Consciousness has stimulated scholarly debate for centuries, and scientific investigation for over 150 years. At first, it all seems so simple: we all have it, it is just there, we take it for granted – what’s to think about?! Yet, theories for consciousness grapple not only with what it is, but also with where it may be located – and, so far, we know neither.
Self-awareness as consciousness
To traditional neuroscientists, hard mechanistic brain anatomy and physiology allow humans and other animals to sense and interact with their environment using, for example, decision making, behaviour and, in some species, language. Here, self-awareness is implied because without it, organisms would have no reference points between themselves and their surroundings. Knowing where the margins of the body meet the environment is essential: where a foot ends and the rock beneath it begins, or whether a hole is too small to enter.
Being self-aware is also necessary for organisms to avoid larger, more powerful individuals within social groups, for prey to recognise threats or for predators to know what size food items they can swallow. Accordingly, self-awareness is often used interchangeably with consciousness and may be the most obvious way to consider the issue.
If such functions are key to consciousness, then many, if not most, animals – and even bacteria – would beat humans at almost everything
Of course, these factors are somewhat elementary to evolved survival functions; although if such functions are key to consciousness, then many, if not most, animals – and even bacteria – would beat humans at almost everything. So, let’s skip human weaknesses and head straight to brain power where we stand a better chance of superiority – or not.
What about analytical thinking?
Analytical thinking is a human gold-standard indicator for consciousness. We know we are capable of analytical thinking and otherwise running mental monologues – literally talking to ourselves. This inner chatter arguably emphasises our self-awareness – comfortably befitting of Descartes’ 1637 proclamation: Cogito, ergo sum, “I think therefore I am”. So, initially, the conventional biomechanistic approach makes sense. But think about it!
What does the gold-standard analytical thinking approach to self-awareness really tell us about consciousness? With a little meditational practice, one can adopt complete ruminatory silence from words or images, while going about our daily activities with no lesser consciousness. For species (and people) not using language, analytical thinking may be more pictorial than lexical, but turning thought on or off is clearly distinct from consciousness. Indeed, without learned language, inner monologues as such could not exist, but this has no bearing on consciousness – consciousness is something else.
For species […] not using language, analytical thinking may be more pictorial than lexical, but turning thought on or off is clearly distinct from consciousness
The hard mechanistic interpretation follows the view that structurally complex, evolutionarily recent and typically large brains equal better – or exclusive – consciousness. That said, it is doubtful that neuroscience would argue that intelligence is related to consciousness, with low IQ people losing out?! However, textbook neuroanatomy and physiology are non-essential to brain function and consciousness. Some humans, through diseases such as hydrocephalus, have little to no remaining conventional brain structure, with their central nervous systems being limited to a thick intracranial membrane; regardless, they lead relatively normal lives and have careers: for example, one such affected individual worked as a civil servant. In short, we cannot be arrogant about brain complexity determining consciousness. Now, the hard mechanistic interpretation of consciousness becomes harder to sell!
Moving along, contrary to popular claims, the self-revered analytical thinking capacity of humans is actually woefully weak. For example, we would struggle to mentally control even our heart rate, let alone fully control cardiorespiratory moderation, motor functions, sensory modulation, speech, gastrointestinal transit, temperature regulation, vascular state and many, many other factors. In fact, running this bio-show all at once requires a processing capacity around one million times more powerful than we can think. Coordinating the body is quite simply beyond conscious control. In other words, if we had to actively think to stay alive, we wouldn’t make it to birth. Instead, our subconscious minds take care of all that, and animals’ minds do the same jobs just as well or better – unlike other species we only have one heart and two legs to coordinate. What our analytical thinking has to do is actually very limited, and the bio-show is managed with equal ease across species boundaries.
Consciousness does not even seem to need our mental input – it is just ‘there’ and potentially as present in all species
Moreover, it seems that there is nowhere in the brain for consciousness to reside. That conundrum fits with the cerebral anomalies defying how brains should work, and that consciousness does not even seem to need our mental input – it is just “there” and potentially as present in all species. We have nothing to counter that presumption.
Is consciousness all in the mind, or is the mind all in consciousness?
A more esoteric idea is that consciousness may exist as a non-local (ie outside of the body) phenomenon that manifests internally (or at least is perceived to) as a result of a neuroanatomical and neurophysiological bridge from the quantum field, or consciousness channelled into the individual. This means that the truth may be “out there” and not “in here”! The “orchestrated objective reduction” or “Orch OR” concept is one of several suggesting that a consciousness-based universe is entangled with living things, possibly via microtubules (protein strands) within the neurons or other structures of living cells.
Too easy?! A way of thinking about this might be to imagine an old telephone exchange – instead of a brain or other collection of body cells – with its frantic switching activity. All the action appears to be in the exchange station, but all the true conscious input originates from those making the external telephone calls. If true, this “non-local” perspective has great potential importance as a consciousness-leveller, not just for all animals, but also for plants. Indeed, if these ideas are even partly correct, then a new understanding of consciousness may be a no-brainer! For many, this notion will be bizarre and nonsensical, but then by its nature so too is much of quantum theory. However, numerous experiments have demonstrated a strong relationship between the quantum world and the paradigm of consciousness – so an “open mind” is worth having.
[The] “non-local” perspective has great potential importance as a consciousness-leveller, not just for all animals, but also for plants […] if these ideas are even partly correct, then a new understanding of consciousness may be a no-brainer!
Understanding consciousness is important to non-human animals under our care, because often people and laws judge welfare and ethics on the presumed hard mechanistic basis that when it comes to “self-awareness”, we have more of it and “lower” species have less of it – despite not even knowing what “it” is! Simply, whether using traditional or esoteric concepts of biology, the idea that consciousness and self-awareness are the domain of a few – or one – privileged species is difficult to sustain. Moreover, if the living cell and not the brain is the conduit of consciousness, then arguably either all organisms are conscious or none are – and the answer cannot be none.