This series of articles has been adapted from [Mind Matters in Children] by Dr Kenneth Lyen. It delves into both the normal as well as the abnormal functioning of a child’s mind, and gives practical advice on how to manage children’s mental health and problems like ADHD, dyslexia, autism and depression.
The greatest unsolved mystery facing mankind is understanding what consciousness is.
We all know what consciousness is. We are enchanted by a beautiful sunset, inspired by heartwarming music, and lured by mouthwatering food. We know what’s it like when we drift off during a boring lecture, drink too much alcohol, or descend into a food coma after a heavy meal. Consciousness plays an important part in our lives. Yet it remains one of life’s greatest enigmas, one that we are still struggling to decipher.
In this chapter, we are taking a more elevated definition of consciousness; it is more than just differentiating being awake from sleep, visual from auditory sensations, or how we control our behaviour. What do we really experience when we see colours, hear the sound of a violin, or the touch of our friend’s hand? What exactly is this sensation, this feeling, this self-awareness?
What is consciousness?
Consciousness is the ability to experience and appreciate the world around us. This is achieved through our senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. On top of that, we can use our brain to feel the rich palate of emotions whirling inside. Consciousness enables us to use our complex imaginations to think about concepts and ideas, and to plan for the future.
Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) observed that even while awake, our minds are processing many activities that we are not consciously aware of, like being inside a room and forgetting the world outside. He named this intermediate stage between fully conscious and unconscious, the “subconscious”.
The Unsolved Problem of Consciousness (3)
The major unsolved problem of consciousness is the mind-body problem. We can scientifically and rationally analyse how our sensations are linked to gross and molecular neuroanatomy, the neurophysiological pathways, the genetics, epigenetics, and the biochemical neurotransmissions of the brain. But knowing all the anatomy and physiology of the brain only tells us one side of the story. It does not explain how we actually feel what we feel.
The other half of the problem is referred to as the mind, by which we mean the subjective individual sensations, our experiences, our vibes, how we think logically, artistically, creatively, and emotionally. In order to experience these feelings, we must be conscious. Therefore, a fundamental prerequisite of the mind half of the mind-body terrain, is consciousness, including self-awareness or self-consciousness.
Over the centuries, countless philosophers, neuroanatomists, neurophysiologists, geneticists, biochemists, religious thinkers, and mystics, have all tried to solve the problem of how we feel, how we experience our surroundings, how we are aware of ourselves. Their proposed solutions are still debated, and not fully resolved.
The Meta-Problem (7,8)
In the movie, the Matrix, Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) learns that the world he is living in is unreal, and that it is a world embedded in a larger reality. He has to decide whether or not to take the blue or the red pill: if he took the blue pill he can remain in the make-believe world of the Matrix, but if he took the red pill, he would wake up and enter the real world. Well, he took the red pill and saved both the real and the unreal world. Philosophers David Chalmers and Andy Clark decided to explore this question: “Where does the mind stop and the rest of the world begin?” With today’s technology, the mobile phone and the internet can be integrated into our mind and become our “extended mind”. In essence this is what FaceBook’s Mark Zuckerberg is alluding to when he called this expansion of our mental universe, the MetaVerse.
This is the highly immersive universe where people everywhere can meet online to socialise, play and work. The real and the unreal merge and we may not always be able to separate the two. Our conscious real world is indistinguishable from the dream world of the unconscious.
Animal Consciousness (9)
Do animals have consciousness? All of us who have owned pets realise that they can show love, happiness, sadness, anger and a whole range of emotions. Some pets can even communicate with their owners and persuade them to carry out the pet’s orders. Are they conscious? Do they have self-awareness? While it is possible and even plausible that our pets and farm animals may have some conscious thoughts, this cannot be proven indisputably. Therefore, we remain undecided.
A further question is whether the degree of consciousness depends on how high the animal is on the evolutionary tree, because it is generally assumed that animals higher up are more intelligent. Conversely, life forms lower down the evolutionary ladder, like insects, worms, plants, trees, bacteria, viruses, are less intelligent, and are they able to possess consciousness?
Can We Build a Conscious Robot? (10)
Talking about intelligence, engineers are now able to build machines, computers, and robots with artificial intelligence. Some of these computers and robots are self-learning, and can even talk to humans and give intelligent answers. But do they possess consciousness? This is the million-dollar question. We will probably not know at what stage the robot will become conscious, in the same way that we may never be able to tell if an infant or an animal has consciousness. Same goes for zombies. I sense that many of us humans try to run away from answering this question, because we fear that one day robots will take over running the world.
The leading unsolved mystery facing humanity is comprehending what consciousness is. Over the centuries many people have tried to solve this problem. In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest, in part because of technological advances in exploring the brain. Like all scientific theories, some will survive the test of time while others will wither away. Hopefully we are getting nearer to solving all the questions being posed about what we mean by, and how we generate, the different forms of consciousness.
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18. Scientific American Special Collector’s Edition 2022. Secrets of the Mind.
Written by Ang Shi Min
Illustrated by Chua Jia Qi