What is consciousness?

Neuron by MethoxyRoxy

From neurons to consciousness - it's a giant leap (image by MethoxyRoxy)

Consciousness could probably be described as one of the most interesting problems in science – how do we explain that ‘feeling of feeling something’? What is consciousness for? Do other animals have it? Will we ever know the answers to these questions?

As usual it’s a good idea to break the task down into more manageable chunks, and you can split the conundrum of consciousness into two unequally sized bits: the easy problem and the hard problem.

The easy problem is finding out how brain activity matches up with conscious experiences – perception of movement or pain for example. But the hard problem really is a tricky one – how do all these molecules shuttling around the cells in your brain coalesce into the ‘you’ that exists at any one moment in time?

Research out this week illustrates the hard and easy problems nicely. Scientists have monitored the activity of the brain as it slips into unconsciousness – you can watch the video (it’s really interesting), but you can be damn sure it won’t explain the feeling of becoming unconscious.

Lots of research like this has helped us to understand some of what happens inside the brain and how this translates into particular experiences or ‘qualia‘. But nothing I’ve read has even really scratched the surface of the hard problem.

I think that’s because there’s an even harder problem: I’m not sure anyone really knows what consciousness is. I’m not saying that I believe everyone else on the planet is some sort of zombie automaton (although it’s true that you can only ever experience your own consciousness so you can’t be sure anyone else is conscious at all). But if you can’t define a concept, how can you study it?

We all know that we as individuals are conscious, and we can label particular parts of our conscious experiences. But trying to define the whole of consciousness is a bit like trying to remember a word you’ve forgotten. You know it’s there, you just can’t articulate it. How can you define the experience that encompasses everything a person feels and is? It’s like trying to explain the blueness of blue – the problem doesn’t even make sense.

Perhaps I’ve just got the wrong end of the stick, but I’ve never managed to get a satisfactory answer out of anyone I’ve asked about this. I think it’s a great example of something that science can’t explain, because so far we can’t even ask the right questions for science to help us answer.

In a way I love this feeling – it’s that beautiful concept of the ‘shadows on the walls of the cave‘. If all you ever see is shadows, you could have your back to reality and never even know what you’re missing. Science can help us to see a little way beyond the walls of the cave, but it also helps us to remember that we can never know for certain if what we’re seeing is reality or the shadows it casts.

I think consciousness is a shadow – a concept we’ve invented to give form to an experience we all have but can’t yet understand or put into words. Behind it is something much larger and more mysterious that we may never be able to turn around and see. Of course this doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying to find out – but calling it the ‘hard’ problem is one huge understatement.

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