Wednesday, August 20, 2008


I should caution the reader that this particular post is less directly related to psychiatry--it's more of what I would call a "philosophical musing". So you may want to skip over this post if you're not in the mood for it. But it's something I've thought about for a long time, and I find themes pertaining to it coming up frequently in my daily work.

Consciousness is miraculous.

It may be (actually this is exactly my view), that from a scientific point of view, consciousness is the product of chemical and electrical signals in the brain, influenced by both internal and external stimuli, forming an integrated network with numerous complex feedback loops. Regardless of the causes of consciousness, it remains miraculous that any physical process could give rise to a subjective experience of awareness.

The issue of free will is related. Even if we claim that free will is an illusion, that all choices are determined by the existing structure of the brain in combination with environmental events, and furthermore that brain structure and environmental events are themselves determined by historical precedents (perhaps with a degree of true randomness at the core of physical phenomena rendering all of these processes imperfectly predictable), the awareness of having -- or seeming to have -- free will is also miraculous.

Clearly there are "degrees" of consciousness. Human awareness can vary--or be changed pharmacologically--from full alertness, or hyper-alertness, to many degrees of sedation, to unconsciousness. Apparently absolute unconscious states may only be relatively so, since some degree of stimulus may produce a response even in people who are sleeping deeply, anesthetized, or comatose. As we agree that there are degrees of consciousness, how sure can we be that there is an "absolute zero" where there is no consciousness at all?

If awareness or consciousness is the product of the brain, and the brain's function is a property of a network of chemical and electrical connections, then it may follow that any system in which there are chemical or electrical connections carries a form of consciousness. It seems grandiose -- on the part of humanity -- to claim that the human brain is the only structure capable of conscious awareness or the perception of will.

Most people would have no difficulty asserting that higher animals are conscious, though most (I included) would say that the consciousness of animals is "lesser" than that of humans. At the most obvious level, we can say that the intellectual and language feedback which enriches our conscious experience is much reduced in animals, such that very little cultural development over different generations is possible in non-humans. Another "thought experiment" type of question would be, who is MORE conscious, a fully alert dog, or a heavily sedated human? I guess many would say that there are "types" of consciousness, and that the "human" type is qualitatively different than "non-human" types, irrespective of the degree of alertness or sedation, etc.

Fewer people would claim that simpler animals are conscious.

Very few people would agree that plants are conscious.

Almost nobody would agree that rocks are conscious.

I claim that all of the above may be "conscious" in a way. I do not mean to sound mystical at all here, just extending the logic that if chemical or electrical connections in a network give rise to consciousness, then perhaps any systems of chemical or electrical connections that form feedback networks are also conscious. Therefore, all of the universe could be considered "conscious". A rock could be considered "conscious" since it is intimately linked -- chemically and electromagnetically -- to its environment, and both disintegrates and incorporates environmental elements continuously during its lifetime (obvious changes in chemistry and magnetism perhaps taking place over thousands or millions of years--an example of how some forms of "consciousness" may involve different time-scales than what we are used to).

A corollary of the above could be that since consciousness is a product of networks of chemical interaction, then all conscious beings are "interconnected", perhaps part of a higher-order consciousness. A simple example of this would be to look at politics. Often times we refer to nations as though they are people. We talk about "what Russia is thinking", or about "U.S. arrogance", etc. While this is figurative language, there is a level of literal truth, I suppose, to consider that a nation itself represents a higher form of consciousness, or could at the very least appear to be a higher form of consciousness to an external observer (i.e. someone who did not realize they were communicating with a nation instead of with a person).

I am not saying that this therefore makes it rational to start singing songs to the rocks to soothe them, or to embrace some kind of animistic belief system where we deify or personify plants, mountains, planets, gemstones, etc.

But I hope this line of thinking may cause us to extend respect and caring to all things. Fellow humans. Fellow animals. Fellow living things. Even inanimate objects. The earth. The air. The soil. Your home. Your room. Your belongings. Other people's belongings. Objects that have been thrown away. And, going inwards, to all the different parts of our body (many of which, ironically, are as inert or "dead" as stones, but still require care -- for example our teeth, hair, epidermis, or nails). Going inwards further, on an even more abstract level, your feelings, your thoughts, and your life history, all deserve respect and caring.

The act of respecting and caring for ourselves is part of healthy living. I think this respect and care can be extended to all aspects of the environment around us.

And, on a slightly mystical note I suppose, I wonder if there is something about respect and care that is always mutual--so I wonder if the universe can, on some level, always perceive, understand, and reciprocate such care. This is sort of a "karma-like" idea.

Stepping back from a mystical note, though, I think there is solid psychological evidence to support the idea that caring and respecting as a way of life is part of staying healthy and happy.

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