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The big question of conscience – 08/06/2021 – Luciano Melo

The definition is not perfect, but we can try: awareness is the ability to experience the world. It happens here and now, for you to read this text. As your eyes move over the characters, you become aware of the letters, words, phrases and meaning in your own unique way. An internal voice dictates the sentences written here. This is the voice that also gives the semantics of your reflections, the semantics of your consciousness. But there is no real sound. This voice is brain creation, noiseless hearing by definition a hallucination.

It doesn’t even matter, because the voice is clear. In fact, the entire experience of consciousness is alive, rich, features crucial to making us believe that we are totally right about something, even when inconsistent. And many intuit that consciousness springs up in us, as if something hidden ratifies our impressions and inferences.

​This concept perhaps echoes an idea that spans centuries, carefully perfected by the French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650). He argued that a rational soul would produce our reason and the sophistications of human behavior. This ethereal substance would come into contact with the body through the pineal gland. For the thinker, the brain would be an organ occupied only to promote instinctual reflexes.

Many of the attempts to explain consciousness still collide with Descartes’ dualistic conception of body and soul, physical and immaterial. For they ensure that something in the brain matter ascends to a non-physical sensation. From a dualist perspective, the brain can be studied, but what is immaterial cannot. Furthermore, awareness is not the content itself, but the subjective experience of perceiving the content. It is intangible to understand individual conceptions about the beautiful, tragic and not even how to know exactly how each one of us perceives events.

So science cannot measure the experience of consciousness. But at least it is possible to understand brain events that correlate with human accounts of consciousness. Even though we are aware that many of the dimensions of consciousness are intangible for our understanding, we can understand it as a product of a physical process, mechanized by our brain, by our body.

We attest to this through simple observations. People suffering from extremely severe brain damage lose the ability to perceive their surroundings and themselves. Others who have suffered cervical spine damage will no longer be aware of what is happening in certain parts of their bodies.

However, all healthy humans are not aware of all parts of the body. For example, we are unable to perceive the contraction of each of our muscles involved in performing a complex movement. Nor do we identify all the details of the scene in which we are inserted. In other words, we are not aware of everything, but we do it. With this observation we can better understand consciousness and its essentially biological aspect.

Note that we only need some information to walk safely around the world. Our attention selects the data necessary for our interactions with the environment and despises others, constantly updating our perceptions.

Attention watches our body, space and mental activity, valuing some elements to shape our conception of reality. At the same time, without this mold, it would be impossible to efficiently direct attention. In this way our model of reality would collapse and our behavior would also collapse. Therefore, attention underlies the construction of a reality model, but it becomes dependent on it. Our subjective experience of the world, that is, our consciousness, is the instrument that voluntarily controls our attention and consequently what we recognize in ourselves and outside of us.

Understanding the mechanisms of consciousness is important. It can provide the key to unravel the genesis of delusions, situations in which perception and interpretation are disaggregated. As well as to recognize the neural bases for the existence of self-destructive thoughts of depressed people, whose consciousness is fixed on negative aspects of life.

We may even understand how misinformation creates incoherent reasoning and yet establishes solid beliefs.

References:

Finger, S. Descartes and the Pineal Gland in Animals: A Frequent Misinterpretation. J. Hist. Neurosci. 1995, 4 (3–4), 166–182. https://doi.org/10.1080/09647049509525637.

Graziano, MSA Understanding Consciousness. Brain 2021, 144 (5), 1281–1283. https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awab046.

Koch, C. What Is Consciousness? Nature 2018, 557 (7704), S8-S12. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-05097-x.

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