Thoughts on Consciousness

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Consciousness is perhaps the most mysterious thing that we know exists. It has only been recently that I have come up with a model that seems coherent, to some degree, with what consciousness might be. I believe that the implications of a better understanding of consciousness are fascinating and I hope to, over time, elaborate on these initial thoughts. This may be the first post I have done where going into it, I felt like I was going to basically publish a “rough draft” of an idea. So please feel free to leave your thoughts as I try to further my understanding of consciousness on a deeper level than I ever have. Let me begin.

Consciousness is a very difficult topic to discuss in a way that makes any clear sense to someone who hasn’t thought in much depth about it before and it has only been recently that I feel I have a framework that is presentable to others.

As I view it, we have to look at what we know, or what we think we know about the mind. Our brains are some of the most complex and miraculous outcomes of the natural order that I can think of. Primarily functional to survival and in many ways can be simply described as an efficient data processing apparatus. We know that as our brains function in a certain way, consciousness seems to arise. This consciousness is very much, simply an awareness. And it can be argued that this awareness isn’t based upon the senses. For instance, we do not need to see to be conscious. We also don’t need to hear to be conscious. And our minds don’t have to stretch too far to see that we don’t need to smell, taste, or touch to be conscious either. I am newly aware of a discussion on this topic where people are arguing whether there is such a thing as “pure consciousness”. I have not read one word on these arguments or what they even are so I will not comment on that in this post, but I do know that it exists and my intuitions lead me to believe that I may be barking up that tree right now. I digress.

So in my mind, it is relatively easy to accept that we do not need our primary senses to be conscious. What we see, however, is that these primary senses have an effect on consciousness rather than being consciousness. This brings me closer to my framework on what consciousness is there is one last thing I would like to look at first.

Thoughts. Are thoughts consciousness? Per my logic and understanding, asking the question almost shows that the answer is no. It seems to just sound ridiculous. Introspection, probably most efficiently seen by means of meditation, tends to show that thoughts arise in consciousness rather than thoughts being consciousness. Taking what I have said above one step further, it seems we don’t need thought, in principle, to be conscious.

Now this is the most that I am willing to take away at this point, so now I will move on to the picture that I feel this paints for what consciousness is.

What we can see here is that consciousness seems to be more malleable than a constant or rigid “something”. I like to describe consciousness through the analogy of a pond. Imagine this pond is still. It simply is and exists. Imagine there are no waves or anything. Now imagine you drop a pebble into this pond. There will be a ripple effect. The pebble itself, however, isn’t consciousness, but the pebble has an effect on consciousness. So think of this pebble as a thought, or a sensation. Maybe the feeling of pressure on your back, maybe the sound of a bird. All of these things arise in consciousness, and because of this, they change consciousness in some way.

Now, as conscious, fully functioning people, life does not present us with one pebble at a time, so I think a more accurate view of life and it’s affect on consciousness is to imagine an absolute torrential downpour of rain on this pond. Imagine wind as well, along with any other natural forces on the water. This is the nature of experience arising in and affecting consciousness.

It is worth recognizing that we are all different. We have different strengths, weaknesses, interests, etc. And we all react to stimuli differently. I would claim, and it shouldn’t be hard to buy into, that consciousness is highly correlated to our brain. That is, your consciousness does not exist beyond your brain. I cannot be consciously aware of the thoughts in my wife’s mind as they arise. To use a mathematical term, consciousness and the brain are one-to-one and onto. So what does this do to our pond? It shapes the pond. No pond looks the same. It can experience very similar stimuli, but due to the contours of the pond, or the natural function of one’s brain (to draw the connection I am trying to make), we will interpret, react, or behave differently to similar stimuli, even if only slightly.

Now there is so much more to touch on but I will leave it here for now. I think that there are many implications of understanding reality as we look at consciousness in more depth. I soon hope to write about how the introspection of consciousness leads you to find that there is no self, no ego that we call “I” residing in our heads, acting as the experiencer. But I will also want to use this and my discussions with others, as a foundation to continue to talk about what we can think or say about consciousness. More to come.

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6 thoughts on “Thoughts on Consciousness

  1. Consciousness cannot exist without thought and vice versa. It is the awareness of the thoughts and the processing of the thoughts that consciousness constitutes. You can hear a bird sing. You can be aware that you hear a bird singing. You can analyze the song and identify the bird. You can analyze the song to count repetitions, tones, harmonics and so on. Finally you can generate thoughts about the thoughts about the song and so on. Then thoughts about the thoughts about the thoughts of the analysis of the song and so on. Consciousness is this awareness in that it is a model of the world around us which we can manipulate, which is larger than the world around us and smaller. We can model parts or the whole at varying resolutions. To consider the enzymes of life in the leaf of a tree requires a model that we cannot find in the world around us through our bare senses. This ability to create world models in our thoughts IS consciousness. It is inside these worlds that we live, that all we know or experience happens. Consciousness is the act of creating a model of the world around us.

