Do you know that feeling when you know someone is watching you even without seeing anyone and when you turn, there he/she/it is? This is one the mysteries of consciousness and topics of this text. What is I, reality, subjectivity, self-awareness, is everything just matter and energy, how consciousness emerges from matter and what is it? When you think of consciousness, thinking of how you think, more questions than answers arise. Can we find out all the mysteries of consciousness with the brain that creates it, isn´t that verdict always going to be biased? Do you create the world inside your mind or is everything part of single consciousness?
I like etymology so first things first, the word consciousness in the English language goes back to 1500s. It was derived from a Latin word conscious which had different meaning, loosely translated as knowing with or having common knowledge with others, however, the Latin phrase conscious sibi (knowing with oneself) had a closer tie to the modern meaning of consciousness. Descartes in his work Search after Truth is said to be the first philosopher to use another Latin word conscientia (moral conscience) in modern concept of the word consciousness. This is only the meaning of the word, modern science still lacks the tools to penetrate deepest secrets of the mind and has no way to measure consciousness.
We all share this feeling of self and existing as an individual person, nonetheless, when asked to explain it we all have our own explanations. This sensation has many names, awareness, wakefulness, subjectivity, being able to experience of feel. Being conscious however could be defined different as self-awareness. There are only few animals besides human that have been noted to show signs of self-awareness; great apes (chimpanzees, orangutans etc.), bottlenose dolphins, killer whales, elephants and european magpies. These results came from the Mirror Test where ability of animals to recognize themselves from a mirror was observed. Still we do not know what this intuitively obvious experience is and how do we even know if other people are conscious maybe they are philosophical zombies, people who are indistinguishable from a human being in looks and behavior in every detail except they don´t have consciousness.
Cogito ergo sum, I think, therefore I am stated Descartes over 350 years ago and thought this, prove that one´s consciousness exists, is the only truth one can be sure of. I think that consciousness is flashlight in a dark room, though this room is not empty, it´s your reflection of the Universe and reflection of the Universe in you. This flashlight is in constant movement, momentarily shining light on certain things, issues, ideas and by concentrating you can stop this movement and illuminate whatever is in the focus of the beam. We humans have limited cognitive abilities, thus we can be conscious of limited amount of information, some things in the edges of this beam go to unconscious mind later to be examined when we are sleeping and not aware of outside stimulus. This inner light has individual shades and it can be altered by experiences, drugs, meditation and other stimulus arriving from inner and outer sources. The question is where does this flashlight emerge from?
One view is that in the end everything is energy and matter, quarks, atoms, molecules, organisms, consciousness are all just emergent phenomena and all of these can be scaled down to energy with the help of reductionism. Another, a bit radical view is that everything in the Universe is consciousness and consciousness is everything there is. This way all phenomena are raising from consciousness, either we all are creating our own universe or the Universe is conscious and we are just manifestation of that consciousness, a way of the Universe to figure itself out. These questions lead us to the very nature of reality or a decent into madness.
There are two main questions in the concept of consciousness, qualia and self, qualia could be a color you see in the room where you are now for example orange, physically it´s the wavelength which light is reflected from a surface to your eye and decoded to this image but the qualia of orange is something indecipherable to another person. Self is you being aware that you are experiencing orange and this something you can replicate few times without getting a headache. You can imagine yourself thinking of seeing orange and thinking that you are thinking of thinking perceiving orange and again thinking of thinking that you are thinking of looking at orange. This ability of consciousness is easily portrayed in recursion, when you point a camera which is plugged in to a computer to the monitor where it´s reflected to infinity.
What is the nature of reality? Now you might be holding a mouse in your hand while you scroll down these black symbols on a white background, in the end everything you perceive is the creation of your mind. Surely laws of physics define what things are tangible but your mind creates meaning to these symbols and objects that you are aware of. An example of this is an apple, when you take a bite from it is it still an apple, when does it stop being an apple and becomes something else? The quantum world is weird, what you think of as matter is atoms but really it´s not, they are quarks but really it´s energy that is interconnected, it is a world of probabilities and it´s the world we inhabit. Closer you look at reality more particles and their anti-counterparts you see, this symmetrical perfection reminds me of fractals.
This can lead you to wonder is there such thing as global consciousness? The Institute of Noetic Sciences is studies the powers of consciousness with an open mind with scientific principles. This institution has also a spiritual aspect but in such concept as consciousness which cannot be measured in any traditional way they are doing important research. In one of the documentaries IONS researchers were studying the aspects of the mind, interesting things were that in a way we can predict the future and what we think affects matter on a small scale (global change in random number generator for example on 9/11). Another fascinating study was about testing if people can sense if they are stared at. In the combined results of over 33 000 trials people and people were aware of staring 54% at the time, this might not sound much but statistically it is important and proves that there is tiny but undeniable conscious connection between people. This ability might have evolved in our evolutionary history to help us sense impending danger but it could also be a key to understanding the mysteries of consciousness. I think that when you open your mind to possibility of these ideas you might be able to unlock those abilities. The mind is no doubt a powerful tool, this can be seen in the placebo effect, it´s a mystery and yet so familiar to all of us. We are all connected to the Universe, in fact we are the Universe, it´s only the mind that creates this separation. In the beginning of the Universe all the energy was in one, tiny, dense state, everything that is in this expanding Universe now is connected. All is one.
Illusions created by your mind:
Here is the freakiest illusion I found.
To see the illusion, do this: Play the movie (which lasts 1 minute) full screen and stare to the center of the image. After the movie finishes, look away (for example look to a face or to your hands). For few seconds everything you see will appear to distort. Have a nice trip!
Short videos about consciousness:
Documentaries about consciousness: