Months ago I signed up to be automatically sent TED talks and have been startled and rewarded by some of them. Recently they’ve been dumber and more irrelevant, so I’ve been ditching some of them halfway through. I was startled again to be presented for the first time with a chance to rate a presentation. It was a little more detailed than a Netflix reaction. I checked “unconvincing,” “ludicrous”, and "obnoxious.” Partly it was the stiff presentation by a “philosopher,” but mostly it was his take on the subject, which was “consciousness.” He was making a case -- once again -- that being conscious of thinking while consciously thinking separated human beings from all other beings and that consciousness was the most basic and pervasive nature of the universe.
This man was discrediting all brain research as well as the concept of “emergence,” which means that interactions among previous entities can produce something new. His assumption was that “consciousness” was something like “soul,” of a completely other nature than flesh. I think the problem arises when people assume that “consciousness” is the primary event and everything else derives from it. Plainly this is not true. Consciousness is just a view point, barely outside the event.
Even if one discards fancy psychoanalytical assumptions about unconscious entities like id, ego and libido, it’s obvious that much of what happens in a body is simply below access to the conscious mind. Circulation of molecules, the rhythms of breathing and heartbeat, adjustment to gravity, peristalsis as food goes through the GI tract, and a fluctuating constant level of unease or harmony -- all go on without us thinking about it. Besides that, there is an entire huge “cloud” database "on request" about what we had for lunch yesterday, the plot of a movie seen last week, or a trip taken a decade ago. “Conscious” is just what is up for attention at the moment.
Not that we CAN’T consciously think about being conscious, but much depends upon the Lakoff/Johnson deep metaphorical assumptions we use. Most people equate light with conscious and dark with unconscious, so that consciousness becomes synonymous with “seeing.” The unconscious is then unseen. Being ignorant is being blind. Did you “see that coming?” Do you “see what I mean?” Are you “enlightened?” Having a major spiritual insight or vision is often depicted as a beam of light shining on one’s upturned face.
The “dark continent” is not just dark because of jungle (after all, a lot of it is desert) but because it is considered lacking education. To be “left in the dark” is to not be told. Since the Western world considers that only institutionalized learning is real understanding, only people who get good grades are “bright.” We could go on.
I’ve moved to two other metaphors. One is that consciousness is a process of relationship through the sensorium’s contact with the out-skin world, constantly adapting and self-modifying in the brain as we move through that world, and also the macro-process of editing, collating, classifying, and re-combining the information we accumulate in-skin. Many clever experiments have shown that we “see” what we expect, understand what is familiar, and cannot perceive what we have no concept of, no category to put it in or words to describe it. Cultural historians explore the advent of concepts like romantic love or homosexuality, things many people think are realities until they wear out and are replaced by, um, "limerence" and "MSM."
Beyond that, words have judgment built into them. I’m slender; you’re skinny. Somehow stigmatized people think that if they just change the words slung at them, the stigma will go away. But soon the stigma has migrated from “crip” to “disabled” to the rather desperate “differently abled.” Still the word police are vigilant. It’s easier than changing the actual mental categories and erasing social prejudice. Removing the conviction that categories are real might help. Effective thinking means always doubling back to examine the terms used. Always asking oneself, “Is there another way to ‘look at’ this?” The metaphor of light/sight is huge and complex if we’ll just use it that way and make sure we’re seeing a process, a moving, morphing flame rather than a lightbulb.
Process is the key to brains. Now we can “see” it happening on our fMRI screens. A thinking brain is a “connectome” of electrochemical traffic among nodes with special abilities to sort and emphasize the messages -- not only that, but that the connectome changes constantly in response to what the sensorium is sending it. The brain is not a room with the lights on, it’s more like a keyboard with fingers playing up and down it. Since these nodes and neurochemistries don’t all act the same, let’s say that the brain is an orchestra conductor, guiding the melodies through the permutations of the identity symphony. I wish I knew enough music theory to expand this metaphor.
You may have noticed that both the metaphors of light and music are essentially about vibrations, which are a kind of code phenomena based on variation, surprise and convention, coming together and going apart. “Vibes” and “resonance” have become metaphors for meaningfulness for us. “Tone deaf” means you can’t “get it.”
One’s connectome, like one’s sensorium, is too complicated and fast-moving to think about it very self-consciously, but one can change it while it moves by altering attitude -- seeing things a different way, changing the pace. With the modern ability to record oneself in action, it’s possible to be “inside” your brain and acting, but then later to go to a critical or objective frame of reference and see yourself in action. It’s often a shock.
We need more terms for various connectomes. What about hypnotized? What about sleep-walking? What about vegetative state? What about so preoccupied one is oblivious to what is around one? What about the kind of automatic driving that you can’t remember doing until something that needs attention pops up, like a cow in the road? What about the hyper-listening of a musician? There’s much more to human awareness than just conscious versus unconscious. In fact, SUBconscious is a much better term. It’s clear that “consciousness” is a product of the SUBconscious and emerges from whatever pathways and nodes are working during SUBconscious thought, which is foundational. It implies that there might be something like a SUPRAconsciousness, a HYPERconsciousness, some higher function of the mind.
What seems to magnetize people thinking about these issues is the epiphanic and galvanizing mystical experiences that come unexpectedly. These are certainly subjectively real. Some claim they can reach it through yoga. Or drugs. Magnetic currents applied to the temples. Most people seem to think it’s a kind of super-orgasmic union with the Holy Spirit. A very few don’t like it. I’m working on the assumption that it is a moment when the connectome throughout the whole body is in harmony, an alignment.
It is a phenomenon of the human mind that we can think of something more than what we can experience. We can think of a color that is greener than green without ever seeing it. We can think of the concepts of zero or infinity without really grasping them. We can think of ourselves after death or before birth without experiencing it or describing it -- just raising the hypothesis. But I would never deny that there can’t be experience, real and vivid, beyond what we can hold in our conscious minds now. If we hadn’t thought about walking on the moon, we would never have been able to do it. There are other TED talks and EDGE talks that address the issues more helpfully.