Do we really know? Will we ever truly be able to answer this apparently simple question?
Many of the best scientific minds have dedicated their lives to this very question throughout history. Whilst we have made some headway,we still don't really know.
But some interesting research may provide another clue in our journey to understand the fundamental workings of the mind and consciousness. And it might be due to something as fundamental in as vibrations...
What is consciousness?
This is a very good question. In fact, it is one of the oldest questions humankind has ever postulated and attempted to answer.
Whilst everyone one of us intuitively know what is meant by the term, actually explaining what it is (let alone defining it), is a little complicated. Many of the greatest philosophers and scientists of all time have spent entire careers attempting to address this very question.
For example, some of the greatest western philosophers from Aristotle to Locke have struggled with this very question, and have often failed to form a consensus. So don't feel too bad if you have a hard time explaining it yourself to others.
But let's at least attempt to define it. The general dictionary definition of consciousness is:
"The state of being aware of and responsive to one's surroundings." - Oxford English Dictionary.
Seems simple doesn't it? But this definition belies the complexity of consciousness. It is also very subjective.
Science tends to define; well explain really, the phenomenon more biomechanically. Scientists tend to attack the problem from a materialistic-philosophical perspective rather than philosophy's more metaphysical approach.
It appears that for consciousness to exist, a conscious thing must have a 'brain.' This implies that this requires physical matter and it must be something to do with that.
We are purposefully omitting Artificial Intelligence for the sake of simplicity. Developments in this area will necessarily alter our understanding of what consciousness means if real general artificial intelligence is ever achieved.
Most will also accept that consciousness, at least in part, comes from the complex interplay of neurons within a brain. A brain's vastly interconnected highway of neurons provides all of a conscious being's mental processes from learning, memory making, perception, and, language (at least in humans).
But, there are also many 'unconscious' parts of the brain that perform actions without the conscious brain ever being made aware of. This includes many bodily functions vital for the survival of the creature.
Despite the progress made, thanks to modern science, we may never truly be able to understand the phenomenon.
As you can see, the question is not a simple one to answer concisely (if at all). Moving swiftly on...
Where is consciousness located in the brain?
Despite the apparent complex problem of defining and explaining consciousness, we have managed to garner some idea of where it comes from (in humans at least). Scientists can 'see' which parts of the brain show activity when the subject undergoes conscious activities.
Some researchers have managed to identify at least three large portions of the human brain that seems to be very important for what we call consciousness (though there are others).
1. The reticular formation. Studies have shown that this portion of the lower brain appears to be vital for states of alertness, wakefulness, and sleep
2. The thalamus. This portion of the brain appears to act as a telephone exchange between the brain and the body. It sorts and routes neural signals from the body to where it is needed in the brain.
3. The cortex. This appears to be the most important part of the brain, with regards to consciousness. It is primarily responsible for things like perception, and control of voluntary actions.
Modern brain-imaging techniques have also enabled us to see conscious actions in the brain in real time.
For example, researchers like Claire Sergent, Sylvain Baillet, and Stanislas Dehaene have even been able to successfully monitor the sequences of neural activity that occur in a subject’s brain. They did this by tracking what happens when a word is briefly projected on a screen is perceived consciously and when it is not.
Their findings showed that whether the word is consciously perceived depends completely on how long it is displayed. If it is projected for only about a quarter of a second, it will not be perceived consciously, but if it is projected for longer—say about three-quarters of a second— it will.
This is very interesting indeed and is but one of many studies into the brain and consciousness. Needless to say, you could spend a lifetime reading all the material (both scientific and philosophical) on this very subject.
I'm pickin' up good vibrations
Many studies using brain-imaging technology, appear to show that for consciousness to exist there must be some form of communication, or resonance,in various parts of the brain. It does not, therefore, originate from a single part of the brain.
Neurologically, at least, it appears to be a byproduct of a complex interplay of multiple parts of the brain. For this reason, if someone suffers localized damage, consciousness (well personality) is not lost completely, but can be severely altered.
A new paper published in November of last year could help us understand uncover the true nature of consciousness. According to the author's resonance might just be the key to "thinking".
The paper is the result of over a decade's research and has developed a new theory called "Resonance Theory of Consciousness".
According to this theory, resonance (more specifically synchronized vibrations) is at the very heart of human and animal consciousness and physical reality in general.
This shouldn't really come as any surprise. After all, all things in the Universe vibrate to a certain extent.
Even stationary things are vibrating, oscillating, resonating at various frequencies all the time. Everything in the Universe might just fundamentally be all about vibrations.
But let's step away from quantum mechanics for the sake of every reader's (and the author's) sanity.
When researchers 'image' the brain, they tend to focus on three discrete types of brain frequencies. These are gamma, beta and theta waves.
These labels refer to the speed of the electrical oscillations in the brain which are measured by electrodes placed on the skull.
- Gamma waves appear to be responsible for perception, meditation, and focussed consciousness.
- Beta waves appear when the brain is at 'maximum' activity or the subject is aroused.
- Theta waves are associated with relaxation and activities like daydreaming.
By studying these for over a decade, the research team believes they may have made a breakthrough. According to them, in theory, everything from atoms to humans might have some form of consciousness from almost negligible in atoms, to the highly complex form humans possess.
"This sounds strange at first blush, but “panpsychism” – the view that all matter has some associated consciousness – is an increasingly accepted position with respect to the nature of consciousness." - Neuroscience News.
In a nutshell, the theory proposes that all matter has some form of innate or potential consciousness. But thinking" can only occur with increasing complexity like the formation of something like a brain.
"The central thesis of our approach is this: the particular linkages that allow for large-scale consciousness – like those humans and other mammals enjoy – result from a shared resonance among many smaller constituents. The speed of the resonant waves that are present is the limiting factor that determines the size of each conscious entity in each moment." - Neuroscience News.
If this is true, then consciousness doesn't necessarily require a physical brain to become conscious but must be able to provide shared resonance in short order. More work is clearly needed, but it could open new doors for AI-development and potentially help us better identify consciousness in lower organisms.
It might also have implications for identifying extraterrestrial life in the future - who knows?