Among the greatest questions humankind has pondered, one remains that is peculiar in its relatability: what is consciousness?
I call this question “peculiar” since many issues that are considered “deep” by today’s standards often pertain to things that people generally can’t, or simply don’t find relatable. Perhaps most often, it is because such concepts are not of particular interest, and in that context, understanding the nature of consciousness might also be considered something that primarily only neuroscientists, philosophers, and artists have bothered themselves with.
Of course, whatever consciousness actually is, nobody who is awake and aware in this world is free from it, which brings us back again to its relatability. We all experience consciousness as living things, and while it may play quietly in the background as we are distracted by the actions of everyday things, behind it all is a remote awareness that persists; the fundamental nature of what it means to be alive, aware, and fundamentally, to be human.
One need not go to the trouble of inducing altered states or other experiences that part from the ordinary just to appreciate the great mystery of consciousness. These things are fundamental to our existence, whether or not we choose to focus on them; but in doing so, and taking the time to contemplate our own experience with consciousness, we are treated to a true world of mystery within our own minds.
That notion of a “world within the mind” is, in essence, the basis for the idea of dualism, as proposed by Descartes in the 17th century when he proposed that the inner and outer worlds were composed of different “substances,” and that the experience of living was represented by a fundamental mechanism that unites these two realities. For Descartes, the pineal gland became the “seat of the soul,” and the hypothetical location of a physical bridge between these two worlds of existence. However, while many past discoveries have found truth in things by relying on intuition, modern neuroscience still wrestles with the issue of uniting conscious experiences within the mind, and their relationship to the exterior world. Science, in other words, has not yet managed to confirm Descartes’ dualistic intuitions, in this case.
Helping to establish the brain as the center of conscious experiences, Santiago Ramón y Cajal managed to identify the connectivity between neurons and our nervous systems. His research studying glial cells and the environment they hosted for neuron activity was a key breakthrough in discovering the role our brain and the nervous system plays in consciousness.
Advances in neuroscience have not, however, removed the deeper questions of what consciousness actually represents. Theories range from the idea that consciousness is essentially an oscillatory phenomenon, in which the brain and central nervous system communicate with the body via electrochemical signals; others contend that consciousness may be an illusion altogether, and one that stems from the generally anthropic influence of humans looking at themselves, and trying to discern meaning from experiences (and all the while in the act of experiencing them).
Tangent to the issue of defining and understanding consciousness, questions arise about language, sleep, dreaming, and memory. Stepping over from neuroscience and into the realm of physics, a favorite passage pertaining to memory appears in Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, where the author discusses “The Arrow of Time,” and how thermodynamic principles might explain why the human perception of time only seems to work when remembering past events. :
Before an item is recorded in a computer’s memory, the memory is in a disordered state, with equal probabilities for the two possible states… after the memory interacts with the system to be remembered, it will definitely be in one state or the other, according to the state of the system… So the memory has passed from a disordered state to an ordered one. However, in order to make sure that the memory is in the right state, it is necessary to use a certain amount of energy… this energy is dissipated as heat, and increases the amount of disorder in the universe. One can show that this increase in disorder is always greater than the increase in order of the memory itself. Thus the heat expelled by the computer’s cooling fan means that when a computer records an item in memory, the total amount of disorder in the universe still goes up. The direction of time in which a computer remembers the past is the same as that in which disorder increases.
This attempt to look at memory and its function, in relation to the mechanics of the physical universe, is a fascinating glimpse at how the functions of the human mind aren’t merely reliant on how our brains work; there is an entirely separate question about the relationship between the physical universe and its laws, and how biological life as we know it functions in tandem with them. “Our subjective sense of the direction of time, the psychological arrow of time, is therefore determined within our brain by the thermodynamic arrow of time,” Hawking wrote. “Just as a computer, we must remember things in the order in which entropy increases.”
I have often wondered about advanced computer systems of the future, which either through near-perfect efficiency–perhaps enabled through the use of nanotechnology, and innovations that involve functional components so small that their size and efficiency might allow for information systems that border what Erwin Schrödinger called negative entropy. In his 1944 book What is Life? Schrödinger addressed the idea that within a closed system, the second law of thermodynamics holds true that entropy can only increase. However, this changes when a system is able to exchange heat (or matter) with elements of its environment; here, entropic forces are still compatible with thermodynamic laws, but they might perform differently.
To suppose that an organism could decrease or maintain its entropy, rather than the expected increase that we observe in accordance with the second law, seems contrary to what we observe of life on Earth. Nonetheless, Schrödinger speculated that under the right conditions (perhaps not on Earth), it remains a hypothetical possibility. Applying this same concept to computer science of the coming decades has incredible potential for new discoveries in terms of the relationships between energy, thermodynamics, and how things like memory are affected by them.
Bringing this back around to consciousness, perhaps such computer science innovations as those I’ve outlined may also host potential for future consciousness studies as well. According to Bernard Baars of the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, California, a theory of consciousness that relates to computers is by no means far-fetched. What he and other neuroscientists call the global workspace theory of consciousness relies on a concept of a conceptual memory bank, generally referred to as a “blackboard,” which a computer program (or the human mind) could access. Baars contends that consciousness stems from the process of “broadcasting” information to different parts of the brain from this hypothetical memory bank.
Whatever consciousness is, or is not, cracking this long-standing nut will probably be able to offer us more than just the keys to the human mind and experience. Unlocking the mystery of consciousness has implications for understanding nature itself, human perception of time, and a host of other things that can change the way we see the universe.