What is consciousness? What do we mean when we say consciousness and even more so, what is the origin of consciousness? Can you point to it, or rather derive it through a formula? If you’re like most people, then chances are you can’t. Consciousness is something that has been of much conjecture for quite some time, and something that we can question such as what is the mind. When people ask “what is the mind?” many believe that is synonymous with the brain, but in reality, the two are not one in the same. We cannot point to the mind and say here it is as we would with the brain. In comparison to the mind, the brain is an intermediate, a middle man if you will, between our sensory world and the mind itself. The brain allows us to process different stimuli in our environment through the five different sensory modalities: touch, taste, sight, smell, and sound. Many of these stimuli then go on to be processed by our sense organs and are further converted into what we experience as sensations. These sensations (with the exception of olfaction-smell) are then relayed to the appropriate regions (lobes) of the brain, respectively, via a structure known as the thalamus (the relay station of the brain). Furthermore, sensation itself is universal and fundamental in nature across many domains such as gender, age, and culture. It is an ability that every living organism possesses, but perception, on the other hand, is quite subjective and more complex. More specifically, we each perceive things differently based on our past experiences, belief systems (i.e. cultural beliefs), and our perspective on things (i.e. the infamous example of “is the glass half empty or half full?”). This process of perception is then essentially the interpretation of how we interpret stimuli, which in turn, creates, or rather defines our reality and what we know to be “real”. In essence, the brain is quite a fascinating organ, and even more so, a gift that we have been given that we sometimes take for granted.
In juxtaposition, what we call “the mind”, is something beyond us, it is an extension of us, or of the brain if you will, and perhaps a glimpse into the spirit. The mind transcends the dimensions of time and space and can travel to the ends of the universe (i.e. thinking of a loved one half way across the world and then to your surprise, they call you by “coincidence” an hour later!) It is something that may hold the key to unraveling the mystery that is consciousness, and continues to befuddle and mystify today’s even most seasoned scientists. Additionally, the mind is not something that can be quantified or empirically tested for (observation through experimentation), much like consciousness. With consciousness, however, we can begin to understand the underlying nature of it by studying the electrical activity of one’s brain through an EEG, (an electroencephalogram) which provides us with some sort of baseline for it. Nevertheless, “the mind” is an interesting concept in the field of consciousness and perhaps can lend us its secrets to unraveling the mysteries of consciousness.
The very question of consciousness can be more of a philosophical debate rather than a scientific one, however, as it still remains in its infancy and is beginning to emerge in the field of neuroscience (particularly cognitive neuroscience). Some might define consciousness as the idea that they are aware of their own existence, or self-awareness. Yet others might define consciousness as the fact that they are able to think and produce thoughts, but again, we can term this as cognition and can say that this perhaps arises through vast neural communication. Neural communication is the process by which nerve cells, known as neurons, communicate to one another throughout the nervous system via electrical impulses known as action potentials. Finally, others might take a scientific standpoint and say it is a measure of one’s electrical brain activity that can be measured through an EEG (although brain waves provide us with tangible evidence of analyzing our conscious processes such as concentration, memory, and decision-making, this becomes even trickier than meets the eye when trying to analyze consciousness). Moreover, to entertain the former viewpoint and to suggest that consciousness means that you are aware of your own existence, we must still, however, break that down even further. This perspective, although interesting, begs the question of what are our thoughts made of, or rather what is their origin? Well, thoughts are made of energy, and as we all know, energy (like emotion), is one of the few things in this world that cannot be measured, but yet, is something that we each feel on a daily basis. In addition, emotions are something that move us, quite literally. Although it is true that energy is something that is conserved (neither created or destroyed), can be converted from one form into another, or transferred from one medium to another, this still does not explain its source.
Furthermore, how can we begin to quantify these energetic thoughts and make them palpable? With respect to the brain and the current technology, the best way in which we can begin to map out our thoughts, is through an EEG, or is it? Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience research have developed what’s referred to as a QEEG (Quantitative Electroencephalography), or more commonly known as Brain Mapping. This technology allows for the extension of the conventional visual EEG readings, which may help to further amplify our understanding of the mysterious nature of the brain and its function. This becomes tricky, however, because even with this technology, energy is once again, not something that can be measured, or seen. As we entertain these different ideas and viewpoints, we begin to glean the difficulty that comes with trying to pinpoint consciousness. Interestingly enough, however, thoughts, as magical as they are in some respect, have quite literally come to create our realities, a concept that has proven to be true through quantum physics. Further, this phenomenon is one that we have been noticing more and more as we have shifted and evolved our consciousness as a species.
