other mind-altering conditions. The mind-brain “issue” was often and screamingly apparent to me.

Before becoming a nurse I spent the greater part of a decade studying Indian spirituality, philosophy and yoga, which hold a very different world-view from western medicine. Traditional spiritual texts and schools don’t have much to say about childhood development, brain structures, neurotransmitters, or pathological conditions.

Nursing experience drove home to me a problem that I wrestle with to this day: is it possible to reconcile a spiritual worldview with western science in the area of consciousness?

In the decades since beginning work as a nurse I have studied writers such as Oliver Sacks, Susan Blackmore, Erik Davis, George Dyson, Joel Garreau and Andrew Weil. Knowledge and technology in related fields has expanded tremendously, so that today we know much more about brain structures, signaling algorithms, brain waves, moderate anesthesia, or traumatic brain injury than in the eighties.

Yet the question remains, and if anything it has become more urgent over time. The US seems poised to engage in a massive project to map the brain, even as the European Union is doing the same with the Human Brain Project. Billions of dollars will be spent in the next decade developing techniques and gathering knowledge about the brain. And efforts to create a mind are both serious and increasingly well-funded.

That said, here are a few ruminations from the past, from a young nurse/yogi trying to make sense of it all.

Ruminations on Consciousness

Consciousness is a given. Each person has it to some degree or another. In the normal population, there is a broad range of perception and action which is shared; we agree on observations, for example, that it is raining; and normal people have as a minimum, voluntary control of their limbs.

Even in the normal person, consciousness is not a single unvarying constant or continuously present. We sleep and dream; daydream; fly into a rage; are brought to tears by beauty or tragedy; get drunk, get “high.” Human consciousness is not present from birth: it is different in many ways in the infant and young child, even discounting their lack of language. It appears to develop as a person matures.

However, these consensual aspects, what might be called the “baseline human consciousness,” admit of  exceptions. People are born without control of their bodies (cerebral palsy) or unable to perceive. There are some who perceive radically different things: invisible beings or forces; voices we cannot hear; a single Presence in all things.

The common-sense view is that people and (some) animals are conscious, in varying degrees. The attribution of this quality to anything else (ghosts, rocks, the wind, God, the Earth, the Universe) can only result from some further reasoning about the world and the things in it, or some abnormal experience.

Plants do not exhibit consciousness in a form recognizable by the average person; nor do minerals, elements, or the rest of what is termed the “inanimate” world. These latter also seem to lack the characteristics of life.

No reliable evidence exists that consciousness has arisen from another planet or beyond the solar system. Ordered electromagnetic signals that cannot be explained by natural phenomena have not been found, nor is there convincing evidence of artifacts such as buildings on Mars or spaceship debris on Earth. If entities on a planetary or larger scale, like clouds of gas, nebulae, galaxies, etc., have any type of consciousness, we have been unable to note its workings or ascertain its nature.

Biology and neurology give indications about the physical mechanisms associated with consciousness. Evolution shows that as animals evolved, their nervous systems became more complex. Yet the senses which each animal uses to gather information about the world vary: insects have both simple and compound eyes; dolphins as well as bats use a type of sonar. The more complex the nervous system is, the more adaptable an animal’s behavior becomes. There is greater capacity for learning with a complex nervous system. Instinctive behavior dominates the phylogenetically earlier animals, but plays less and less of a role in later animals.

In humans, the brain and nervous system are necessary not only for consciousness, but also for life. Infants born without a brain can only be kept alive by complete life support. The nervous system has several anatomically and functionally distinct components; yet it also acts and reacts holistically in the healthy person.

Much of the activity of the nervous system is not usually available to awareness. This part is called the autonomic nervous system: a group of nuclei and peripheral nerves which control the basic life processes, including heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure, and the activity of the cerebellum and basal ganglia in regulating movement. Although the nervous system as a whole is closely tied to consciousness, these two are not identical or in a one-to-one relationship. Part of the working of the nervous system is not accessible to consciousness; it is unconscious or subconscious.

Autonomic nervous system (ScholarPedia)

There is a center in the medulla and midbrain called the Reticular Activating System (RAS), the activity of which determines the overall state of arousal of consciousness. Changes in the RAS account for the phenomenon of falling asleep and waking up. However, the global state of awareness can also be suppressed at the level of the cortex, as for example with alcoholic unconsciousness. Changes in specific parts of the nervous system can affect the overall state of consciousness.

Chemicals (either produced in the body or artificially introduced) can alter the global state of the nervous system or the global state of consciousness through acting on specific areas of the nervous system. Alcohol, LSD, morphine, endorphins or adrenaline are a few examples. Consciousness is affected by the balance of chemicals in the bloodstream.

There is no such thing as the absolute primary sense data of the philosophers. The world as perceived is a construct of the brain. The central nervous system is nowhere directly connected to the “outside world,” either for sensing or for acting. Nerve impulses always synapse on their way up or down; or, what amounts to the same thing, cell sensation (and action) is modulated or integrated several times between a sensory nerve or muscle and the cortex.

The cerebral cortex appears to be the area where the most complex higher-order integration and thought occurs. It has several anatomically and/or functionally distinct areas: the pre-frontal motor gyrus; the post-frontal sensory gyrus; Broca’s speech area (temporal lobe); and the visual cortex. Lesions in these specific areas produce specific and predictable deficits in consciousness.

There is evidence that consciousness may act through the dominant (linguistic) hemisphere (for example, Sperry’s commissurotomy patients [generally known as “split-brain,” where the corpus callosum is cut to treat refractory epilepsy]. Yet the other hemisphere is capable of acting and learning in a complex manner, apparently without the conscious awareness of the dominant hemisphere.

