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You are awake and aware – a conscious human being. You know you are able to feel love and trust as well as hate and fear. You understand that the only moment that exists is now, still, you can travel in time inside your head; dream about the future and remember the past. You understand that as your thoughts create your world it must look slightly different from mine. Yet, you understand that if you share your experiences with me, I will likely understand and in some cases can relate. You understand all this because of your consciousness. 

But how the brain creates consciousness? And most importantly why? Why do we need to understand another human being or create mental images that may never come true? This post will reveal some theories of the important role of consciousness.

Table of contents:
  • Consciousness – what is it really?
  • The Altered States of Consciousness – Dreams and mystical states… is there a normal state of consciousness?
  • Neural basis of consciousness – Default Mode Network and the Brainstem
  • Consciousness -> behavior link (or the lack of it)
  • What’s the purpose of consciousness? Mental rehearsal, imagination, social connection and transcendence
  • Summary

 

 

 

 

“How can a three-pound mass of jelly (your brain) imagine angels, contemplate the meaning of infinity, and even question its own place in the cosmos?

Your brain is made up of atoms that were forged in the stars billions of years ago and drifted for light-years until gravity and change brought them together here, now. They now form your brain which can not only ponder the very stars that gave it birth but can also think about its own ability to think and wonder about its own ability to wonder. With the arrival of humans, it has been said, the universe has suddenly become conscious of itself. This, truly, it the greatest mystery of all.”

– V.S. Ramachandran in The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human

 

Why is the idea of your consciousness so captivating?

 

Consciousness is being aware and awake. It’s the voice in your head reading this text. It’s the beautiful experience of warmth and wakefulness when you get the first sip of your morning coffee. It’s the realization of gratefulness when you spend time with your family and your awe when you see a beautiful sunset. It’s that sense of unity and social bonding when you dance with your friends. It’s your understanding that these emotions and feelings are all inside you – an intelligent human being. It’s the knowing that the words you are speaking inside your head right now are written by another human being (Hi there!) who also have similar, yet different, conscious experiences. Consciousness makes you understand that the world keeps evolving even when you are not around anymore and that your grandchildren in your age, will experience a very different world than you are experiencing right now. Consciousness helps you to realize that life is a transitory and therefore, you better make every day count.

Scientifically, consciousness can be determined with two factors: (1) the level of nervous system arousal (wakefulness) and (2) the levels of mental alertness. Thus, you need to be both physically awake (i.e. not sleeping) and aware (thus not delusional or having e.g. senile dementia).
Both of these criteria (wakefulness and awareness) have a neural equivalent; wakefulness is linked to the brainstem function and awareness is linked with the activity in the cortico-thalamic network. (S)

 

 

Altered (or alternative) states of consciousness – is any of them really normal?

So if being awake and aware is being consciouswhat if we are not? Altered State of Consciousness (ACS) or non-ordinary awareness are states of mind that are significantly different from a “normal” conscious waking state (the one that you have right now). Altered states include for example dreaming, Peak Experience, meditative states, coma, Mystical Experiences, Flow, hypnosis, and so on. Sometimes they are referred to as alternative states instead of altered states because using the word altered would imply that there indeed is a normal state of consciousness… But this is debatable; dreaming is not at all anything “strange” or “paranormal”, rather it’s just a different end in the alertness/arousal dimension. We spend third of our lives sleeping, so it might be extraordinary to say that it is not a normal state of consciousness; however, it very different from the waking state right now. Also, these states cannot be categorized well. For example, it is very hard to say when a person enters a meditative state because the transition happens through phases and different “levels” of awareness and alertness.

 

That is why it is proposed that consciousness changes in dimensions rather than categories; that the levels of consciousness (LOC) is transitory and variable. (S)

 

 

Neural basis of consciousness – Default Mode Network and the Brainstem

Scientist after another has tried to locate the consciousness in the brain. In other words, there is a search for specific brain areas linked to conscious experiences. It’s a tough ambition because no one really knows what consciousness is (I am not going into that debate in this post, because I don’t know either…).

