The meaning of consciousness depends on whom you ask. The modern scientific view of consciousness was influenced by Western philosophers from René Descartes and later by John Locke who in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, published in 1690 defined consciousness as, “the perception of what passes in a man’s own mind.”
Two questions continue to puzzle us when it comes to understanding consciousness: What is it? And more importantly: Is it a product of our brain or is our brain a product of consciousness? Demystifying this mystery is one of the hardest problems in modern science.
Consciousness is commonly described as the subjective experience of our own bodies and environment. From this standpoint, it’s easy to assume that consciousness is closely associated with our brains. Put simply, the physical system (in this case, the brain) gives rise to non-physical phenomena – the personal experience. The pursuit of scientific community surrounding consciousness is to understand just how this process occurs.
Neuroscientist Christof Koch describes this “central fact of life” as:
Without consciousness there is nothing. The only way you experience your body and the world of mountains and people, trees and dogs, stars and music is through your subjective experiences, thoughts, and memories. You act and move, see and hear, love and hate, remember the past and imagine the future. But ultimately, you only encounter the world in all of its manifestations via consciousness. And when consciousness ceases, this world ceases as well.
Consciousness and its relationship to the brain is a topic, for many decades, avoided by the majority of mainstream scientists and for the right reasons. How could a phenomenon defined in subjective terms be adequately studied using objective, controlled experimental methods? Despite this conundrum, it seems that we have found a way to methodically examine this abstract concept.
The Scientific Study of Consciousness
Scientific investigations into consciousness are based on psychological experiments that study the relationship between the experiences reported by human subjects. We developed techniques for assessing consciousness objectively and to understand the neural and psychological mechanisms that power it.
Technological advances using imaging techniques like EEG and fMRI, enable us to study the activity that simultaneously takes place in our brain when we report this experience — what is termed, the neural correlates of consciousness. The hope is to locate activity in a particular part of the brain which will be strongly predictive of conscious awareness.
Assessing Consciousness in Clinical Medicine
Consciousness, in the context of clinical medicine, is defined as a spectrum ranging from typical awareness to higher levels of alertness. The commonly used method for measuring the level of consciousness of a patient is known as neuropsychological assessment. It involves basically seeing if the patient responds to a set of physical stimuli and then asking a set of simple questions to ensure they are aware (time, place and person).
A more complex neurological examination, usually done in a hospital setting, runs through a precisely delineated series of tests. Medical conditions that inhibit consciousness are considered disorders of consciousness such as the minimally conscious state, persistent vegetative state and coma.
All the above assessments of consciousness, in science, are based on the postulation that the brain is the producer of conscious awareness. But the question remains, if consciousness is the result of brain activity, then what produces this activity in the brain? This is where science stops its investigation (because it now becomes a non-measurable hypothesis ) and therefore self-inquiry (or philosophy) takes over.
(Don’t get the terms mixed up: In our routine usage, “Conscious” means aware where as, “Consciousness” is the state of being aware).
Spiritual Meaning of Consciousness
Answering a question about human consciousness, Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh gives a humbling and enlightening reply:
When we look into our cells as a human being we see that the human being is made only of non-human elements. We have the mineral element in us, we have the element of vegetable in us and we have the element ‘animal’ in us. Not only do we have human ancestors but we also have animal ancestors and vegetable ancestors and also mineral ancestors; and our ancestors do not belong only to the past – they belong to the present. They are fully present in us. Without them we cannot see the way we see, we cannot think the way we think, we cannot live the way we live. And the electron is also in us. So when I produce a thought every ancestors in me including the mineral, vegetable and animal ancestors, collaborate with me in order to produce that thought.
It’s like when you see – you look at the tree. That is not the job of only your eyes, as you know very well. Without the brain, without the blood, without the cells in your body, without all that, the ‘seeing’ would be an impossible thing for eyes.
When the eyes ‘see’ the whole body is participating in the act of seeing. When we produce a thought, when we reason, when we create music, when we do mathematics, not only a number of neurons are doing so, but the whole body – the whole lineage of ancestors in us are participating in producing that thought.
That is why when you produce a thought, Mother Earth is producing that thought together with you. Don’t say that you are alone producing that thought. Mother Earth is in you at the foundation and she is producing that thought with you at the same time. This thought is not your property. This thought that is produced is a creation of the whole Earth – and not only the Earth, the Sun also, because without the Sun the Earth cannot be herself; she is not able to create you and to bring you into existence.
This expanded state of awareness is commonly referred to as universal consciousness by Hindu and Buddhist philosophers. Universal consciousness is the oceanic experience where distinction between the observer and the observed ceases to exist. In this state, the notion that we are skin-encapsulated egos separate from the world around is dissolved.
Western born yoga teacher Georg Feuerstein observed that,
The manifold universe is, in truth, a Single Reality. There is only one Great Being, which the sages call Brahman, in which all the countless forms of existence reside. That Great Being is utter Consciousness, and It is the very Essence, or Self (Atman) of all beings.
Neil D. Theise, a medical scientist at the Beth Israel Medical Center of the Mount Sinai Health System, examines the two views about the nature of consciousness in his paper: One in which consciousness pervades the universe at all levels. The other in which consciousness only appears once the universe has reached a certain level of complexity. Theise concludes that at the quantum level, “every tiny thing overlaps with every other tiny thing. There’s no longer inside and outside. It’s actually a kind of self-aware universe. So according to this model, consciousness is pervasive throughout the universe.”
In a metaphysical context, the term consciousness attains a whole different meaning that is all-inclusive, unmeasurable and purely experiential. To comprehend this, we must expand our understanding of our ego-encapsulated self, freeing us to look at life with more than our logical minds and see it in deeper spiritual dimension.