Split-brain phenomena
Gazzaniga, Michael S., “The Split Brain Revisited,” Scientific American, July 1998

Forming memories is dependent upon an intact hippocampus – yet the memory itself is not located in the hippocampus. Evidence exists both for an “atomistic” view of memory (Penfield’s evocation of specific memories through cortical stimulation) and a “holographic” view (Lashley’s experiments with cats).

Emotions are influenced by a group of structures known as the limbic system, which is also involved in memory formation. These structures have a large number of receptors for endorphins, opiate-like chemicals. Stimulation or lesions of specific areas can produce unusually strong feelings and displays of emotion in people or animals.

Finally, the brain exhibits an overall wave pattern of electrical activity, which varies predominantly by frequency. There is a particular frequency (beta, 30-60 Hz) associated with an open-eyed waking state of consciousness; another (gamma, 10-30 Hz) with relaxation with closed eyes; another (delta, 7-10 Hz) with deep sleep.

Part 2

The evidence above from science would seem to support the idea that consciousness has a material basis, and is limited to the forms of life in which it has developed through evolution. However, it should be realized that science operates within a framework of ideas, a paradigm, that is mechanistic and reductionist; it is not surprising that its conclusions fall within that framework.

Since the latter half of the 19th century science has embraced ideas that depart from a strict mechanistic model. For example, fields, action at a distance, waves of matter, conservation of mass-energy, molecular information in DNA, and perhaps most recently, thoughts affecting cells of the immune system (psychoneuroimmunology). So we are at liberty in thinking about consciousness in non-mechanistic ways.

How should we begin to consider such a model? What has prompted people to construct models and theories of consciousness? What are the problems that this presents?

The first has to do with the physical body. Thought, awareness, emotion seem to be different from toenails, the pumping of blood, or the movement of muscles. Another is personal identity. I feel myself to be a unique individual, enduring in time. Is this due to my physical body, my memory, my moment-to-moment sense of self, some combination of these?

What about birth and death? Does this unitary self, this consciousness arise in infancy and vanish with the death of the body, as would appear true for a person observing my death?

The death of Socrates (Jacques-Louis David)

Are there different types of human consciousness? Can it be separated into categories or processes that are consistently recognizable? For example, is using language different in kind from from dreaming or hallucinating? And if we can distinguish such categories, are they merely descriptive?

If different realms of consciousness exist that are usually barred from the average person, is there some reason one should or should not experience them? Are there moral reasons against or in favor of using LSD, isolation tanks, whirling in a circle, rhythmic breathing, praying, or concentrating on a sound to change one’s consciousness?

There are many answers to these problems, yet they might be grouped in three wide categories.

First is the untutored, non-religious, common-sense view of an adult that consciousness is just a part of life, nothing to get worked up over or excited about. The problem doesn’t exist for this person.

Next is the view of science and academia. Here the topic receives consideration from many quarters, and through many methods – experimental, introspective, literary, even statistical – yet the general consensus is remarkably similar. There is a wonder, a mystery to this thing, which warrants electrodes or sonnets, but which stops short of stepping beyond the bounds of reasonableness. This group may use striking language or present novel ideas, but not assert anything that transcends the common-sense world view.

Last come the mystics, transcendental philosophers, occultists, dissident scientists who ask us to swallow tougher doctrines: immortality of the conscious soul, communicating with plants or one’s dead uncle, seeing God, merging with the universe, moving objects or travelling outside of the body by using the mind. These want to attribute some greater power or scope to consciousness.

Part 3

If we accept the third possibility even provisionally, then what might be the nature of consciousness, its scope and processes? A good way to approach this is to consider some of the possibilities offered by past thinkers and visionaries.

Consciousness may be a process, like a flame or a wave. The apparent unity and continuity could be the result of a rapid re-occurrence of bits, or events (thoughts or awarenesses). Just as a video image is really 60 discrete images per second, and each of these is a pointillistic array of phosphine dots, so human consciousness may similarly be a construction, and the unity an illusion. This is what the Buddha thought.

On the other hand, there may be a substratum essence, a bedrock or primordial or ultimate consciousness, of which our normal states are deformations or alterations. This absolute consciousness may be within us, or all things (immanent), or all-encompassing (cosmic), or beyond the bounds of time and form (transcendent). Given the radically different nature of this absolute, it probably has little if anything to do directly with everyday awareness. This is the perspective, in one or another variety, of Indian Vedanta.

Or there may be a greater being in the world who, while wiser and more powerful than the human, still is similar enough to be seen and heard and felt, to be approached in a human way with requests, questions, demands, tears. This God may be transcendent to the world, or immanent, but is usually single and anthropomorphic to some degree. It listens, talks, maybe even walks or takes a physical body. Here we have the theistic conception of many religions.

Finally, there is the possibility that the forms and powers of consciousness are manifold and diverse. Perhaps dead souls live on in an under (or over) world; thought can travel around the world (telepathy); feelings can heal or kill (faith healing or voodoo); animals can be spoken to and respond (shamanism); conscious beings exist on other dimensions or planes (occultism); rituals can affect people and the world (magic or witchcraft).


And there the piece abruptly ended. No grand conclusions, not even a research programme ready for the NIH, darn it. Last year I wrote a piece titled The Future History of Consciousness, which finished with “What is needed is a synthesis of neurology, information science, artificial intelligence, and spirituality. I believe it will happen; it must happen.”

I’m still ruminating.

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