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A question of consciousness

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By Susan Blackmore


The problem of consciousness is real, deep and confronts us any time we care to look. Ask yourself this question ‘Am I conscious now?’ and you will reply ‘Yes’. Then, I suggest, you are lured into delusion – the delusion that you are conscious all the time, even when you are not asking about it.

Now ask another question, ‘What was I conscious of a moment ago?’ This may seem like a very odd question indeed but lots of my students have grappled with it and I have spent years playing with it, both in daily life and in meditation. My conclusion? Most of the time I do not know what I was conscious of just before I asked.

Try it. Were you aware of that faint humming in the background? Were you conscious of the birdsong? Had you even noticed the loud drill in the distance that something in your brain was trying to block out? And that’s just sounds. What about the feel of your bottom on the chair? My experience is that whenever I look I find lots of what I call parallel backwards threads – sounds, touch, sights, that in some way I seem to have been listening to for some time – yet when I asked the question I had the odd sensation that I’ve only just become conscious of it.

Back in 1890 William James (one of my great heroes of consciousness studies) remarked on the sounds of a chiming clock. You notice the chiming after several strikes. At that moment you can look back and count one, two, three, four and know that now it has reached five. But it was only at four that you suddenly became conscious of the sound.

William James

What’s going on?

This, I suggest, is just one of the many curious features of our minds that lead us astray. Whenever we ask ‘Am I conscious now? we always are, so we leap to the conclusion that there must always be something ‘in my consciousness’, as though consciousness were a container. I reject this idea. Instead, I think that most of the time our brains are getting on with their amazing job of processing countless streams of information in multiple parallel threads, and none of those threads is actually ‘conscious’. Consciousness is an attribution we make after the fact. We look back and say ‘This is what I was conscious of’ and there is nothing more to consciousness than that.

Are we really so deluded? If so there are two important consequences: One spiritual and one scientific.

Many contemplative and mystical traditions claim we are living in illusion; that we need to throw off the dark glasses of the false self who seems to be in control, who seems to have consciousness and free will; that if we train our minds through meditation and mindfulness we can see through the illusion and live in clearly awareness right here and now. I am most familiar with Zen and I love such sayings as, ‘Actions exist and also their consequences but the person that acts does not’. Wow! Letting go of the person who sees, thinks, and decides is not a trivial matter and many people find it outrageous that one would even want to try. Yet it is quite possible to live without assuming that you are consciously making the decisions – that you are a persisting entity that has consciousness and free will.

From the scientific point of view, throwing off these illusions would totally transform the ‘hard problem of consciousness’. This is, as Dave Chalmers, the Australian philosopher, describes it, the question of ‘how physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experience’. This is a modern version of the mind-body problem. Almost everyone who works on consciousness agrees that dualism does not work. There cannot be a separate spirit or soul or persisting inner self that is something other than ordinary matter. The world cannot be divided, as Descartes famously thought, into mind and matter – subjective and objective, physical material and mental thoughts. Somehow the two must ultimately be one – But how? This ‘nonduality’ is what mystical traditions have long described, but it is also the hope that science is grappling with.

And something strange is happening in the science of consciousness. The last few decades have seen fantastic progress in neuroscience. Yet paradoxically this makes the problem of consciousness worse, not better. We now know that decisions are initiated in part of the frontal lobe, actions are controlled by areas as far apart as the motor cortex, premotor cortex and cerebellum, visual information is processed in multiple parallel pathways at different speeds without ever constructing a picture-like representation that could correspond to  ‘the picture I see in front of my eyes’.  The brain manages all these amazing tasks in multiple parallel processes. So what need is there for ‘me’? And what need is there for subjective experience? So what is it and why do we have it?

Perhaps inventing an inner conscious self is a convenient way to live; perhaps it simplifies the brain’s complex task of keeping us alive; perhaps it has some evolutionary purpose. Whatever the answer, I am convinced that all our usual ideas about mind and consciousness are false. We can throw them off in the way we live our lives, and we must throw them off if our science of consciousness is ever to make progress.

Susan Blackmore is a freelance writer, lecturer and broadcaster, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth. She is the author of Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction.

