Is Consciousness All in Your Head?

by Gregory J. Ward

I recently finished the book Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind by Annaka Harris.  An enjoyable and accessible read, Ms. Harris summarizes research concepts and directions surrounding the study of consciousness.  It is a challenging field, as it falls between pholosophy, neuroscience, physics, and psychology, and in some sense, encompasses them all.  At least, that is the premise.

The definition of consciousness itself is indirect.  A thing is conscious if it "feels like something" to be that thing.  The example Ms. Harris gives is that of a bat, saying that it most likely feels like something to be a bat, whereas we assume that it does not feel like something to be a chair.  She goes on with more involved examples, shifting the line back and forth from where nothing has consciousness (it is all an illusion) to everything being conscious (panpsychism).  She persuades the reader to reject the former and embrace the latter.  In some sense, you could say that the two extremes have a degree of equivalence, for if you grant a property to all things, then it's hardly a property worth discussing.  It's like debating that everything exists versus nothing exists.  Leaving such quibbles aside, Ms. Harris argues that consciousness cannot be an illusion because it would serve no purpose as such.  I wish to argue that consciousness does serve a purpose, and one that is specific to humans and certain other social species.

If we define consciousness as that part of your psyche which bears witness to your life, it fits well with the exposition offered in Conscious.  Consciousness is present during waking, and becomes less reliable or absent entirely during slumber, or under anesthesia.  She talks about how consciousness may not be in control of your actions, but it is a crucial part of rationalizing those actions.  Regardless how we see ourselves, most of us create stories to explain our behavior much more often than we choose our actions based on conscious reasoning.  It "feels like something" to be you, because your perceptions and your feelings are the warp and weft of your experience.  You imagine what it feels like to be someone else very naturally by projecting your consciousness into them and sharing (to the best of your ability) their experience.

People rely on their conscious experience for two important aspects of relating to others:  recounting life stories, and placing oneself in another's shoes.  The latter is known in psychology as theory of mind, and such a capacity has been demonstrated in great apes (including humans), elephants, dolphins, humpback whales, certain bird species such as parrots and corvids (crows, ravens, jays), and a handful of others.  Such social species seem to have a number of abilities in common, including the ability to recognize themselves in a mirror, to predict the behavior of others based (literally) on their point of view, and some level of language or communication.  It is interesting to note that individuals are not born with these abilities, but they correspond to a certain level of development.  Language starts earlier than theory of mind, which presents between the ages of 3 and 5 in humans.

How is consciousness useful to story-telling and understanding others, and why would it be confined to social species?  This is easiest to understand by counter-example, since we take our consciousness completely for granted.  Let us imagine an individual, we'll call him John, who can speak normally, but somehow never developed consciousness.  Without a conscious self, John's memory lacks a singular witness or perspective to organize experiences around and serve as narrator.  Rather, he has myriad associations between events and his reactions to those events.  He remembers burning his hand on a hot stove when he was young, so he is as careful around stoves as anyone.  However, if you were to ask him why he is careful, he wouldn't be able to relate his experience; he would just say that stoves can burn you.  He has trouble learning lessons from others, so he is self-taught in the worst way -- John is incredibly accident-prone.  He has memorable crashes on his scooter, his bike, and his car, breaking many bones along the way.  He seems oblivious to any danger he hasn't personally experienced.  John is not just a terrible listener, he is also an atrocious story-teller.  No one ever asks him about his day, because he either stares blankly into space, or launches into a series of events that are at best vaguely chronological, and apropos to nothing.  Clearly, John is mentally challenged, even though he tests with a normal IQ.  Some feel sorry for him, but most people simply avoid him.  Compared to the average person, John is not a fit human, and selection pressure from self-inflicted injuries and social gaffes will, over time, push him and the genes that made him out of the pool.  Similar scenarios would play out with unconscious individuals in other social species.

Imagine instead if John were an aardvark, a solitary animal that lives on ants and other insects out in the desert.  His inability to learn from others or to tell stories wouldn't really be a handicap.  An aardvark just needs to forage, avoid predators, and find a partner for breeding once every year or two.  John would look and behave like every other aardvark, and no one would know if he was conscious or not.  What is it like to be an aardvark?  Your imagination is your best guide -- if you asked a talking aardvark, he wouldn't be able to tell you.

If consciousness is adaptive, then the simplest explanation for its existence is evolutionary pressure.  Our example suggests it is quite adaptive in social species, and is probably less so (or maladaptive) in solitary species.  We have no real need to ask how consciousness arose, any more than we need ask how hands evolved.  Adaptive traits emerge over time, so long as there is an available evolutionary path and sufficient selection pressure.

Admittedly, I am leaving the so-called "hard problem of consciousness" out of the discussion, at least partly because I don't believe this is a real problem.  As formulated by David Chalmers, the hard problem asks why it "feels like something" to experience things in the first place.  To my way of thinking, experience has a richness because emotions are the palette with which we paint our memories.  We interweave feelings and events into memories to help us relate it to our lives and the lives around us.  My guess is that the richness of experience also serves an evolutionary purpose, even if it is one we don't fully understand.