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K. Smythe's picture

Defining Consciousness

            It seems to me that consciousness, as with many things, a spectrum exists upon which we can (subjectively) place both ourselves and others.  We discussed some of the levels of consciousness as being awake, asleep, dreaming, sleepwalking, hypnosis, coma, anesthesia etc. but one thing we didn’t discuss was the possible differences in individual people’s consciousness.  As with other internal states like emotion, consciousness is only something we can gauge because we assume that we are fully conscious when we are normally awake.  This is just another level of perception and it is entirely possible, and in fact in my opinion likely, that our consciousness is in fact only part of our subjective experience that we place on others in order to more usefully interact and connect with them.  The issue of animals and consciousness to me is again on the above mentioned spectrum; whether this is “higher” or “lower” than our own consciousness seems irrelevant.  That it is different seems likely.

            One issue that I found interesting was the idea of consciousness and memory being intrinsically linked.  Can you be conscious if you do not remember later that you were?  How long do you need to remember for to qualify consciousness (if memory is essential)?  To me it seems that memory and consciousness are only linked in the sense of the past.  Consciousness to me is in the moment.  It is the idea of being lucid and saying ‘yes, I am aware of myself and my surroundings’.  If you can’t remember something I don’t think that means you weren’t necessarily conscious at the time, it just means that you are no longer conscious of your previous state.  To me it seems that consciousness and memory do not have to be linked.  It is convenient if you can remember your conscious state and conscious decisions in order to help verify that state later on; but to be conscious in the present to me does not mean to be able to remember you were conscious later. This, however, is only my personal definition of consciousness.

            That I don’t feel there must be a connection between consciousness and memory makes many examples difficult to interpret; for example, the idea of infant amnesia.  Are we born conscious and just cannot remember it or is consciousness a concept/feeling that develops over time?  Do we obtain consciousness as we obtain other forms of awareness of the world around us?  As we look at neural correlates of the subjectively defined “conscious state” (wow that must be a difficult thing to research), I think it would be interesting to look at the brain waves of infants.  Do they show the same neural activity during normal awake hours as adults or are they developmentally not far enough along to show the same activity?  Does this mean (either way) that they are conscious or not?


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