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Image credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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5 Responses to “A question of consciousness”
  1. Dan D'Agostino says:

    Susan, thanks for a very interesting article. I hope you’ll forgive me if I quibble with one point. You are stating the Mahayana Buddhist idea of emptiness of self in a slightly misleading way. For Nagarjuna and his followers it is not that the self doesn’t exist, but that it does not exist inherently. There is something that exists moment to moment, that we can label as “self,” that does consciously make decisions. This gets to the doctrine of the Two Truths: that on the ultimate level there is no inherent existence of anything, including a self; but on the conventional there is something that we can identify and label as self, just as long as we realize that it comes into existence in dependence on other factors (having a body, consciousness etc), and like all other things, exists only from moment to moment — that it is, in effect, a mere label, although a very helpful one. Actually, if there was no self existing on the conventional level, you wouldn’t also be able to claim that actions existed.

    At any rate, my apologies for bringing this up. It may seem like a small point, but I think it is a profound one. The therapeutic benefit involved in bringing people to the realization of the emptiness of an inherently existing self is incalculable. The benefit of neuroscientists telling people that there is no self at all because it can’t be found in brain scan? Not so much. It’s our belief in inherent existence that is the cause of so much trouble.

    D.

  2. Bob Aldo says:

    Something that I’ve lately found helpful on the subject of consciousness is not to think of “consciousness” or “awareness” as existing in some way separately from what we might call “the contents of consciousness’. That is, as existing separately from the sensations, emotions, thoughts, mental images, dreams, intuitions, etc. – which alternately occupy “our attention” and which we think of as “our subjective experience”. There is no compelling reason to posit a “consciousness” separate from experience. In fact such a “consciousness” seems to me suspiciously like the little person sitting in our heads looking out through our eyes (something “added on to what is there”).

  3. fyrecurl says:

    Wasn’t it Albert Einstein who said:”Reality is an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” Good article.

  4. Tony Sandy says:

    Consciousness is of the past when it comes to words as you can’t conceptualize something unless you’ve experienced it. Direct experience is purely visual (I am a camera). I think that ‘time’ is a border between the future (unknown, unsensed) and the past (known, sensed)and the present only exists as a cusp between these two: It’s like fear and excitement are a cusp deciding the fight or flight direction you take (forward into the unknown or retreating back into the known, the certain). The future is unformed potential and the past actuality or formed reality (Think of a volcano and lava or the cone (layers of differentiated ‘matter’ as opposed to unused ‘energy’).
    Duality exists but only in the following way which is the attempt to understand the world through taking it apart, much as a car mechanic has to take an engine apart, to show he understands it enough to put it back together, to make it work (Medics and anatomy too): To encapsulate this – we take things apart to understand them and put them back together again to make them work. Like the layers of an onion, if you keep peeling back the layers (de-constructing them), you end up with nothing. The external world is the opposite – building reality by putting things together. Whether it’s physics or the self, the same truth applies. Yin Yang / The Tao as inner journey in search of the self or the outer one to connect with the phenomenal world also say this and Zen is just orientation, through disarming the mind via koans and stopping the endless ‘quest-ioning’ by the self, that leads us inwards to nothing and gets us to just give up and get on with the process of living by ‘being’ ourselves.

  5. Tony Sandy says:

    Be still and know ‘you’ are God, means that once you stop running and getting caught up in propaganda, you ‘see’ the truth (as opposed to hear the lie). Consciousness is purely visual and depends upon concentrating upon a particular point in time and space (memory is a recording of this experience). Speeds blinds us to perception as stillness and silence clarifies reality – hence meditation.

    The way I see it there are two states of consciousness / unconsciousness that I call concentrated attention and dispersed attention. In the first you are tense with attention and in the second relaxed (awake and asleep). In the dispersed state our awareness becomes less clear and generalization takes over (or everything starts to blur into everything else as detail that clarifies difference is lost – hence stupor and stupid. This includes time and space co-ordinates). In a concentrated state of attention we are clear about time as well as space because of the detailed differences we pick up from reality and our own internal clock mechanism.

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