Consciousness


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27/May/2011

If you are looking at consciousness, you can do a lot worse than starting with the 3Ws: "Who is conscious?", "When are you conscious?" and "Where is consciousness?". If you go up to 5Ws you might add: "Why are you conscious?", and "What is consciousness?".

Starting with the "Who", this implies a person, an individual (we're ignoring animal consciousness). You might also note that 'you' appears in a couple of the questions, which implies a self, and possibly a personal identity. Without going into the whole philosophy of identity area, consciousness might be guessed to do something like distinguish 'self' from 'other'.

Continuing with "When", you are not conscious all the time. People sleep, or are unconscious for other reasons. If you are conscious before birth, or after death, most people do not have any memories, any continuity of experience, which would allow them to know this. This might imply that consciousness is conditional, and, might have some connection to memory.

On "Where", consciousness is usually associated with the brain, or at least the body. It would appear to be something experienced via our senses. Loss of consciousness seems to be most obviously associated with damage to the brain, or other vital organs. Or, lack of things needed for life, in particular air and not too warm or too cold surroundings.

Looking at "Why" the implication is that consciousness is either useful in some way, or possibly part of something else that is useful. You could look for causes, or claim that it is "god given", or is the reason humans survived and evolved the way they did. On "What" you are probably starting to look at the characteristics of consciousness, asking scientific questions, such as how much of it do we share with animals.

Who is conscious?

Your identity seems to be something which develops throughout your life. While still, somehow, seeming to be a single 'thing'. We, and lots of social institutions, assume a continuity. You might think about a baby, learning about the difference between 'self' and 'other', which bits of the world they can directly affect, and which not. Or, an adult striving to change themselves, to fit with some ideal or some other.

When are you conscious?

Dreams seem to be a form of consciousness, where we are more or less in control of what is going on (lucid dreaming) and how we respond to that. Some experience other states, or 'flavours', of consciousness, when very tired, or in exceptional 'peak experiences', even without considering the effects of mind-altering drugs.

Where is consciousness?

A lot of people experience consciousness as maybe an inch or two (five centimetres?) behind the eyes. But, if you think about it, consciousness seems to be associated with attention, and perception. Some recent, simple, experiments can get many people to move where they perceive their consciousness to be a short distance outside their body. And, this ignores many reports of out-of-body or near-death experiences. You can focus your consciousness down to a fine point, maybe while doing some physical task, or reading a book, listening to the radio, being with some interesting person, and only later 'come back to yourself'.

Why are you conscious?

You might ask what purpose does consciousness serve for you. If you are not conscious you don't tend to be doing much, physically, more just going on existing. Consciousness seems to allow you to direct your efforts, focus your attention, on various things of interest or use to you, so you can act or interact.

When you learn something new, or encounter a new situation, such as learning to drive, or a new social circumstance, you may be acutely conscious of everything around, as you search to work out what is important, how you will need to act. Some people find this gives them a sort of 'high', so they search out new things, new experiences, like extreme sports. Others may prefer the familiar, in everything except their particular areas of interest, such as crosswords, detective stories, celebrity fandom, or football matches.

What is consciousness?

Many philosophers and scientists have struggled with trying to figure-out consciousness. They have searched for what characterises being conscious, the high points, and low points. There is the quite difficult problem of studying something which everyone seems to experience, but doesn't seem to exist, in any obvious physical way.

Consciousness seems to have something to do with perception, the source from which it works, and memory, previous experience, ways learned of doing things. There seems to be a structuring of the world of perceptions, a recognition of what has been learned to be important, useful. We often only become conscious of things that we haven't been able to deal with automatically, in an unconscious way. Things like anxiety may make us conscious of otherwise trivial things, and we may reach states of harmony with the world, where everything seems to flow smoothly, almost effortlessly.

Phenomenology is one 'modern' philosophical attempt to study the structures of consciousness. Neuropsychology is a scientific attempt to work from the structures of the brain towards an understanding of some mental phenomena. Some studies of perception suggest that we modify and construct a lot of what we perceive, and even recall, on the basis of our expectations. Some of the approaches in the newer varieties of existentialism, such as Colin Wilson's phenomenology existentialism, claim to say important things about the nature of consciousness.

References:

5Ws on Wikipedia
Personal Identity on Wikipedia
Altered State of Consciousness on Wikipedia
Attention on Wikipedia
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs on Wikipedia

Consciousness on Wikipedia
Phenomenology on Wikipedia
Colin Wilson on Wikipedia
'Philosophy' on Stanford site

(c) ROMsys Ltd, May 2011, permission given to use for non-profit making purposes

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