    • Thanks for your input. One of the struggles of discussing this topic, I’ve come to find early on, is that discussions can get swallowed by semantics.

      Your view is interesting but I don’t think I completely agree. Primarily with your first statement; “Consciousness cannot exist without thought and vice versa.”

      Introspection, primarily by means of meditation, tend to show that thoughts arise in consciousness. That is, you are conscious before the thought. And similarly in the work of experienced meditators, thought can be completely silenced.

      Don’t get me wrong, thought is very important and beneficial, but do I believe that one must have thought to be conscious? I would say no.

      Still though, this is a topic in which I am very open to people’s thoughts so thank you.

      • I agree on how the conversations can get swallowed up. If we think of intelligence in units we can say that a thermostat has 1 intelligence unit as a simple way of thinking about it. It takes varying input from the air and makes a single decision. When the air is a constant temperature the thermostat is doing nothing even though it is quite busy doing exactly what it is supposed to be doing. The consciousness where thought is removed is pretty much the same. It has constructed a simulation of the world where nothing exists or is happening. So, the ‘mind’ is ‘still’ yet it is very busy doing exactly what it wants to be doing – nothing. It is busy doing nothing. Even when we sleep the mind/consciousness is doing things. To get it to do ‘nothing’ or have no thoughts requires a lot of action, even if it is internal and undetected action.

        Consciousness is that ‘theater’ (of sorts) in our mind where we simulate the world around us or, as in your example, we simulate nothing happening at all. Everything that we think of as real is nothing more than our perception of it via a simulation running in our consciousness. The self aware mind realizes that it is connected to the simulation – usually accomplished when babies are learning how to use toes and fingers etc. At that very young age we are building rules in our simulator so that we can predict what will happen in the simulator as we take inputs from our senses. When something happens that defies the simulation rules we are surprised or confused such as when we watch a magic show.

        Thoughts are actions in the simulation or parts of it. Each facet of every object depicted in the simulation is a thought. Every interaction between the objects and their attributes is a thought. A task such as considering what to eat for lunch could include millions of thoughts, not all of which are detected or which register as having been a thought. In fact, as we run a simulation on possibilities for lunch we conclude the exercise with something like “I just had a thought, let’s do Italian for lunch” Linguistically we group them all together and consider them one thought when it is really one simulation with many thoughts.

        Without the thoughts, consciousness does nothing. Like a parked car you have to do some thinking to get value from consciousness, drive the car around, get it moving. Back to the simple example, a thermostat is of no value without varying temperatures. The ‘brain in a jar’ would be useless. Also, if we had only the senses of a bat we’d know what it is like to be a bat… alas that cannot happen. Our senses inform us of what the world around us looks like and our conscious brain simulates that world that our senses inform us of.

        It’s all rather mechanistic except that we have the ability to model more than what our senses tell us about. We can change all the rules, all the parameters, all the attributes. We can even insert objects which cannot function in the ‘real’ world in our simulation. We are only aware of the moment when we make the simulator of our conscious mind hyper focused on the sensory data we are receiving and prevent it from trying to run simulations of other things at the same time. To focus on the simulation in our consciousness we humans often try to control sound and sight inputs so they do not interfere with our “thinking”

        Hopefully that explains a bit better…

      • Yes, I believe I have a better understanding of what you are trying to say now. I think that there is a lot that we agree on here, but there are interpretations and implications that vary.

        When you say: “So, the ‘mind’ is ‘still’ yet it is very busy doing exactly what it wants to be doing – nothing. It is busy doing nothing. Even when we sleep the mind/consciousness is doing things. To get it to do ‘nothing’ or have no thoughts requires a lot of action, even if it is internal and undetected action.”

        And also; “Thoughts are actions in the simulation or parts of it. Each facet of every object depicted in the simulation is a thought. Every interaction between the objects and their attributes is a thought. A task such as considering what to eat for lunch could include millions of thoughts, not all of which are detected or which register as having been a thought. In fact, as we run a simulation on possibilities for lunch we conclude the exercise with something like “I just had a thought, let’s do Italian for lunch” Linguistically we group them all together and consider them one thought when it is really one simulation with many thoughts.”