However, there are neural correlates that links to wakefulness and awareness and thus linked to different levels of consciousness (S)

 

Default Mode Network:
is a brain network that is active when we are not focusing on some specific task; when we are just “being” and our minds are wandering. We use this network to plan, make decisions, imagine the future and remember the past, which requires conscious thought. It has been shown that this circuitry is decreased in activity when people are less conscious (so for example in a coma or in a vegetative state). This is basically what mental alertness is (the wakefulness, as stated in the LOC dimensions). (S)

 

Brainstem:
The arousal dimension in the conscious thought is linked to brainstem activity (S). Brainstem regulates the wakeful state; our temperature, sleep and wake-cycle, breathing, and heart function. In recent research of Harvard Medical school, this was studied with 36 patients with brainstem lesions, 12 of whom were in a coma. The researchers noticed that majority of the coma patients (but not those who were conscious) had a lesion in a specific part of the brainstem (dorsolateral pontine tegmentum). They concluded that this part plays an important role in human consciousness. They also noticed that two brain areas that are linked to mental alertness and physical arousal had strong connections to this specific area in the brainstem. (S) The previously mentioned study also found the same link between the default mode network and brainstem in determining consciousness. (S)

 

 

Consciousness is not (necessarily) guiding our behavior in the present moment

If you make a decision to check your Social Media, is it a conscious act? In other words, do you use your consciousness to creat and execute planned behaviors in each moment? Surprisingly (and a bit freakishly), often no. 

Early theories believed that we have consciousness so that we would be able to behave and act as we desire. However, often conscious behavior is just an illusion. Each moment, we are all suspect to subliminal priming, which means that our actions are constantly influenced (and sometimes completely caused by) environmental signals like other people, commercials, adverts, messages, sounds and so on. Thus, instead of conscious thought, we might act unconsciously according to a signal we see in our environment. A psychologist Daniel M. Wegner has conducted a series of experiments demonstrating how people are easily manipulated to act in a specific way with environmental cues meanwhile they think they are completely in charge of their actions. This is called the Theory of Apparent Mental Causation (S). For example, In one study, people were divided into two groups: the participants in the first group were primed with words related to rude behavior or and participants in the other groups were primed with words related to respectful behavior. After the priming, participants had to walk to another room to hand a paper to a researcher, who was found to be chatting with another person. The two groups (rudeness-primed and polite-primed) were significantly different in how politely they acted in this situation. Those, who were primed with rudeness-related words interrupted the conversation more often and faster than those primed with respectful words, who were often happy to wait until the conversation was over before handing the paper to the researcher (S). These kinds of basic tricks are often used in marketing – we get the illusion that we decided what ended up in our shopping baskets but in reality, we were intelligently primed to spend our money in a certain way.

In conclusion, according to research, choosing our “on-line” behavior is not the job for our conscious thought.

 

 

Consciousness helps us mentally practice and create our dream future

Like the previous example demonstrated, it has been widely accepted that causing behavior (in the moment) is not the primary purpose of the conscious thought. This leaves us with the questions why do we have conscious thought? Why can I dream, plan, act, dream and remember? Psychologists have pondered with these questions for decades and found several different benefits that our consciousness allows us to do. One interesting finding is that consciousness is very important for “off-line” thinking; thus, mentally rehearsing behaviors, emotions, and social relationships, when they are not happening. Using conscious thinking as a means to practice, we are more likely to fulfill our dreams, have better social relationships and we can uplift our mental and physical performance in the next level. (S) To do this, we need to use our imagination and creativity. Having consciousness actually allows us to imagine the future and past, transcend time and place, dream, create and understand other people’s minds. Being conscious facilitates us in goal-oriented actions, judgments, and decisions and allows us to pursue purpose and meaning in life.

