What is Consciousness?
Updated: Aug 30, 2022
A substantial number of published academic papers endeavor to describe human consciousness. Most such articles are lengthy and difficult to understand and give the impression that consciousness is incomprehensible. But consciousness is comprehensible, and understanding it helps us better know ourselves and improve our lives.
Here is a definition of consciousness. While at first, you may think it too simplistic, I believe that by the end of this post you'll agree with me.
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 to ask is, "awareness of what?" Awareness of patterns around us--our hands and feet and clothing and what we see and feel. Our brain stores these patterns to be recalled and recognized later when we come across 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 mother’s face is a visual pattern that gets 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 which produce either pleasure and comfort or displeasure and pain.
If rolling over on a blanket feels good, the baby will roll over when she can. If stretching feels good, the baby will do it when she can. 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 which 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 tagged with values such as,
Every new sensation the baby experiences reinforces existing patterns in her brain or creates a new pattern if the sensation is unique.
Words are patterns, too. After hearing older humans speak, the baby eventually begins to mimic those sounds. If the child receives attention and comfort when repeating an “R” sound, the child will make the “R” sound again. The same 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 hunger and getting frustrated and cranky, the young child puts a name to the feeling, and eventually says the words, “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” does not 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. Both concepts eventually take on a life of their own. Language “comes alive” for someone in the same way that consciousness does.
Matter is made up of a large number of essentially 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 a conscious being, 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.
Instincts are 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 being born. 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?
Our brains do not store everything we’ve ever seen, heard, and felt. Instead, our brains store just enough so we can recognize events, concepts, objects, and people (pattern recognition!) when we run across 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 into memory the name “Steve Michaelson.” Instead, it puts enough of the name into memory so when you see him again you can say, “Hey, Steve Michaelson!” For example, your brain may store only “St,” “ee,” “Mich,” and “son.” Bits and pieces.
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. Now your brain’s ability to recall “Steve Michaelson” has been momentarily immobilized.
The problem usually gets worse 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 "blocking word" is discarded. Then, your friend's correct name can come to your conscious mind.
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 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 similar to when you taste milk when expecting lemonade (or vice versa). Enjoy the thrill while it lasts!
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.
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? We’ll leave that answer to the canine psychologists.
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 more likely to favor pop music, while introverted people are more often attracted to instrumental music.
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 spirit/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 if we're possessed by another spirit, we'd still pretty much be who we are. 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 spirit/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 fresh 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 strings within our brains telling us what to do, or are we truly free to make choices of free will?
Unfortunately, modern medicine and psychology do not provide a conclusive answer. I believe we have free will because we get to 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 a pleasure they desire.
We get to choose between pleasure and pain, comfort and discomfort, and 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 which 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.
I believe the adage, “As a man thinketh, so is he,” to be physically and chemically true. We must take great care about what we think and about 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 our past we have 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.