Thursday, July 5, 2007

What is Consciousness?

...consciousness is by nature multifaceted. Clearly, attention is needed, as attention is the arbiter of awareness, the gatekeeper to the senses. Perception must then arise from attention; perception is a key to the kingdom of the mind. Though attention and perception enable us to be sensitive to our environment, they don’t enable us to be conscious of it, unless we also have a template to which new perceptions can be compared. Thus, memory is an integral part of consciousness. The final and most ineffable element of consciousness is awareness; this can be understood as one part of the brain monitoring another part, watching it work. Thus, we propose that consciousness arises only when a subject shows a combination of attention, perception, memory, and awareness.

But what is the function of consciousness? Is consciousness even necessary? Would we be recognizably human without it? Is consciousness a precondition for the adaptations that set us apart from other organisms? Is language or social adaptation even possible without consciousness? Or is consciousness needed only if language and sociality evolve to the level of sophistication seen in humans? Could we make do and be human with less consciousness? Or is consciousness the minimal qualification for the human condition? In our struggle to understand consciousness, we must confront the possibility that the brain may be unable to understand the mind and that we may always be a bit mystified by our own abilities and capacities.

From "The Evolving Brain," Chapter 9

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