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What is Consciousness?

What is consciousness? Are you conscious right now as you are reading this article or when you daydream? The Cambridge Dictionary describes consciousness as "the state of understanding and realizing something." Or in other words the simple awareness of internal or external existence. However, the topic of consciousness, how it works, and where it is has been debated over hundreds of years by philosophers and scientists. We still haven’t reached an exact agreed-upon answer, so why is the idea of consciousness controversial?

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The Guardian says that around the 1990s the idea of consciousness was still taboo with the question of “why on earth should all those complicated brain processes feel like anything from the inside?” There were other questions surrounding consciousness like “are plants and trees conscious?” Often these questions cross between science and philosophy making it harder to settle on a specific answer. Some argue that the problem can’t be explained by what we know now or by science in the future. However, as The Conversation states, we’ve made a lot of progress to understand the functions and activity of the brain and how that affects human behavior.

The part that had yet to be explained was how electrical and chemical signals throughout our nervous system result in a feeling of pain or other experiences. And that was the problem of consciousness, it is not like any other scientific problem where there was a physical form for us to observe. For now, we can’t exactly look inside someone’s head and see their experiences or feelings. “If we were just going off what we can observe from a third-person perspective, we would have no grounds for postulating consciousness at all.” So how can science help us determine what consciousness is? The best scientists are able to do is to connect unobservable experiences with observable processes. In an article in The Conversation, we learn that they can do this by scanning people’s brains and relying on their reports on their conscious experiences. Nevertheless, a correlation between brain activity and conscious experiences still doesn’t answer why the correlation is there.

Another way to understand consciousness is looking at the opposite of it, unconsciousness. According to Wikipedia, it is a state which occurs when the ability to maintain an awareness of self and environment is lost. Unconsciousness can be caused through general anesthesia, but no one knows how anesthesia makes someone unconscious. One theory is that anesthetics prevent the human brain from integrating information through a functional disconnection. This brings up another question sparked by Psychology Today: does consciousness exist because of the brain?

One prominent hypothesis of consciousness, the theory of global workspace (GWT) connected with consciousness’ connection with the brain. Psychology Today says this theory was formulated by Bernard J. Baars, a native Dutch neuroscientist; in his paper, Baars characterized memory as “fleeting in nature, with only one consistent content at a time.” He states that “consciousness resembles a bright spot on the stage of immediate memory, directed there by a spotlight of attention under guidance. Consciousness can amplify and broadcast the content of the memory to the whole of the system.” In his metaphor, Baars describes that the overall theater is dark and unconscious, and the spotlighted area on stage represents consciousness. Consciousness is “the gateway to the brain” that “enables multiple networks to cooperate and compete in solving problems.” However, others have pointed out that this theory is more on cognitive accessibility and lacking an explanation of the experiences.

Consciousness isn’t always consistent, there are various states of it that can be altered naturally, chemically (i.e. drugs), or as a result of damage to the brain. Changes to consciousness can also result in changes in perception, thinking, understanding, and interpretations of the world. Very Well mind says that types of consciousness include: dreams, hallucinations, hypnosis, meditation, sleep, and states induced by psychoactive drugs. There is also considered to be two types of awareness: consciousness and unconsciousness, within consciousness there is altered consciousness. This includes the states like coma, confusion, delirium, disorientation, lethargy, and stupor. It is important to note that sudden changes in consciousness could be a sign of a medical problem.

If you have ever wondered if robots can be conscious or have emotions, the answer, for now, is no. This is because presently conventional computer systems don’t have the complexity of the architecture of human brains, and as a result, are not capable of a conscious experience. However, Psychology Today says neuromorphic computing architecture, modeled on the human brain, is being developed with highly interconnected logic and memory gates mimicking the brain. According to Psychology Today, this could raise future legal and ethical concerns as technology advances towards artificial general intelligence with neuromorphic hardware and artificial neural networks with a design inspired by the architecture of the biological brain. But if our complex and controversial consciousness can be recreated with technology humans may be able to observe a physical form of consciousness and finally come up with a more specific answer on what consciousness is.

Consciousness remains a vague concept that has yet to be fully revealed. As scientists and researchers make progress in evidence-based studies of the human brain, a greater understanding of the “easy” problem may one day be achieved.

Article Author: Kelley Liang

Article Editors: Edie Whittington, Valerie Shirobokov