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What is Consciousness?

Updated: Feb 18



A substantial number of published academic papers endeavor to describe human consciousness. Most of these articles are lengthy and difficult to understand, giving the impression that consciousness is incomprehensible. But consciousness is comprehensible. Understanding it helps us better know ourselves and improve our lives.


Here is a definition of consciousness. While you may initially think it too simplistic, you'll agree with me by the end of this post.


Consciousness is pattern

recognition combined with an

emotional reward system.


Well, that took one sentence.


It's often said that consciousness is awareness. While I believe this to be true, the question is, "awareness of what?" Awareness of patterns around us, such as our hands, feet, clothing, and what we see and feel. Our brain stores these patterns to be recalled and recognized later when we encounter them again.


What is pattern recognition?

Pattern recognition is when we recognize something, not because we perceive everything there is to know about it but because we recognize just enough of it.


Here is an example of the process:

  • When a baby is born, one of the first images she sees is that of her mother’s face. The baby may have no idea of what or who her mother is. But when wrapped in a comfortable fabric and held close to her mother, the baby feels warmed and supported.

  • The baby learns that the fuzzy shape of the mother’s face means comfort. The repeated image of the mother’s face is a visual pattern stored in the baby’s brain. This is the beginning of pattern recognition.

  • The baby does not need to remember everything about her mother’s face, but only enough to recognize it in the future.

The baby associates an ever-increasing number of images, sounds, temperatures, and smells, producing pleasure and comfort or displeasure and pain.


If rolling over on a blanket feels good, the baby will roll over again when she can. If stretching feels good, the baby will do it repeatedly. If the baby receives more security from adults around her when she smiles, the baby will smile more often.


The baby will gravitate toward visual, auditory, and tactile patterns that produce feelings of comfort and security. The more the child responds favorably to patterns stored in her brain that make her feel good and secure, the better she will be able to surround herself with those things.


All patterns are stored in the brain and are associated with values such as,

  1. Pain

  2. Comfort

  3. Security

  4. Isolation

  5. Fear

Every new sensation the baby experiences reinforces existing patterns in her brain or creates a new pattern if the sensation is unique.


Language

Words are patterns, too. After hearing older humans speak, the baby eventually mimics those sounds. If the child receives attention and comfort when repeating an “R” sound, the child will make the “R” sound again. The same goes for the other sounds of human speech.


Once the young child knows enough abstract words such as “hungry” or “tired,” the child will begin to string them together in her head to form more complex thoughts. Instead of feeling hungry and frustrated and cranky, the young child puts a name to the feeling and eventually says, “I'm hungry.”


We’re still dealing with patterns.


For someone to ask, “How are you today?” the person must recall a number of patterns in the correct order and communicate them verbally. Each word carries with it positive or negative feelings.


When I see the following characters, “2 x 2” I think of the number 4. This is because I was shown this pattern repeatedly as a child. “12 x 12” makes me think of 144. “133 x 621” doesn't mean anything to me because I have no pattern associated with it. It doesn't bring anything to my awareness.


Speaking a language fluently is like consciousness

Languages are learned one word at a time. It's a clumsy process until, eventually, the person is fluent in that language. Think of language fluency—metaphorically—as consciousness. Language “comes alive” for someone in the same way that consciousness does.


Atoms

Matter is made up of a large number of nearly hollow, colorless atoms. Individual atoms don’t do much. But get enough of them together, and you have a bowl of ice cream.


Once we’ve made thousands of associations between patterns and rewards, we can begin to be fluidly aware, i.e., become conscious, similar to how a person can speak a language fluidly.


Vision and Memory

The part of our brain that tells us the red shiny thing we see on the table is an apple is the same part of the brain that allows us to remember what an apple is. Memory and vision are intimately connected. Both are pattern-matching mechanisms.


Instinct

Instincts are biologically prewired preferences and responses to stimuli. Think of instincts as patterns we get at birth, each with its own chemical reward system.


Regarding facial expressions, one of my daughters began to pout only seconds after birth. It was a real pout! What astonished me was she had never seen anyone pout before. How did she know at that moment to use that facial expression?


Presque vu

Our brains do not store everything we’ve ever seen, heard, and felt. Instead, our brains store just enough to recognize events, concepts, objects, and people (pattern recognition!) when we encounter them again.


This lack of complete memory of everything can cause problems for us. Suppose you have a friend named, “Steve Michaelson.” Your brain does not put the name “Steve Michaelson” into your memory. Instead, your brain may store only “St,” “ee,” “Mich,” and “son.” Bits and pieces. Only enough so that when you see him again, you can say, “Hey, Steve Michaelson!”


Presque vu, or “tip-of-the-tongue,” occurs when you’re trying to reassemble the name “Steve Michaelson” from memory when unfortunately you first come up with the name “Stan Michelin.”


