Many people wonder about appliances, but what is that wondering? When you are aware of a blender, oven, dishwasher, or what have you, what is that awareness, and where does it come from? How can different people seem to host such different awarenesses, and where does that awareness go when a person dies?
For as long as humans have been able to understand the concept of consciousness, they have sought to better their understanding of the phenomenon that the concept describes. It’s a difficult path to try to be more aware of your awareness, and to become more aware of what awareness itself happens to be, but philosophers, scientists, and other professionals have been trying their hands at it for hundreds of years. Today, let’s mull over some of the most commonly noted theories of consciousness.
Cogito Ergo Sum, or “I think, therefore I am” was famously posited by Rene Descartes, who proposed the idea that the mere act of thinking and being aware of the world happening around you is proof that there is someone there to do the thinking at all. Descartes was a major proponent of mind-body duality and claimed that these realms interact in the brain’s pineal gland. While Descartes’ biological theories have been largely disproven, his philosophical ideas remain relevant:
“The only thing you know is, ‘I am conscious,'” maintained Christof Koch, a neuroscientist and the chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute for Neuroscience in Seattle. “Any theory has to start with that.”
In the past few decades, it’s become increasingly common for modern scientists to attempt to understand consciousness from a more evidence-based perspective, similar to that used with unaware physical matter. Now more than ever, researchers are searching for physical correlates, be they neurotransmitters or human behavior, that may be linked to conscious experiences.
For example, researchers recently discovered an area of the brain that, if stimulated electrically, will immediately make a patient become unconscious. These more ham-fisted methods of manipulating consciousness will no doubt become more subtle as scientists discover more, but what to do once consciousness is learned to be manipulatable will likely be a matter of politicians, writers, philosophers and the like.
Then there’s the integrated information theory posited by Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisdonsin-Madison, which many have seen as one of the more promising theories for consciousness currently being worked with. Instead of trying to figure out how the material brain produces subjective experiences, Giulio Tononi offered that maybe consciousness should be the starting point of the investigation. Tononi says that conscious experience may represent the integration of a wide variety of information, and that this experience cannot be reduced into one gland secreting whatever neurotransmitter.
The idea goes that the brain weaves together a very complex web of information that spans from sensory systems to the cognitive process. This system is said to be synergetic and, being more than the sum of its parts, would suggest that the code of consciousness cannot be cracked by any amount of tampering with the brain. The system would also explain how consciousness can exist to varying degrees among humans and other animals, and incorporates some theories of panpsychism.