 

 

Roles of consciousness
(1) Mental Simulation

Being able to think about things that are not happening at the moment allows us to practice things in our imagination. For example, practicing sports performance or playing an instrument increases performance while we are later doing this action in real life. This is because visualization (mental practice) has shown to activate the same neural networks in the brain that activates when we are performing the act. This is also called ideomotor training. For example in sports, ideomotor training will increase the accuracy and sustained focus in the actual performance (S) (S). Another form of mental performance is emotional training. For example, imagining expressing compassion towards other people activates the neural networks linked to social-emotional processing and can make us socially more proactive. (S) (S) Thus, physical and emotional mental rehearsal, which is made possible by conscious thought, prepares us to perform better in important life situations later on. What we practice in our minds, we are able to imitate in our physical actions. “Where focus goes, the energy flows”. This acts as a powerful tool in shaping our future behaviors and skills in the direction that we wish to take them.

 

 

Roles of consicousness
(2)
Mental transcendence

Consciousness lets us travel in time, space and identity. Only with using our conscious thoughts are we able to understand what happened yesterday, last month or last year and how does this all relate to what is happening now or in the future. Consciousness allows us to anticipate, and dream our life. These processes (dreaming, imagination and mental time traveling) are driven by the Default Mode Network in the brain – the very same network that contributes to creative intelligence. (S)

 

 

Roles of consciousness
(3)
Perspective taking

Consciousness doesn’t only allow us to understand ourselves and practice and anticipate our own life. Consciousness also plays an important role in understanding other people and our similarities, differences, and unity. For example, consciousness helps us to understand the Theory of Mind (ToM); that other people have their own intentions, beliefs, perceptions, and actions that are different from ours (S). At the same time, consciousness is the means to understand what we share; that fundamentally all humans are similar, with the same basic needs, similar emotions and shared experiences. Conscious thought helps us to reason that we are all made our of similar physical and biological particles and that we all communicate in the same space and time. It helps us to understand that we all have similar emotions, which varies in intensity, duration, and frequency depending on the individual. Consciousness helps us to understand and relate to other people’s sufferings and joys. Consciousness allows us to understand that all the time all humans live in the same time of history, in the same society, that is influenced by the same shared beliefs, ideas, and moral rules, which are partially transitory. And that we are all biased by our own memories, primes, and experiences.

 

Heightened consciousness

An interesting notion is that it seems that consciousness can be expanded and heightened. This allows us to transit into states, where we have less egocentric consciousness and we feel more unity, more shared consciousness with other people, which allows us to gain deeper meaning and purpose in life. These states are thought to play part in the healthy human psyche (see the post about Peak Experiences)

 

 

Summary

Consciousness is being aware and currently determined by (1) the level of nervous system arousal and (2) the levels of mental alertness. Though it is hard to say what counts as a “normal” state of consciousness, we can pinpoint certain states of consciousness that we have less frequently, such as Peak Experiences, Mystical Experiences, REM sleep, Deep Sleep or Meditation; they are currently referred as Altered State of Consciousness (ACS). To have consciousness means that we can mentally practice our lives; we can use conscious thoughts to increase physical performance, emotional processing, social relationships, and health. We can understand the existence of different places on the planet, acknowledge different times of history, and understand other humans. It helps us to elevate our mind into transcendental states and find deeper meaning and purpose in life. Consciousness may not determine our behavior on the spot, but it offers us an important tool to practice our lives, reshape our thinking patterns and evolve mentally and physically during our lifespan.

 

This was the flow of the post:

  • Consciousness 
    • Levels of Consciousness (LOC)
  • Altered Consciousness
    • Altered States of Consciousness (ASC)
  • Neural basis of consciousness 
    • Default Mode Network
    • Brainstem
  • Consciousness -> behavior link 
    • Unconscious influences of behavior
    • Consciousness doesn’t cause behaviors on the spot
  • Why we have consciousness?
    • Mental simulation / practice
    • Mental transcendence
    • Perspective taking
  • Summary

 

I hope you enjoyed reading this post about consciousness. Please share your thoughts 🙂

 

 

References:

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