Contemplate the unique experience of being you at this moment! You, and only you, have direct knowledge of your own conscious experiences. At the same time, you cannot know consciousness from anyone else’s inside view. How can we begin to understand this fantastic ability to have private, conscious experiences?
In a sense, everything you know is from your own vantage point, with your own consciousness at the center. Yet the scientific study of consciousness confronts the challenge of producing general understanding that goes beyond what can be known from one individual’s perspective.
To delve into this topic, some terminology must first be considered. The term consciousness can denote the ability of a person to generate a series of conscious experiences one after another. Here we include experiences of feeling and understanding sensory input, of a temporal sequence of autobiographical events, of imagination, of emotions and moods, of ideas, of memories—the whole range of mental contents open to an individual.
Consciousness can also refer to the state of an individual, as in a sharp or dull state of consciousness, a drug-induced state such as euphoria, or a diminished state due to drowsiness, sleep, neurological abnormality, or coma. In this module, we focus not on states of consciousness or on self-consciousness, but rather on the process that unfolds in the course of a conscious experience—a moment of awareness—the essential ingredient of consciousness.
You have probably experienced the sense of knowing exactly what a friend is thinking. Various signs can guide our inferences about consciousness in others. We can try to infer what’s going on in someone else’s mind by relying on the assumption that they feel what we imagine we would feel in the same situation. We might account for someone’s actions or emotional expressions through our knowledge of that individual and our careful observations of their behavior. In this way, we often display substantial insight into what they are thinking. Other times we are completely wrong.
By measuring brain activity using various neuroscientific technologies, we can acquire additional information useful for deciphering another person’s state of mind. In special circumstances such inferences can be highly accurate, but limitations on mind reading remain, highlighting the difficulty of understanding exactly how conscious experiences arise.
A Science of Consciousness
Attempts to understand consciousness have been pervasive throughout human history, mostly dominated by philosophical analyses focused on the first-person perspective. Now we have a wider set of approaches that includes philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, cognitive science, and contemplative science (Blackmore, 2006; Koch, 2012; Zelazo, Moscovitch, & Thompson, 2007; Zeman, 2002).
The challenge for this combination of approaches is to give a comprehensive explanation of consciousness. That explanation would include describing the benefits of consciousness, particularly for behavioral capabilities that conscious experiences allow, that trump automatic behaviors. Subjective experiences also need to be described in a way that logically shows how they result from precursor events in the human brain. Moreover, a full account would describe how consciousness depends on biological, environmental, social, cultural, and developmental factors.
At the outset, a central question is how to conceive of consciousness relative to other things we know. Objects in our environment have a physical basis and are understood to be composed of constituents, such that they can be broken down into molecules, elements, atoms, particles, and so on. Yet we can also understand things relationally and conceptually. Sometimes a phenomenon can best be conceived as a process rather than a physical entity (e.g., digestion is a process whereby food is broken down). What, then, is the relationship between our conscious thoughts and the physical universe, and in particular, our brains?
Rene Descartes’ position, dualism, was that mental and physical are, in essence, different substances. This view can be contrasted with reductionist views that mental phenomena can be explained via descriptions of physical phenomena. Although the dualism/reductionism debate continues, there are many ways in which mind can be shown to depend on brain.
A prominent orientation to the scientific study of consciousness is to seek understanding of these dependencies—to see how much light they can shed on consciousness. Significant advances in our knowledge about consciousness have thus been gained, as seen in the following examples.