Whoops. Your brain has locked onto the wrong name pattern. Your brain’s ability to recall “Steve Michaelson” has been momentarily immobilized.


The problem usually worsens when people try to help you by guessing names. This makes it even harder for you unless they happen to guess the right name.


The solution is to think about something else until the interfering pattern is discarded. Then, your friend's correct name comes to your conscious mind.


Shocking tastes

Have you ever picked up a glass of lemonade expecting it to be milk (or vice versa)? After you taste it, your body convulses until you realize what you have put into your mouth.


The experience shakes you because your brain expects one thing but gets something else. For a moment, your pattern recognition fails you. It is not a comfortable experience.


Have you ever wondered what it would be like to taste milk or lemonade for the first time? The experience is probably similar to when you taste milk when expecting lemonade (or vice versa).


The patterns in our memories provide us with a comforting sense of stability and expectation. When experiences are thrust upon us ahead of our memory to recall them, we feel disrupted, even anxious.


Oxytocin

When a person feels care or affection for someone, the person’s brain produces a hormone called oxytocin, nicknamed the “social hormone.” It rewards and encourages social interaction, bonding, and trust.


Yep. When you’re with your buddies, your brain gives you a dose of a legal and free drug.


It isn’t just humans who produce oxytocin. Dogs, more than cats, produce oxytocin when they’re around humans. This is why dogs are better than cats at bonding with humans.


Does Fido really love you, or does he just want his oxytocin?


Pop music

Part of the attraction of singing along with pop music is it gives the sense of being with the person singing on the radio. It is a social-type experience that provides the listener with some oxytocin. Studies have shown that extroverted people, who have a greater need for oxytocin, are likelier to favor pop music, while introverted people are more often attracted to instrumental music.


Spectres (2004)

One of my favorite ghost story movies is Spectres, which deserves far more acclaim than it received. What makes the story unique is it asks the question: Are our wishes, feelings, memories, and personality determined by the physical/chemical wiring within our brain and nervous system or by our soul within us? In the movie Spectres, the soul of the teenage daughter is replaced with another soul: a Specter. Kelly's soul is no longer in her body. Yet, for the most part, she still acts, feels, and thinks like Kelly. She is unaware her soul has been replaced with another. Yet, everyone, including Kelly, realizes something disturbing has happened to her.


According to the movie, our physical being, not our soul, dominates who we are to the degree that we'd still pretty much be who we are if another spirit possessed us. This is a fresh new take on ghost stories.


So, ask yourself: Which mostly constitutes who you are: your physical being or your spirit within you? If you answer, "I am determined by my soul," then how can you account for extremely dramatic emotional, intellectual, and behavioral changes that occur after someone has a stroke or a severe brain injury? Does getting drunk affect your soul? Do Down Syndrome children have damaged spirits? I truly think not!


Unlike other clichéd ghost story movies, which are mostly copies of each other, Spectres presents poignant questions. You must see the movie!


Morality and freedom to choose

Given all this information, are we only puppets whose strings are pulled by chemical processes? Are the billions of tiny chemical routes within our brains telling us what to do, or are we truly free to make choices of free will?


I believe we have free will because we can choose what to do about what we know and feel. I may not want to help our old neighbor, Mrs. Blipfeather, with her weeds, but I may do so anyway because I care about her. My choices can override my feelings and impulses. I am still responsible for what I do, even if I'm mostly a collection of chemicals.


People may know that cigarettes hurt them, but they choose to smoke anyway because cigarettes give them the pleasure they desire.


We can choose between pleasure and pain, comfort and discomfort, security and insecurity. If not, then we are not accountable for our actions. No one would ever be guilty of anything, and everything we’ve ever done could be blamed on something else. Such stances do not lead to healthy individuals or societies.


I believe we were created by God, who has given us free choice. Even if He gives us extremely elaborate physical bodies that operate under the rules of chemistry, we are still accountable for our stewardship over those bodies. I believe He will hold us responsible for our decisions. We are the ultimate managers of our minds and bodies and are duty-bound to improve ourselves as best we can.


In summary

I believe the adage, “As a man thinketh, so is he,” to be physically and chemically true. We must care greatly about what we think and which attitudes we choose to uphold because these thoughts and attitudes strongly influence our behavior.


Just as a child feels comfort when engaging in wholesome activities, the patterns in our minds encourage us to behave in a healthy manner, so long as our patterns are healthy.


If, in the past, we created negative associations (patterns) with activities or principles that are good and honorable, we must commit ourselves to obtaining new, positive experiences with those activities or principles until we are attracted to them.


Just as it takes great effort to turn a ship, it is difficult for us to change the direction of our mental engines. But our consciousness has the ultimate say-so over ourselves, even if improvement takes a very long time.

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