What is Consciousness?
Contemporary definitions of consciousness widely vary and are often used to describe entirely different phenomena altogether. One common definition involves using the word consciousness as a means to describe the constant stream of sensation that is experienced throughout life. This is in line with vernacular uses of the term. For example, it is common to say that one “loses consciousness” upon suffering a traumatic head injury which results in a loss of that stream of experience. Note that according to this definition, in cases where a person does not experience a constant stream of sensation (during blackout or traumatic brain injury), consciousness would not be considered present even though parts of the brain would still be active.
This constant stream of experience i.e. the ability to be see, hear, move, think, feel at the same time can be easily explained. It is well documented that this stream of sensation is caused by the integration of different parts of the brain all being interconnected and working in unison. For example, a “conscious moment” would be the combination of visual, audio and other sensory inputs all converging at a single part of the brain at a given instance. These would all be encoded into memory, and then continuously retrieved to make up a fluid stream of consciousness.
The idea that the integration of different parts of the brain are responsible for consciousness was first studied by anesthesiologists at Michigan Medicine. They found via brain imaging that when patients are put to sleep or “lose consciousness” the one fundamental change that happens is the ceasing of integration between different parts of the brain. Therefore, even though there is electrical activity happening at certain parts of the brain, these signals are not being converged and therefore can’t work together to form the fluid stream of consciousness people are used to while awake.
Is sleeping a ‘conscious’ state?
Since parts of the brain are not properly integrated during sleep, there is little ability to record perceived events into memory. Therefore, when waking up, aside from a few tidbits of dreams, there is no memory of the night before. People assume that simply because they have no memory of what happens while they sleep, that they do not have experiences then at all. In reality, it is highly likely that they do have experiences during sleep (due to the electrical activity in the brain). However, since memories associated with these experiences aren’t recorded (due to a lack of integration), they are not remembered upon awakening and thus discounted.
Furthermore, since parts of the brain are not integrated during sleep, the perspective that people actually experience while they sleep is likely very different from the constant stream of sensation they are used to while awake. Therefore, one could argue that since experiences during sleep aren’t “experienced” in the same manner as they are when awake, the brain actually does what it can when awakening to fabricate an artificial memory of sorts into a stream of consciousness like experience. An example of this would be remembering a dream when waking up, even though in reality the brain just fabricated memories of the dream at that moment, to help “translate” the incomplete state of consciousness into a manner people can properly understand.
Is this definition of consciousness correct?
Children don’t have a clear and lucid sense of the world when they’re young. In fact before the age of three, it is debatable to suggest children have any fluid stream of sensation or memories at all. As they get older, their brains expand, they become more intelligent and are able to perceive the world in a clearer and more complete manner. However, does this mean that children are any ‘less’ conscious than adults? Do they have any less of a subjective perspective of experience, even if their lens is not as clear?
The point here is that the prior definition discounts the subjective perspective from which the stream of sensation is reliant on. Without a subjective perspective in the first place, the ability to sense a stream of consciousness is just neural technology. For example, artificial intelligences are capable of being programmed to process input from their surroundings in a stream of consciousness like manner. However, what no one so far has been able to program is a subjective perspective for the intelligences to actually view their world from. This is why current understanding of neural technology alone is not enough to explain the subjectivity of human consciousness.
Therefore, I believe a better definition of consciousness would be not the stream of sensation one experiences throughout life, but the subjective perspective from which they are able to experience that stream of sensation in the first place.