The emergence of consciousness

None of these complementary areas of ramification is originally or necessarily conscious. But along the way, different kinds of “experiences” may be produced that either enter consciousness directly, or are easily available to consciousness should we turn our attention to them. They can include:

  • ? a perceptual world (the phenomenological world of sights, sounds, and so on that we inhabit)
  • ? more or less clear bodily feelings, emotions, and moods
  • ? inklings, hunches, promptings, and other kinds of intuition
  • ? verbal or symbolic thoughts
  • ? internal sensory and muscular images
  • ? “memories” (images that come tagged as recollections of past events)
  • ? expectations and intentions (feelings of readiness or anticipation).

It is widely agreed in neuroscience that conscious awareness—whatever it is and whatever it is for—emerges alongside complex neurochemical states of biological organisms like us (e.g. Kinsbourne 1997). To a rough approximation, consciousness seems to emerge when there is:

  • 1 Intensity: External events are sufficiently abrupt or intense, for example, the sudden ringing of an alarm bell or appearance of a bright light.
  • 2 Persistence: Intensity seems to interact with the persistence of a stimulus: Less intense events become conscious if they persist for more than around half a second (Libet 1982). (At longer levels of persistence, consciousness often fades through habituation, of course.)
  • 3 Reverberation: Persistence may occur not due to physical continuation of an external event but to conditions within the brain that allow activation to reverberate, for example round a well-worn neuronal circuit where resistance is low and activation can, so to speak, re-ignite itself. It is argued, for example, that we can easily retain a sensible sentence in mind because its elements “fit together” and create such a reverberating circuit; on the other hand, a list of random numbers needs to be continually rehearsed if its elements are not to “fade away” and become inaccessible (Johnson et al. 2013).
  • 4 Significance: Consciousness seems to be attracted by experiences that are of personal significance. These may be threats to physical well-being or survival, or to possessions or personal attributes with which one is identified. Even events weak in physical intensity gain access to consciousness under these conditions: A creaking floorboard in a sleeping household; a disapproving expression on one face in an otherwise positive audience. Authors such as Edelman and Tononi have suggested that self-related events attract consciousness because they connect with a constantly active representation of the “core self” in the brain, and thus become part of a massively (and constantly shifting) reverberating circuit (Edelman and Tononi 2000).
  • 5 Checking: If functionally connected to the core self, even apparently neutral or only very mildly significant events can potentially be subjected to more extensive “security checks.” Candidate courses of action (such as a contribution to a conversation, as explored above) can be “held back,” if time allows and if the cost of a (social) error is assessed as high. Dispositionally anxious people may be constantly on the look-out for remote threat possibilities, and thus become highly self-conscious or “inhibited” (Wells 2008).

The concept of the “core self” needs a little more explication in this context. First, it is not an aspect of experience, as was the sense of “I” that we talked about earlier; it is a theoretical construct. It is seen as essentially a motivational and emotional concept, representing a semi-stable plexus of self-related concerns that “sets” or sensitizes the brain-body system to certain kinds of events. These events become seen as potential threats to personal projects or selfconcerns, or as “grist to the mill” of these concerns. Sensitivity to criticism may make that lecturer particularly prone to detecting disapproval in facial expressions, or even to misinterpret neutral expressions as disapproving. Compulsive flirts are “set” to notice attractive members of the audience who might be approached and “chatted up” over coffee, or to imagine (correctly or mistakenly) that a friendly smile is an invitation to introduce some sexual banter or innuendo into the conversation. So the core self consists of centers of activation in the body-brain system that embody hopes, fears, assumptions, and beliefs about the world, often derived from earlier life experiences. Having been laughed at for making mistakes, for example, may leave error/ignorance as a threat to the core self, and thus induce strategies of avoidance or perfectionism as ways of warding off the perceived threat (Bucci 2011).

Some of the defense mechanisms, as just illustrated, involve tactical action in and on the world so that the threatening circumstances do not occur. Other defenses, though, involve protecting one’s self from the conscious experience of threat or disappointment rather than from the occurrence itself (Hamilton 1983). For example, the ability to anticipate upcoming aspects of the unfolding meaning patterns means that road-blocks and diversionary tactics of various kinds can be set up, so that the anticipated experience of failure or fear does not actually come about. We are able to “switch the attentional points," as it were, so that an up-welling train of thought is diverted onto a safer (more anodyne) track. Through the deployment of cortical inhibitory processes, we become able, as Daniel Goleman has put it, to ignore (inconvenient or threatening aspects of) experience, and then ignore the fact that we have ignored it (Goleman 1985). Thus, what gets incorporated into conscious experience, or deliberate descriptions of experience, may be not just a normalization of the original seed of meaning (as described above) but (at a pre-conscious level) an expurgation of it as well.

A final set of pre-conscious defensive strategies involve dampening visceral and muscular signals of fear or anxiety in the body, so that they do not arrive at the brain areas involved in the generation of consciousness—or do so only in an attenuated state. Muscles can be tensed, for example, so that upper lips do not quiver, as they otherwise might in the face of fear or distress. The throat can be constricted, and muscles of the chest clamped, so that up-welling vocalizations of distress can be contained (Trimble 2012; Vingerhoets 2012). (The feeling of “choking up” that often precedes a burst of sobbing reflects this reflex attempt to contain or disguise the impending expression of distress; it may be successful, or it may be over-ridden by the irresistible strength of the original body-mind state.)

This has been a necessarily brief outline of the processes and phases that a meaning-seed can go through, on its developmental journey from the visceral core to its full-blown expression in body, action, speech, and mind. Even so, it will be clear that the unfurling of meaning is potentially a whole body-mind event, and also that the extent to which this event recruits processes that produce conscious experience is extremely variable. The conscious experience that arises may be incomplete, edited, and distorted in a variety of ways. It may also contain ingredients added along the way that are only there because we have leapt to conclusions, or unconsciously stirred in beliefs and assumptions designed to make the expression more palatable to any real or imagined audience (including ourselves). The Oxford English Dictionary defines “sophisticated” as “mixed with some foreign substance, adulterated, not pure or genuine.” Human consciousness is often highly sophisticated in this sense.

There is both Bad News and Good News in this picture. The Bad News is that our conscious perceptions are not a reliable guide either to the way the world is, or to the internal world of felt concerns, and it is therefore highly desirable—a form of basic sanity, we might say—to have a tentative and rather skeptical relationship with our own consciousness. The Good News is that a good deal of this unreliability stems from our own mental habits, and we are therefore in a position, as we are with any habits, to practice alternatives and see if they stand us in better stead. That, as I understand it, is what meditation is for.

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