By James Wadman
Consciousness is the vital component of human existence. If one day the lights went out in the force that provides us with consciousness, we would cease to be human. What gives us meaning, what makes us human, happy, and fulfilled has been a question shared in fields of neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy for as long as we have existed? Why then do we still not technically know what consciousness is?
What we know so far is that consciousness is the consolidation of sensory inputs and the processing of those inputs by a framework of stored experience. When broken down into its basic elements, the tasks that consciousness achieves are quite straightforward. In the simplest of terms, consciousness is how we subjectively observe the universe and our place in it. Consciousness requires an awareness and control of “self,” which is an innate property for survival, but its utility progresses to an understanding that the “self” can be distinguished from “other.” Consciousness must be contrasted in this discussion with sentience, which by definition is the ability to feel. Further discussion on the levels of sentience will come at a later time, but for now we will regard basic sentience as the ability to perceive and feel.
The question that remains here is whether it is the biological mechanisms that provide a structural backbone for consciousness to exist or consciousness is in itself a biological, survival mechanism itself. The former suggests that consciousness is static over the span of one’s life and processes such as synaptic pruning, memory consolidation, localized and/or epigenetic gene expression, and other biological modifications the brain might undergo can enhance how we use consciousness. This is to say that a baby can only use self-awareness because a newborn will not yet have experience with which to distinguish “self” from “other,” and until that baby has learned from observation, the tools provided by consciousness will not be fully available. By this model, consciousness is innate but how we use it can change, and if we search hard enough we might just stumble upon the center of human sentience.
The second model is that consciousness exists because our brains create it. While one can argue in the first model that animals can possess consciousness just not the means for high-order thought because of their biological framework, the second model states that if an animal does not have the correct biological framework, consciousness does not exist at all. In this model, it is possible for consciousness to be capable of plasticity just like the brain. Consciousness can be a learned trait of intelligent animals and can be accessed through years of evolution. Moreover, this model suggests that consciousness is nothing more than our original definition: the consolidation of sensory inputs and the processing of those inputs by a framework of stored experience. Interestingly enough, this simplified definition actually demonstrates why it might be so difficult to pinpoint consciousness in an experimental setting. Searching for consciousness as its own entity or force in the human brain might be impossible if it is not just one “thing.” Consciousness therefore would not exist in a localized region of the brain. Instead, consciousness would be the sum of our brain’s biological components in coordination with our capacity for high order thought.
So here we have seen an Innate Consciousness Model and the Biomechanical Consciousness Model. The key distinctions are innate vs plastic and localized vs delocalized. It is difficult to prove either theory for consciousness, of course, but it is important to search for evidence where ever it is apparent, so let’s turn to one of my favorite subjects for evidence on consciousness: dreams.
Sleep creates an anomaly of human existence. Non-REM stages of sleep are those deep levels of sleep that you achieve in the late night that are mostly forgotten or unobserved. There is a distinction here worth mentioning. If NREM sleep is unobserved, we are not sentient and we are unconscious during this time. If we take the belief that NREM stages of sleep are forgotten, then they are observed and instantaneously processed but the memories are not consolidated into information that can be accessed later. We can take control of the brain’s ability to perceive but not store in things like brain surgery, where it is necessary to track patient response to make the right cut and avoid permanent damage. This is accomplished by anesthesia, but the brain might do a similar task naturally when the lights go out and deep sleep is reached. If we look at our definitions, it would be logical to presume that this suggests basic sentience without consciousness.
In either model, there are stages of sleep that consciousness is not accessed. If consciousness is silenced here it should be easily found by seeing what turns off, right? Unfortunately it is not that simple. There is no evidence that consciousness is actually silenced, or even if it is something that can be turned off and on at all. Therefore, while speculation can be made as to what biological systems are integrated with consciousness by observing the activity of brain regions during sleep, we cannot use this information to distinguish between the aforementioned models of consciousness.
Dream states, which occur throughout sleep but are believed to be most prominently memorable during REM stages, can involve consciousness awareness, known as a lucid dream. More often than this, however, we have the masses of other dreams of which we forget most, we do not control, and can hardly even comprehend. I categorize my dreams in three stages ranging from lucid (full control), to vivid (first person, not in control), to non-vivid (ambiguous perspective, not in control). The question I am positing through these distinctions is whether or not there is a difference in biology or consciousness during these different dreams. Is there a reason why some dreams are in third person and others are in first person? A lucid dream demonstrates full consciousness with biological limits, such as deprived decision-making, sensory input, and motor control. A vivid dream state demonstrates awareness seemingly without complete conscious processing (that is one can experience the awareness and existence of “self”, without the control of “self”). The non-vivid dreams really don’t demonstrate any traces of consciousness but somehow activate the memory system to imprint variations of stored information as manifestations of experiences. When I condense this information into a single, valid idea it is just to say that biological processing and consciousness need not be considered as one thing. Dreams provide a clear representation of experiencing events at different levels of consciousness.
There is an eternity of information left to discuss in these topics and just as much evidence that might stand to refute the points that I suggest here. I hope that my perspective on these topics will change, because that means that convincing evidence will take the place of speculation. It is the objective of every scientist not to confirm one’s beliefs but to see the truth revealed. I look forward to hearing your opinions on this piece and to continue the discussion on sleep, sentience, and consciousness – some of the most dauntingly fascinating topics in the universe.