In this book, Annaka Harris guides us through the evolving definitions, philosophies, and scientific findings that probe our limited understanding of consciousness. Where does it reside, and what gives rise to it? Could it be an illusion, or a universal property of all matter?
Key Takeaways from Conscious
Consciousness is a trait we all share, but it can be difficult to define what it means. In Thomas Nagel’s essay, “What is it Like to be a Bat?” Nagel argues that something can be seen as conscious if there is “something that it is like to be that organism…. something it is like for the organism.” Meaning that something must be capable of having an experience, or be sentient, to experience the effect of some event, in order to be considered conscious. Intuition is another elusive trait that human beings have and often experience. Intuition is commonly regarded as a gut feeling, or a visceral sense that you feel internal is true. Our intuitions often trigger our fight or flight impulses. Intuition is usually right, it is still good to question their veracity at times. Though intuition is usually right, it can sometimes lead you astray.
Since we are only able to experience our own consciousness, this could lead us to falsely believe that we are the only entities with consciousness. Studies conducted on trees show that even non-sentient organisms can display humanistic traits. Douglas fir trees and paper birch seem to have an element of consciousness by regularly supplying nutrients to each other when needed. The Venus flytrap is another example of a plant with anthropogenic traits. A Venus flytrap will not shut close on its prey unless both its triggers are set off, which means some form of memory is required to initiate its trigger. This tells us that either plants possess consciousness, or (and what is more likely) certain entities that display conscious-like behavior may not require consciousness after all.
The subconscious parts of our mind may be responsible for more of our actions than you would think. During a typical day, how many of your actions would you describe as being completely ‘conscious’? Most day-to-day actions occur automatically: driving, brushing your teeth, grabbing your keys before heading out the door. Despite what you’d think, many internal thoughts are also from the subconscious. You could be going about your day, as usual, and out of nowhere, a memory from a decade ago pops into your mind. To sum it up, the subconscious plays a big role in the multitudes of human behavior.
It could seem like senses inform our brains instantaneously. It feels like our senses of sight, smell, and touch all occur at the same time. It turns out this is not the case. Our senses operate differently from each other, and they report information at different points. Touch takes longer to deliver information to the brain than hearing. Disjunctive agnosia is a neurological disorder where the senses experience an even greater delay amongst one another in reporting information to the brain. A person’s sense of reality can be distorted with this disorder. Certain substances we consume can also blur the lines between our reality. LSD and deep meditation practices could have this effect.
Does all matter experience consciousness? According to panpsychism, the answer is yes. Panpsychists believe that any material thing (even a pen), has some consciousness. Before jumping the gun (on what seems like a poor hypothesis), it’s true that most organisms on Earth are made of similar matter. Some researchers endorse panpsychism; like biologist J.B.S. Haldene, and Bernhard Rensch. A critical distinction to keep in mind is that they don’t believe all entities experience consciousness to the same degree. Panpsychism mostly encourages the possibility of there being other forms of consciousness besides just human consciousness.
Panpsychism is not a very commonly held belief. It’s not difficult to see why, since some of its implications are hard to accept. The idea that each of our organs possesses ‘consciousness’ seems false. It’s unlikely that each organ experiences consciousness, but it’s possible that our brains are capable of experiencing more than one form of consciousness. Studies have been done on patients recovering from certain brain surgeries, and during recovery, some patients experienced disjointed behavior as a result of the brain surgery.
My Favorite Quotes from Conscious
"consciousness is in fact the only thing in the universe that is not a mystery—in the sense that it is the only thing we truly understand firsthand."
"the truth of my situation: I’m floating around the universe on this giant sphere—suspended here by gravity and going for a ride.... being on the earth doesn’t separate us from the rest of the universe; indeed, we are and have always been in outer space."
― Annaka Harris, Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind
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Editor and Founder
Tal Gur is a location independent entrepreneur, author, and impact investor. After trading his daily grind for a life of his own daring design, he spent a decade pursuing 100 major life goals around the globe. His most recent book and bestseller, The Art of Fully Living - 1 Man, 10 Years, 100 Life Goals Around the World, has set the stage for his new mission: elevating society to its abundance potential.