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Notes on consciousness

Direct quotes from the Spring 2011 Issue of Discover Magazine: The Brain.

According to psychologist and philosopher William James, consciousness has the following properties:

1. It is a process, and it involves awareness.
2. It’s what you lose when you fall into a deep, dreamless slumber and what you regain when you wake up.
3. It is continuous and changing.


Neuroscientist Gerald Edelman proposed that there are two different states of consciousness.

  • Primary consciousness is what animals have. It’s the experience of a unitary scene in a period of seconds, at most. Yet there’s no consciousness of consciousness, nor any narrative history of the past or projected future plans.
  • The second state is what human shave. Our memories, our consciousness of being conscious, strung together into past and future narratives. By using semantics and syntax, a true language, we have this higher-order consciousness in its greatest form.


The brain is a vastly parallel distributed system. The consciousness trick is that any particular mental state you might be in is enabled by neural circuits specific to that state. All of these circuits that are distributed throughout the brain allow for what we call conscious experience.

I like to think of it as being like a pipe organ. When one note is playing, that’s what you’re conscious about. Then the next note starts playing, and that’s what you’re conscious about. These things come on and off constantly, and there’s this appearance of unity to it all, but in fact it’s each of these separate circuit systems being enabled and being expressed in a particular moment in time.

Consciousness is not a thing in the brain that information gets poured into and you’re aware of it. It’s the constant struggle of all these circuits to come up to the top and hold the stage for that second.

(Michael S. Gazzaniga, cognitive neuroscientist)


The great sheet of the mass, that where hardly a light had twinkled or moved, becomes now a sparkling field of rhythmic flashing points with trains of traveling sparks hurrying hither and thither. THe brain is waking and with it the mind is returning. it is as if the Milky Way entered upon some cosmic dance. Swiftly the head mass becomes an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern.

[Sir Charles Sherrington, Man On His Nature (1940)]


Waking consciousness is dreaming – but dreaming constrained by external reality.

[Oliver Sacks, An Anthropologist On Marks (1995)]


Maybe philosophical problems are hard not because they are divine or irreducible or meaningless or workaday science, but because the mind of Homo sapiens lacks the cognitive equipment to solve them. We are organisms, not angels, and our minds are organs, not piplines to the truth. Our minds evolve by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness or to answer any question we are capable of asking. We cannot hold 10,000 words in short-term memory. We cannot see in ultraviolet light. We cannot mentally rotate an object in fourth dimension. And perhaps we cannot solve conundrums like free will and sentience.

[Steven Pinker, How The Mind Works (1997)]


The drama of the human condition comes solely from consciousness. Of course, consciousness and its revelations allow us to create a better life for self and others, but the price we pay for that better life is high. It is not just the price of risk and danger and pain. It is the price of knowing risk, danger, and pain. Worse even: It is the price of knowing what pleasure is and knowing when it is missing or unattainable.

The drama of the human condition thus comes from consciousness because it concerns knowledge obtained in a bargain that none of us struck: The cost of a better existence is the loss of innocence about that very existence. The feeling of what happens is the answer to a uestion never asked, and it is also the coin in a Faustian bargain that we could never have negotiated: Nature did it for us.

[Antonio Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens (1999)]



Everybody knows what consciousness is:

It is what vanishes every night when we fall into dreamless sleep and reappears when we wake up or when we dream. It is also all we are and all we have: Lose consciousness and, as far as you are concerned, your own self and the entire world dissolve into nothingness . . . . Neurobiological facts constitute both challenging paradoxes and precious clues to the enigma of consciousness. This state of affairs is not unlike the once faced by biologists when, knowing a great deal about similarities and differences between species, fossil remains, and breeding practices, they still lacked a theory of how evolution might occur. What was needed, then as now, were not just more facts but a theoretical framework that could make sense of them.

[Giului Tononi, Biological Bulletin (2008)]