The great question of conscience – June 8th, 2021 – Luciano Melo

The definition is not perfect, but we can try: Consciousness is the ability to experience the world. It happens here and now for you to read this text. As your eyes move over the signs, you become aware of the letters, words, phrases and meanings in your own way. An internal voice dictates the sentences written here. This is the voice that also gives the semantics of your reflections, the semantics of your consciousness. But there is no right tone. This voice is brain creation, noiseless hearing is a hallucination by definition.

It doesn’t matter either because the voice is clear. In fact, the entire experience of consciousness is alive, rich in features that lead us to believe that we are absolutely right about something, even if it is contradicting itself. And many sense that consciousness arises in us, as if something hidden confirms our impressions and conclusions.

This concept is perhaps an echo of a centuries-old idea carefully perfected by the French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650). He argued that a rational soul would bring out our sanity and the sophistication of human behavior. This essential substance would come into contact with the body through the pineal gland. For the thinker, the brain would be an organ that only serves to promote instinctual reflexes.

Many of the attempts to explain consciousness still clash with Descartes’ dualistic conception of body and soul, physical and immaterial. Because they ensure that something in the brain matter rises to a non-physical sensation. From a dualistic point of view, the brain can be studied, but the immaterial cannot. In addition, awareness is not the content itself, but the subjective perception of the content. It is not tangible to understand individual ideas of the beautiful and the tragic and not even to know exactly how each of us perceives events.

So science cannot measure the experience of consciousness. But at least it is possible to understand brain events that correlate with human declarations of consciousness. Although we are aware that many of the dimensions of consciousness are intangible to our understanding, we can understand it as the product of a physical process that is mechanized by our brain, by our body.

We attest to this by simple observations. People with extremely severe brain damage lose the ability to perceive their surroundings and themselves. Others who have suffered a cervical spine injury will no longer be aware of what is happening in certain parts of their body.

However, not all healthy people are aware of all parts of their body. For example, we are unable to perceive the contraction of each of our muscles that are involved in performing a complex movement. We also do not identify all the details of the scene in which we are inserted. In other words, we don’t know everything, but we do. With this observation we can better understand consciousness and its essentially biological aspect.

Note that we only need some information to go around the world safely. Our attention selects the data necessary for our interactions with the environment and despises others by constantly updating our perceptions.

Attention watches our body, space and mental activity and values ​​some elements to shape our conception of reality. At the same time, without this mold, it would be impossible to draw attention efficiently. In this way our model of reality would collapse and our behavior would also collapse. Therefore, the construction of a reality model is based on, but becomes dependent on, attention. Our subjective world experience, i.e. our consciousness, is the instrument that voluntarily controls our attention and thus what we recognize within and outside of us.

It is important to understand the mechanisms of consciousness. It can provide the key to unraveling the genesis of delusions, situations in which perception and interpretation are disaggregated. As well as recognizing the neural basis for the existence of self-destructive thoughts in depressed people whose consciousness is fixated on negative aspects of life.

We can even understand how misinformation creates incoherent arguments and still establishes solid beliefs.

References:

Finger, S. Descartes, and the Pineal Gland in Animals: A Common Misinterpretation. J. Hist. Neurosci. 1995, 4 (3-4), 166-182. https://doi.org/10.1080/09647049509525637.

Graziano, MSA Understanding Awareness. Brain 2021, 144 (5), 1281-1283. https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awab046.

Koch, C. What is Consciousness? Nature 2018, 557 (7704), S8-S12. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-05097-x.

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