What is Consciousness?

What is Consciousness?


Consciousness, not to be confused with conscience, is such a subtle matter for human beings that we do not bother about its existence always.
But this is the very medium, through which we learn, react to the environment, feel happy or sad, think, weep, get angry, etc. We believe that it is somewhere inside us working continually during our wake-up hours. This controls our minds, thoughts, perceptions, and imaginations. But we cannot pinpoint its positions and characteristics like a quantum mechanical electron inside an atom.

Humanity has known about the existence of consciousness since possibly when life first appeared on Earth, although it remains shrouded in mist. Even the smallest creature possesses this, maybe to a lower degree. According to the Holy Gita: ‘space holds everything within it, but being subtle, does not get contaminated by what it holds. Similarly, though its consciousness pervades the body, the soul is not affected by the attributes of the body’ (verse 33, chapter 13). And the Rigveda declares that consciousness is a symptom of the soul. Its presence is beyond space and time limits.

Exploring the Complexity of Consciousness

Scholars from East and West including litterateurs, philosophers, psychologists, and spiritualists battle over this issue on different platforms. In a modern rationalistic era, possibly French mathematician, philosopher, and scientist Descartes (1596-1650) was the first to study it. He announced that our body and consciousness reside in different nests and exchange information inside the brain. English philosopher and doctor Lock (1632-1704) said that our body never bounds consciousness and it lives even after one’s death.

American psychologist James (1842-1910) compared consciousness with a continuous stream whose properties vary with time. Later, Sigmund Freud (1856- 1939) and many other psychologists studied different consciousness forms and stages, including pre-and unconsciousness. They declared that the consciousness of a child is different from that of an adult. Social psychologists assert that local cultures, languages, and other influences build it socially.

Some scholars with technical backgrounds believe that consciousness exists all over the universe like radio waves. Living brains are like radio receivers and accept a certain fraction of omnipresent consciousness depending on their capacities. Unconsciousness is simply the fault of the receiver. Some world-famous physicists of the twentieth century commented on this subject quite philosophically. Sir Edington, who first experimentally verified Einstein’s relativity theory, wrote, ‘The physical world is entirely abstract and without actuality apart from its linkage to consciousness’. Max Planck gave more weight to consciousness, ‘I regard consciousness as fundamental ….matters are derivatives from consciousness’.

Bridging the Physical and Non-Physical

With electrifying developments in science and technology, especially in medical fields, scientists started to explore possible physical and materialistic explanations of consciousness using ultra-sophisticated instruments. How do the real physical experiences via our sense organs influence seemingly non-physical consciousness? Solution of the problem may be the successful key to treating mental problems. Neuroscientists now know that information collected through sensor organs reaches the brain in the form of electromagnetic waves. There are about one hundred billion extra-large neuron cells inside the brain. Extension links called dendrites and axons connect them to each other. When not excited, the cells contain electrochemical negative ions. But as the signal reaches the cells, they become excited, and through the openings of the external cover, positive ions enter inside. When the charge balance reaches a critical value, the neurons fire’.

Thus signals from different sensors spread chain-wise in different portions of the brain. fMRI ( functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) technology supports this, but up to this point. The question is, what after that? Not only this. It is true that we may imagine the sweetness of a piece of sweet cake without gulping it. Or, let us take the case of unicellular paramecium, which has no nervous system, no brain, and no neurons. Though not developed like ours, they also have consciousness.

 One of them is Stuart Hameroff. A short, round, somewhat arrogant, unevenly dressed Professor of Arizona University in the department of anesthesiology and psychology. He happens to be a doctor too. He observed that the above-mentioned ‘firing’ inside neurons also occurs in the case of an unconscious patient under the influence of external light and sound. After long research, he concluded that consciousness is born not out of neuron ‘firing’, but due to quantum effects produced by a chain of protein molecules inside the microtubules within neuron cells.

Thus only quantum mechanics can explain the origin of consciousness. Hameroff later reminisced that while reading the book ‘The Emperor’s New Mind’ by Roger Penrose, he had the first clue of this. Naturally, material scientists found the limitations of the neuroscience theory of consciousness unsatisfactory. But he did not succumb to those humiliations. Over and above, within a few years, he got support from Penrose himself. The two introduced a new theory Orch-OR (Orchestrated Objective Reduction), which states that under external influences, complicated computational analyses within the brain produce many possibilities. Consciousness is just one of those many possibilities.

In quantum mechanics, it is referred to as the collapse of the wave function. After this theory was proposed, Hameroff’s works attracted the interest of many. Even Google company invited him on different occasions to develop quantum computers with his help. Another man who has high regard for Hameroff’s works is Anirban Bandyopadhyay in NIMS, Japan. He also believes that neurons are only the upper mask covering the processes creating consciousness. However many researchers are there who opine against Hameroff’s theory. They argue that the occurrence of the quantum phenomenon requires low temperature and complete isolation from surroundings, and this is not possible inside a wet jellylike brain. A group of scientists are also working on thermodynamics to explain consciousness.

In conclusion, we refer to the famous opinions of some great physicists in this regard. According to Erwin Schrodinger, matter and subject are the same, and there is no wall between them. Penrose concluded that man can’t explain millions of quantum computations within the brain and come to a unique result with the help of hitherto known mathematics. And the great Einstein said that if a problem arises from some consciousness level, then it can’t be solved from the same level. If one were to believe the previous statement, would it be necessary to venture into a higher-dimensional space beyond our familiar four dimensions in order to comprehend consciousness? However, we have some such hints in our Puranas.

Also Read: Conscious learning from crisis

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