Our thoughts are beginning to manifest our realities at a much faster rate than we ever thought possible or would have ever conceived of. Considering that thoughts are made up of energy and energy is what comprises everything in the universe, it makes sense that we can affect and to some degree, manipulate our external environment through our thoughts and begin to manifest what we truly desire. Thoughts can also influence or rather give rise to belief systems, which can, in turn, determine or affect our behaviors, and behaviors can lead to habits coupled with emotions. This really highlights the sheer importance of what I would call cognogenesis, the genesis or generation of thoughts. It is a non-existent term, but one that I personally believe captures the essence of what is being discussed (bear with me). Needless to say, the far-reaching effects of thoughts are not ones that should be taken lightly, to say the least. As humans, however, we have the ability to change our belief systems and thought patterns at any given time through the gift of free will (some might disagree with me on this), or for the more scientific folks, through neuroplasticity. As we alter our belief systems accordingly, we can come to alter our consciousness, and in some cases, create actual physical changes in the brain (think of meditation). This, in turn, can elevate our vibration and consequently further improve our physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. This act in it of itself will ultimately lead us to live more happy and fulfilled lives. In essence, from a purely scientific perspective, your life is what you make it, or rather what your brain makes it, quite literally.
Nevertheless, to better answer the conundrum of consciousness with perhaps some degree of success, we can turn to a relatively new and evolving interdisciplinary field, cognitive neuroscience. Cognitive neuroscience is a field within neuroscience that looks at things that underlie cognition, such as attention, memory, problem solving, decision making, language, and learning, in relation to their biological processes respectively. This fascinating and multifaceted field of science has been making many strides and research contributions as well as breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence (AI), fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) studies, neurofeedback (the ability of the brain to provide biofeedback to an individual by having that individual watch and respond to their own brainwaves in real time!), and many other areas I’m not mentioning. Moreover, cognitive neuroscience begins to open the door and allows us to quite possibly arrive at the answer to the age-old question of what is consciousness. Interestingly, consciousness is quite variable in that there are altered states of consciousness that exist, such as meditation, different stages of sleep (with their distinct brain wave types respectively-beta, alpha, delta, and theta), the effects of drugs (i.e. depressants, stimulants, opioids, opiates, and the more controversial ones, hallucinogens), and comatose states. In reference to the former example, a new interdisciplinary field within neuroscience known as contemplative neuroscience has begun to emerge. It refers to concepts that are geared towards the changes that occur within the mind, brain, and body, as a result of practices such as mindfulness-based meditation, tai chi, or yoga; all first-person experiences. Put simply, this field looks at the effects that meditation and its similar counterparts (yoga, tai-chi) have on the brain. Although a fairly new field in the scientific community, it looks to have some promising and practical implications. I haven’t read up too much on the field, but I am personally excited to see the kind of scientific breakthroughs that our most talented scientific minds come to discover.
Moreover, no matter how much we pry and investigate, consciousness is a concept that continues to elude and bewilder scientists, as well as the common layperson since the beginning of time. It is something that is hard to quantify and rather measure through empirical means despite our best efforts, and perhaps we may never come to truly understand consciousness in its entirety, but that won’t stop us from trying. Considering the scientific tools and technology that we have at our disposal, we still tend to remain perplexed by the mysterious but yet alluring idea that is consciousness. It is this esoteric nature of consciousness that makes it so intriguing for people to study and leaves us with an almost child-like curiosity and wonder about the world. We as humans, as cognizant beings, always have a desire to want to know more, especially when it comes to something that is almost magic-like in nature, consciousness. Perhaps sometime in the near future we may finally arrive at or create a technology powerful enough that will allow us to unlock the secrets of the mind, rather than them remaining a mere fantasy that is beyond the reaches of our imaginations. Until that time, however, we will continue to put our best efforts forward in our endless and relentless pursuit of understanding the most facinating creation in the entire universe, the human brain.