Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind

By Annaka Harris

Chapter 1: A Mystery Hiding in Plain Sight

  • Consciousness is experience itself.
  • Why would any collection of matter in the universe be conscious?
  • The most basic definition of consciousness is given by Thomas Nagel.
  • Consciousness: an organism is conscious if there is something that it is like to be that organism.
  • Is there like something to be you in this moment? Is there like something to be a rock?
  • It’s the difference between whether there’s an experienced present or not.
  • At some point in the development of a baby’s brain, your intuition tells you that the baby now has an experience, the mystery lies in the transition.
  • The moment matter becomes conscious is as mysterious as the moment matter and energy were created.
  • Why do certain configurations of matter cause it to light up with awareness?

Chapter 2: Intuitions and Illusions

  • Our intuitions can be helpful but deceiving.
  • E.g. Some of our intuitions don’t match science and statistics.
  • Intuition: a powerful sense that something is true without our awareness or understanding.
  • Two questions that appear deceptively simple
    • In a system that we know has conscious experience, what evidence of consciousness can we detect from the outside?
    • Is consciousness essential to our behavior?
  • Let’s consider that it’s possible for conscious experience to exist without an outward expression of it in the brain; cases of a conscious mind lacking a mode of expression.
  • E.g. Locked-in syndrome and anesthesia awareness.
  • But it could also be the case that we lack the tools necessary to detect that expression from the outside.
  • We normally determine whether an organism is conscious or not by examining their behavior.
  • E.g. People are conscious but plants aren’t conscious.
  • We assume that consciousness doesn’t exist in the absence of a brain or central nervous system, but what evidence or behavior can we observe to support this claim?
  • Some behaviors of people and plants are so alike that this challenges our belief of using behavior as evidence of consciousness.
  • However, these behaviors may also be confounded by the processes required to support life and evolution.
  • We can explore our intuitions about behavior and consciousness by instead asking “Does a system need consciousness to exhibit certain behaviors?”
  • It seems that both conscious and nonconscious states are both compatible with any behavior, so a behavior itself doesn’t necessarily signal the presence of consciousness.

Chapter 3: Is Consciousness Free?

  • As we’re conscious, we experience a continuous stream of present-moment events and yet, we actually become conscious of physical events slightly after they’ve occurred.
  • Visual, auditory, and other sensory information moves through the world at different rates.
  • E.g. The light and sound of a gun shot don’t arrive at your eyes and ears simultaneously, and yet both are experienced simultaneously.
  • The brain hides the difference in sensory signal arrival times.
  • To synchronize the incoming information from the senses, the cost is that our conscious awareness lags behind reality.
  • Our intuition that consciousness is behind certain behaviors is informed by our experience of freely making choices in the world.
  • Consciousness isn’t necessarily controlling the system, but we know that consciousness is experiencing the system.
  • It seems clear that we can’t decide what to think or feel any more than we can decide what to see or hear.

Chapter 4: Along for the Ride

  • No notes on behavioral changes caused by parasites and bacterial infections.
  • These examples show how blind we are to the complex array of forces influencing and controlling the behaviors around us.
  • It seems that consciousness is along for the ride, watching the show rather than creating or controlling it.
  • An interesting exception is when we think about consciousness.
  • Consciousness plays a role in behavior when we think and talk about the mystery of consciousness.
  • It doesn’t make sense for an unconscious entity (or philosophical zombie) to contemplate conscious experience without having it in the first place.
  • Without having experienced consciousness, there’s no difference that a unconscious entity could be referring to because it doesn’t know and can’t know.
  • It seems impossible for a system to make a distinction between a conscious and unconscious experience without having an actual conscious experience as a reference point.
  • Presumably, the brain can only think about consciousness after experiencing it.

Chapter 5: Who Are We?

  • The conscious self is the subject of everything we experience.
  • All that we’re aware of happens to or around this self in what feels like a unified experience.
  • That experience appears simultaneous because of binding processes.
  • There’s binding across space and time.
  • E.g. Binding color to objects or sounds to movements.
  • Imagine if binding didn’t take place at all.
  • E.g. Hearing your voice after your mouth moved.
  • Without binding processes, you might not even feel yourself to be a self at all.
  • Consciousness would be more like a flow of disconnected experiences.
  • The self we seem to inhabit, localized in space and time, unchanging, a solid center of consciousness, is an illusion that can be short-circuited with meditation, disorders, and drugs.
  • We assume that consciousness and the sense of self are the same, but it’s clear that they’re different.
  • E.g. A person can experience the world but also experience their sense of self dissolving and floating in space.
  • Since the bodily self can be tampered with using psychedelic drugs, stroke, or a neurological disorder, then it follows that the bodily self isn’t special and no soul exists.
  • When Thomas Nagel asks us to imagine what it’s like to be a bat, he’s pointing out that we already know there are modes of consciousness vastly different from our own.
  • Umwelt: the experience a particular animal has based on the senses and muscles used by that organism to navigate its environment.

Chapter 6: Is Consciousness Everywhere?

  • Panpsychism: the view that all matter is imbued with consciousness.
  • E.g. Consciousness is embedded in the reaction of plants to light, the spin of electrons, or black holes.
  • One modern panpsychism proposal is that consciousness is intrinsic to all forms of information processing.
  • The author argues that the simplest explanation of consciousness is a panpsychism one, but I don’t agree that the simplest is the most accurate or useful explanation.
  • Consciousness can’t be an illusion because an illusion can only appear within consciousness. You are either experiencing something or you’re not.
  • It’s hard for us to drop the intuition that consciousness equals complex thought.

Chapter 7: Beyond Panpsychism

  • Imagine being a brain without any sense organs connected.
  • Then imagine your senses being connected one at a time.
  • E.g. First vision, then sound, then touch.
  • We’re trying to imagine a simple flow of first experiences and we realize that something like this is possible.
  • An experience of consciousness doesn’t need to be accompanied by thoughts.
  • It seems possible to be aware of one’s subjective experience in the absence of thoughts, sights, sounds, or any other perception.
  • Would two brains wired together produce a new integrated mind? This is analogous to the corpus callosum for the two brain hemispheres but for two entire brains instead.
  • Is it possible that alongside the conscious experience of “me”, there’s a much dimmer experience of each individual neuron, or a collection of neurons?

Chapter 8: Consciousness and Time

  • Review of time ideas from Dean Buonomano’s book “Your Brain Is a Time Machine”.