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What Does Being Conscious Mean To You?

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It has been studied and argued over for decades, centuries actually. In recent years, the topic has become more acceptable to discuss openly and in public and has been more widely talked about than ever before. Consciousness – what does it mean to be “conscious” and how much are we actually conscious of?

It seems that if you were to ask 100 people of what being conscious means to them, you’d get 100 different answers. It is a very deep question, and since each person has evolved differently to their current stage or level of consciousness, the definition of what it is to be conscious, naturally, will be different. I find this topic to be absolutely fascinating! Personally, I believe that the answer to this question is so personal – and not so mysterious - because it is so intertwined with, and can very easily and eventually lead to the question of one’s own faith, or lack thereof, in the Creator, God.

You see, by definition, consciousness is the state of being awake and aware of one's surroundings. The awareness or perception of something by a person. The fact of awareness by the mind of itself and the world. I find the last two definitions very interesting because although this is the definition of consciousness, the “something” and “itself and the world” can have their own meaning depending on how each person views themselves and the world – both their own world and the entire world. Other definitions include; spirit animating matter, special awareness or sensitivity, a sense of one's personal or collective identity, including the attitudes, beliefs, and opinions held by or considered characteristic of an individual or group

The 17th-century French philosopher René Descartes proposed the notion of "cogito ergo sum" ("I think, therefore I am"), the idea that the mere act of thinking about one's existence proves there is someone there to do the thinking.

The conscious mind controls our brain only 5% of the time, whereas the subconscious mind has a hold of our thoughts 95% of the time!

Descartes also believed the mind was separate from the material body — a concept known as mind-body duality — and that these realms interact in the brain's pineal gland. Scientists now reject the latter idea, but some thinkers still support the notion that the mind is somehow removed from the physical world.

Human Consciousness

Scientists Theory of Consciousness

Correlates of consciousness

In the last few decades, neuroscientists have begun to better understand consciousness from an evidence-based perspective.

Researchers recently discovered a part of the brain that acts as a kind of on-off switch for the brain. When they electrically stimulated this region, called the claustrum, the patient became unconscious instantly. In fact, Koch and Francis Crick, the molecular biologist who famously helped discover the double-helix structure of DNA, had previously hypothesized that this region might integrate information across different parts of the brain.

But looking for neural or behavioral connections to consciousness isn't enough, Koch said. For example, such connections don't explain why the cerebellum, the part of the brain at the back of the skull that coordinates muscle activity, doesn't give rise to consciousness, while the cerebral cortex (the brain's outermost layer) does. This is the case even though the cerebellum contains more neurons than the cerebral cortex. Nor do these studies explain how to tell whether consciousness is present, such as in brain-damaged patients, other animals or even computers.

Neuroscience needs a theory of consciousness that explains what the phenomenon is and what kinds of entities possess it, Koch said. Currently, only two theories exist that the neuroscience community takes seriously, he said.

Integrated information

Neuroscientist Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin-Madison developed one of the most promising theories for consciousness, known as integrated information theory.

Understanding how the material brain produces subjective experiences, such as the color green or the sound of ocean waves, is what Australian philosopher David Chalmers calls the "hard problem" of consciousness. Traditionally, scientists have tried to solve this problem with a bottom-up approach. As Koch put it, "You take a piece of the brain and try to press the juice of consciousness out of it." But this is almost impossible, he said.  

In contrast, integrated information theory starts with consciousness itself, and tries to work backward to understand the physical processes that give rise to the phenomenon, said Koch, who has worked with Tononi on the theory.

The basic idea is that conscious experience represents the integration of a wide variety of information and that this experience is irreducible. This means that when you open your eyes, you can't simply choose to see everything in black and white or to see only the left side of your field of view.

Instead, your brain seamlessly weaves together a complex web of information from sensory systems and cognitive processes. Several studies have shown that you can measure the extent of integration using brain stimulation and recording techniques.

An interesting corollary of integrated information theory is that no computer simulation, no matter how faithfully it replicates a human mind, could ever become conscious. Koch put it this way: "You can simulate weather in a computer, but it will never be 'wet.'"

Global workspace

Another promising theory suggests that consciousness works a bit like computer memory, which can call up and retain an experience even after it has passed.

Bernard Baars, a neuroscientist at the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, California, developed the theory, which is known as the global workspace theory. This idea is based on an old concept from artificial intelligence called the blackboard, a memory bank that different computer programs could access.

Anything from the appearance of a person's face to a memory of childhood can be loaded into the brain's blackboard, where it can be sent to other brain areas that will process it.  According to Baars' theory, the act of broadcasting information around the brain from this memory bank is what represents consciousness.

The global workspace theory and integrated information theories are not mutually exclusive, Koch said. The first tries to explain in practical terms whether something is conscious or not, while the latter seeks to explain how consciousness works more broadly. "At this point, both could be true," Koch said.

Brain Consciousness

The need to prove or disprove everything or anything with modern science takes away the faith necessary to imagine such a mystery and to decide what you may believe in without a popular theory being widely accepted.

On our journey towards expanding consciousness and spiritual growth, we will reach certain milestones that alert us to the fact that our consciousness has been elevated. Reaching higher levels of consciousness will result in greater feelings of peace, happiness, and well-being. Expanding your consciousness cannot be forced, it occurs naturally as a result of living life. Life experience itself provides the catalyst for consciousness to expand to greater and greater levels, should you choose. Choose wisely!

Stay blessed.


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