Thoughts on Consciousness

In the words of Merriam-Webster, consciousness is, “being aware especially of something within oneself . . or . . being conscious of an external object, state, or fact.”  By that definition people are surely conscious.  Most people and many animals are observably conscious as they express hunger, excitement, fear, joy, or displeasure.  Philosophers have long wondered where else consciousness may be found.
On the shore of the Salton Sea

What about smaller creatures or single cell organisms?  Experiments have shown that amoeba can sense food sources as distant as one thousand amoeba-lengths and move toward them. At the same time, amoeba move away from dangerous electrical fields. Moving toward things they like and away from things that might harm them is purposeful and shows awareness of the surrounding world.  We might associate that with consciousness too. 

Charles Darwin noticed behavior like that in earthworms as early as 1881.  In his last book he described how worms shy away from light, and how – even without ears – they are sensitive to the vibrations of approaching predators.  He watched worms drag objects into their burrows and realized they must have some kind of mind, to figure out how to do that.  Today, I watch ants do the same thing.  I watch six of them come together in the yard, lift a twig, and carry it off on their shoulders, just like a group of human workmen.

It’s hard to watch that without concluding the behaviors are the result of conscious thought.  What else could they be?  The situation is evolving, so they cannot be programmed, nor are they moving randomly. Opportunities appear, and the creatures seize them. Obstacles arise, and they figure out ways around.  They are much more than automatons. Denial of their consciousness begins to look like a deliberate strategy to diminish them, rather than a reasoned judgement based on their behavior.  

The same behaviors occur on a smaller scale on the inside. Within us, skin cells sense wounded areas and move toward them while dividing to fill the wound.[i]  Neurons sense a need to connect to other specific neurons and grow tendrils for that purpose.  Many would interpret that those actions as evidence of consciousness, too.  But are those components of the consciousness that is us, or do they stand on their own? 

Some have suggested that a brain is necessary for conscious and purposeful behavior, but today we recognize many living things that do not have brains yet still act purposefully. The amoeba is a single cell organism, yet it acts purposefully.  Something within that single cell holds memories, and provides guidance to the creature.  “Single cell” implies a very simple creature when compared to a larger animal with millions, billions, or trillions of cells.  

But even a simple cell is more complex than most people realize.  Each amoeba contains twelve quintillion atoms.  That’s twelve with eighteen zeros.  With that many atoms there is lots of room for internal complexity, most of which is beyond our current understanding. Saying something must have a brain to be conscious is really just a way of imposing an arbitrary restriction on what’s conscious and what’s not, in our own image.

I have often mused about our place in the world.  I’ve observed ants and bees and their behavior as part of a larger colony.  Step on one, and the others immediately bite you.  When one chases you, they all do, just like a human mob. It seems clear certain insects know they are part of a tribe or nest.  They also know who’s part of their tribe and who’s not.   You can see that in summertime when ants from one nest invade another’s territory.  There is no confusion as to who’s on which side, which implies memory, tribal recognition signals or markings.

Are we humans the same?  I wonder if we would know.  As an example, I used to suggest that our white blood cells live and die inside of us, with no possible way to know the totality of what we are.  Yet they fight for us and maintain us by transporting oxygen.  We created them and absorb them when they die.  Now I wonder - Does the fact that they serve us mean they are aware, at some level, of what we are and what they are part of? 

We recognize consciousness at the level of a whole being, where we engage in basic behaviors such as food-seeking, and also speculative, contemplative, or abstract thought.  We wonder how far such consciousness extends in other animals.  It’s clear that many animals anticipate future events, and remember events past.  Animals express feelings with respect to both that suggest a significant level of advanced consciousness.  It’s quite possible that the main limitation to perceiving nonhuman consciousness is the challenge of human-creature conversation.

We are made up of billions of individual cells.  As a whole, our consciousness is vast.  We can observe “lesser” consciousness in our component parts.  For example, our digestive system is largely self governing.  With the exception of adding food or removing waste, we have no conscious control over it, yet it runs throughout our lives.  The conclusion we must draw is that our digestive system is conscious of newly added food, and processes it on demand.  Skeptics would say that’s not consciousness; the digestive system is merely a biological machine doing the job it was assembled to do.  However, that argument could be applied to any function when comparing it to some ostensibly higher process.  If our human totality is undeniably conscious, why would any particular part of us lack consciousness?  It certainly acts in our greater interest, which suggests purpose and intent.