        As I read these, it seems that you define a thought as simply brain activity. This seems to be displayed most in the paragraph above. As well, you seem to imply that consciousness is always “turned on.” I get this primarily from the sentence, “Even when we sleep the mind/consciousness is doing things.” But I would disagree with both of these things.

        With regards to thoughts, to consider simply brain activity as a thought is misleading. This is because when we talk about our thoughts, we never refer to what’s going on behind the scenes. This is because we are never distracted as we try to send electrical impulses to the heart so it will beat. You cannot say that you are consciously aware or in any way responsible for that action. So when I talk about meditating and silencing thought, I am not talking about shutting the brain down. If we are alive, then it will be active. Defining brain activity as thought implies too much and leads us away from what we are truly trying to understand.

        However, this definition of thought that you seem to have implied works well with your interpretation (as I interpreted it) that consciousness is always on. I would disagree with this, however, and it falls in how you define it. If you want to say that if the brain is active, then we are conscious, then we aren’t talking about the same thing. For instance, the brain is active while you sleep, but apart from the sliver of time in which we dream, you are not conscious. The way I see it, consciousness either is or isn’t in any given moment, and what we know is that consciousness seems to require a sophisticated level of brain activity. So it is clear here that consciousness cannot exist without brain activity, but this is obvious if you believe that you don’t have a soul. But there is rudimentary brain activity, then there is consciousness, and it is something that should be distinguished.

        To touch on something that we agree on, you say; “Without the thoughts, consciousness does nothing. Like a parked car you have to do some thinking to get value from consciousness, drive the car around, get it moving.” Now I agree with this to a point. Like I said in my last comment, thoughts are very important to existing and functioning, but this doesn’t tell us about consciousness itself. There is a peace that can be had in conscious experience to slow down or even turn off thought for even just a moment. Now I would agree that consciousness is better with sensation. For instance, to turn off thought and simply witness sensation is very pleasing. I do think that we can logically look at how we can remove all sensory aptitudes and be left with pure consciousness. Now to be left with this would probably be quite dull and I have a very hard time fathoming what that experience would actually be like, but there certainly seems to be a logical string (which I delve into with this post for a sentence or two) that this exists.

        Now I don’t want to officially make that a claim that I am willing to defend at this moment. There is still a lot of thinking I need to do on that. I think I have gone on a little tangent. To summarize the true point of this response, I am saying that to define thought as brain activity and consciousness as always on, is misleading and probably wrong. I think above I show why this is so by attempting to show that the type of thought that we are interested in, with respect to this topic, can be turned off, and consciousness is still there. Similarly, I view consciousness as not a constant. That is, it is not always “on”. Consciousness either is, or it isn’t in any given moment and a certain sophistication at the level of the brain is required for this to be so. I also claim that consciousness is more rewarding with additional senses, but most specifically, stilling thought can lead to some of the most beautiful conscious moments that one can have.

        Hopefully this gives more clarity as to how I am viewing this topic.

      • I didn’t cover the unconscious states of sleep or under anaesthesia. Conscisouness can be turned off. While you still the mind you still have a memory of doing so – ergo consciousness was still on, thoughts were still happening, brain activity still happening. In this state the brain is very busy doing nothing. The part that keeps your heart beating is not a conscious activity. There are many non-conscious activities. We are only consciously aware of a little bit of the brains activity – that part which is the simulation of the world around us. When we are unconscious there is no simulation, no memories etc.

        In short, you are not ‘you’ unless you are conscious. Without consciousness brain activity happens but it is not ‘thoughts’. Thoughts only occur in the simulator. Consciousness is the simulator…. in which thoughts happen. The ‘mind’ of a human is the combination of the simulator and the thoughts.

        If you empty the simulator or restrict what thoughts are in it, you can still the mind yet it is still very busy doing the simulation. It’s just that you are simulating nothing… like a car in a parking lot with the engine idling.

        In exploration of what restrictions we can put on the simulator we can find a great number of states which we usually attribute to other things. You can turn off the analytical part and just let sensory data into the simulator and focus on the aspects of that like seeing nature or watching a sunset or baby ducks at the park. As soon as you turn on the analytical part of the simulator the special moment fades away.

      • I would say with as far as we have gone, we seem to agree. I think we are saying similar things, but differently. There is definitely much more depth to this topic but from what I’m reading, I think we mostly agree. I think that perhaps where I wasn’t as clear is how I define thoughts in this context. When I speak of thoughts, I am specifically talking about the words you “see” or “hear” in your mind. The sentences that are strung and arise in consciousness and usually the emotion that is attached to the thought. As I understand your view on thoughts, I’m inclined to say I agree with what you are saying. Thanks again for your input.

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