The other argument against consciousness in our digestive system is that it’s a part of us.  It has no independent life, so it’s a part of our consciousness, and it acts in service to our whole.  At the cellular level, white blood cells recognize threatening bacteria and ingest them.  In doing so they expose themselves to risk and death in service to the larger organism of which they are a part.  That could imply consciousness at a high level, but many people would deny that, saying again that they are only doing the job for which they were programmed.  That produces an interesting dichotomy.

A complete human has the thought that her white blood cells are attacking and neutralizing threats against her at this very moment.  She is glad her immune system works, and willingly gives up the white blood cells, knowing she can make more.  She realizes their lives are not her life, and she will live on even as they die.

Down in the bloodstream, the individual white blood cells don’t have that luxury.  They will fight, die, and be absorbed by the body that created them.  Thanks to our higher consciousness, humans often hesitate in the face of danger.  We may fight or run.  From all we know, our white blood cells do not hesitate.  They attack and fight pathogens to the death with no hesitation.  Is that courage, or programming? 

If you believe the white blood cells are programmed, as opposed to conscious, where does the transition from consciousness to programming happen?  If consciousness exists at the level of the whole organism but not the cell, is the transition somewhere between, like an organ? 

Modern medicine gives some answers to that.  We can receive organ transplants and still feel like we are ourselves.  We don’t feel the personality of the organ donor, or share their memories.  In fact, many people feel certain that our brain is the essence of “us.”  It’s the control center for most of our body, and the repository of our memories.  It’s and where our sensory organs transmit signals for processing. It controls our muscles, which are our means of communication and action.  Injure our bodies, and we remain who we are.  Injure our minds, and the essence of us can be lost.  Anyone who’s lost a loved one to stroke knows that all too well.

We believe our brains to be the seat of consciousness, and we imagine our ideas and feelings take shape among the 86 billion neurons that make it up.  Every time we learn something new the brain performs a subtle act of rewiring.  Threads grow from one neuron to another and the web that emerges is the physical embodiment of “us.”  Processes of learning affect thousands or millions of individual neurons, many of which have hundreds or thousands of existing interconnections.  The complexity of connections in our brain is truly unimaginable. 

When any individual neuron in that network reaches out to another, in this process of learning, what does it “know?”  Is the neuron aware of a cognitive desire that drives the whole brain?  Or is it “just following orders?”  If any single neuron “just follows orders,” where do the orders originate?  You can see the problem here.  If we assume our higher consciousness is built from trillions of individually unconscious bits that come together, what is the means of assembly?

That’s a question few people think about, but we should.  One day the answer may be incredibly important.  Consider a person who has a stroke or injury, and loses a significant chunk of their brain. Perhaps they are left with three-quarters of what they had, in terms of functioning brain mass. Are they two-thirds the personality they once were, or are they the same as they once were, but injured?  Now imagine that we surgically removed that chunk of brain, and put it into another person’s body, as scientists are studying doing right now.  What would that create?  A second copy of the person, branching at the date of operation?  Or a fractional personality? Right now that’s science fiction or fantasy but the day will come when it’s real. 

We humans consider ourselves to be continuous beings from birth to death.  When we remember ourselves as children, we are recalling the being we are today, at an earlier time and an earlier stage of development.  Yet we are not the same.  Most of the 70 trillion cells in our bodies have comparatively short lifetimes, from a few days to a few years.  From childhood to adulthood more than 99% of them have been replaced multiple times.  The only cells with continuity are in our nervous system – including the brain.

If we believe that the nervous system holds the consciousness, it’s worth noting that what it is most conscious of is its own surrounding body.  That makes sense because a nervous system can’t live and function separate from its body.  Given that interdependence, and the evidence of conscious action and purpose in other parts of the body (like those white blood cells) it’s hard to justify a limitation of consciousness to less than 1% of our body.  Yet that is what many people think, when phrased that way.

We can also look in another direction.  60% of our body mass is water.  We’ve considered the division of consciousness between our totality, our organs, and cells.  What about between our component chemicals?  Wherever in our body the consciousness lies, the mass is 60% water.  So is some of the consciousness in water?  If so, is the water outside us also possessed of some consciousness?  An adult human brain weighs about three pounds, two of which are water. 

If the consciousness is within us, it must reside in those constituent chemicals.  If it’s not in the water, it must be in the potassium, the nitrogen, or the calcium.  All seem equally improbable, yet they are what we are made of, and consciousness is a fact.  We accept that many assemblages of parts make a sum that’s greater than the whole.  Is this such a case, and consciousness somehow springs from the construction?

At this moment I’m not ready to ascribe consciousness to a pool of water but I’m aware that science is broadening our awareness of conscious and purposeful behavior everyday.  Another possibility is that our consciousness is ethereal.  That is, our living bodies create a field and the consciousness is within it.   The problem with that is there’s no evidence to support it.  The brain does generate electromagnetic fields, but they are incredibly weak, and there is no sign of the back-and-forth communication that would be implied if our consciousness were outside the body.

If our consciousness is not within us, and not in the “ether,” a final possibility is that it’s in some other object.  Perhaps consciousness is in the trees, the fields, or the streams. In their 2011 paper, The Ubiquity of Conscience, Anthony Trewavas and Francisco Baluska make a case that consciousness is in everything.  

For example, we now recognize that plants respond to light and dark.  Some have distinct behaviors under red or blue light.  At some level, they are “seeing.”  Plants react to insects chewing their leaves by making themselves less tasty.  What can we call that, but feeling the insects and reacting?  Evidence has even shown that plants communicate.  When one plant in a forest activates its defenses, its neighbors follow suit.  To me that is both conscious and purposeful. 

Plants even plan.  When faced with predatory insects, some trees produce chemicals that attract insects who eat the ones who are attacking the tree.  That shows a level of actual intelligence beyond just reacting.  It’s memory, planning, and action. Time lapse photography allows us to look at plants with time sped up a hundredfold, or a thousandfold.  At those speeds the behaviors of plants can look very similar to those of animals. 

Trees stand in the forest, seeming indifferent to us and anything else.  But that is an illusion as studies of their chemical responses to attach show.  The reason trees appear in different is that they operate on a different time scale from us.  Trees may life ten or even a hundred times longer than you or I.  Everything they do is slow. Their leaves open over days, and their branches grow over months and years.  Trees and plants are probably far more aware than any of us know.

Rocks have an even longer timescale.  Rocks live millions or billions of years.  They dissolve into dust, and are reconstituted as other things. That process might be compared to the way we make new red blood cells, then send them out to do our bidding, transporting oxygen in our blood.  When their usefulness is exhausted they are reabsorbed into our bodies only to reappear in some other form.  Just like the cycle of rock, from volcano to rock to dust that is folded back into the earth and transported downward.

On a geological scale the earth heals itself like a giant organism.  Consider the meteor craters, and all the impacts our planet has sustained over the past few billion years.  The evidence of damage is mostly gone, because the earth healed itself.  How did earth know to do that?  Some say the planet is a conscious living thing, and that is evidence of it.  Perhaps consciousness is everywhere, if only we have the wisdom, patience and acceptance to see it.

Abandoned studio, Salton Sea

(c) John Elder Robison

John Elder Robison is an autistic adult and advocate for people with neurological differences.  He's the author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, Raising Cubby, and Switched On. He serves on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Dept of Health and Human Services and many other autism-related boards. He's co-founder of the TCS Auto Program (A school for teens with developmental challenges) and he’s the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. He's also a visiting professor of practice at Bay Path University in Longmeadow, Massachusetts and advisor to the Neurodiversity Institute at Landmark College in Putney, Vermont.  

The opinions expressed here are his own.  There is no warranty expressed or implied.  While reading this essay will give you food for thought, actually printing and eating it may make you sick. 

[i] Le, Cox, Flyvbjerg; Dictyostelium motility as persistent random motion  Physical Biology Aug 2012


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