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Paul Grobstein's picture

Welcome to the on-line forum associated with the 2008 senior seminar in Neural and Behavioral Sciences at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges. Its a way to keep conversations going between course meetings, and to do so in a way that makes our conversations available to other who may in turn have interesting thoughts to contribute to them.

Thoughts this week about

and our conversation based on them ....
JaymElaine's picture

My Thoughts on Consciousness...

I really enjoyed last week's discussion on consciousness; it really had me thinking. Firstly, I do believe that learning is a very conscious act. Like Emily was saying, I wish it was possible to daydream and be fully conscious at the same time (that would be great wouldn't it)!

One thing that I was questioning, is how do we feel about consciousness and drugs. Do drugs (narcotics) put us in another state of consciousness, or do they put us in a state of unconsciousness? For example, is euphoria a type of consciousness? Yea, I wonder about that. Also, how do we feel about substances that have the potential to influence our consciousness, such as caffeine, Red Bull, or even Ritalin/Adarol? Are these artificial conscious states? Yea, I wonder about that, too.

Lastly, what I found to be intriguing was using the unconscious to work the conscious state. For example, when I know I need to write a paper, I look over some things that I would like to write about and include in my paper; then I go to sleep! As I sleep, I come up with all these fantastic ideas on how to write this paper; and when I do wake up, I run to my computer and begin typing out the paper that I imagined in my dreams. It works! I do it all the time.

Ok, this is really the last idea: individuals who experience dimeniona are quite puzzling aren't they?? Do they or do they not have a conscious? Yes, I definitely wondered about that one!



Jayme E. Hopkins, '08

krosania's picture

Thank you!

Hi guys,

Thank you all for your thought-provoking comments. I'm so glad that everyone found this topic of consciousness so interesting, and I've really enjoyed reading all of the comments posted as a follow-up of the discussion last week.

Mostly, I find it really interesting that everyone seems to have their own conception of what consciousness is or isn't, or what it should be, and yet in our discussion last week someone raised the possibility that consciousness is just something you can recognize from your own experience. We seem to take for granted, much like with color perception, that one person's conception of what they experience as consciousness is the sam as another's, when it may be likely that we all experience consciousness differently. I am still a fan of the idea that there are multiple layers of consciousness, and that we are aware of things on different layers to a varying extent. This would explain how information can be stored in the brain and arise into our awareness at a later time, even when we are not able to retrieve the memory of first being exposed to that information. It also explains how one can drive, listen to the radio, talk on a cell phone, and navigate all at once (not that this is necessarily advisable). I think to really understand consciousness and what separates a conscious being from an unconscious one, we need to allow for the possibility that the distinction between these two states may not be black and white. 

tlogan's picture


So, I agree with much that has been said here, but I just would like to understand; why does consciousness need to be separated from all of its components? For my part, consciousness cannot be separated from all of its feeders, being memory, external sense, body sense, emotions, etc, but that is because I cannot separate myself from any one of those things. I don’t see why consciousness must be defined by a set of criteria, especially when there is not way to measure consciousness. How can something so intrinsic to our self-awareness be quantified? To me, I have to go back to the Beetle analogy (sorry!); we all assume that our consciousness is more or less like others (who are not extremely divergent), but there really is no way of knowing. Yes, a man with extremely impaired short term memory might experience consciousness differently from the rest of us, but how do we know what components feed into it? What would consciousness be without its peripheral components? Just thoughts in the dark?


Also in my thoughts throughout the whole presentation: why are we conscious? It seems to benefit us, as it adds to our adaptability, but one has to wonder, how did it evolve? Could we block it genetically, i.e. could we craft a strain of knockout mice for the consciousness gene?


Though this is a Daedalus article, it is quite interesting, and brings up some valid ideas: suppose one could engineer a set of “advanced alcoholics” that would allow one to inhibit consciousness, only for a brief period of time? I’m really just musing at this point….

Ian Morton's picture

Split-Brain Patients

Answering the question of whether or not language is necessary for consciousness is a task amenable to scientific inquiry. Importantly, what one concludes in either direction is dependent on how consciousness if defined. For example, consider observations of split-brain patients, who are unable to report seeing an object in their left field of vision, but who are able to select that object from among a row of objects significantly more than chance would predict (among other behaviors indicative of some type of awareness of the object such as drawing it). If consciousness is defined in terms of reportability, which constitutes an indication of introspective awareness, one would here conclude that the split-brain patients were not conscious of the object. However, if one defines consciousness in terms of some indication of awareness of that object such as an ability to select or draw that object, despite being incapable of reporting an awareness of it, than these patients would be considered conscious of the object.

With this anecdote in mind, it becomes apparent that while one can scientifically investigate the nature of consciousness, however, one does need to define consciousness before interpreting the results of empirical investigations of consciousness, as how one defines consciousness will pose important implications for the interpretation of results.

Further, I think this further illustrates point touched on in class, that consciousness is composed of various layers. For this reason, it seems that descriptions of consciousness should avoid seeking to define a single or principle criterion for defining what is “conscious” and instead set out to describe the various layers of consciousness and how these layers contribute to the processes of the others.
aamen's picture

I also thought this was a

I also thought this was a really interesting discussion topic. I agree with Kendra and Jenna, in that I don’t think that learning necessarily has to be conscious. There are plenty of psychology experiments that involve flashing words or pictures so quickly that people don’t consciously realize that they’ve seen them, but they can still “learn” to do things based on the information since (theoretically) their ‘subconscious’ processed the information. This also implies subconscious memory, which would mean that memory does not have to be conscious either. Thinking about these ideas made me wonder what exactly the subconscious is in relation to the conscious/unconscious mind – is subconscious learning what we’re referring to when we say unconscious learning? Or are they two separate things? I liked Kendra’s idea of consciousness being a spectrum, where maybe subconscious falls somewhere between conscious and unconscious.


At first I felt like, in defining consciousness, that I liked the idea that it requires being aware of options for action, and potentially choosing how to act. However, after thinking about my own experiences I don’t really agree with this anymore. We talked some about how when people are performing/competing they will sometimes black out the entire experience. I know that for me, I don’t actually black it out, but in order to perform well I have to be in a mental state where I have no feeling of control over what I’m doing, and no real awareness of different options for action. At the same time, I’m very aware of everything around me and what’s happening in that moment – I would definitely say that I’m conscious. Again, I think it makes sense to argue for multiple different kinds of consciousness, or for consciousness as a spectrum.

kbrown's picture

Attention and conciousness

Hi guys,

  I really enjoyed our discussion last tuesday, I thought it provoked some really interesting questions about both the definition of conciousness and who and what we can apply the term to (dream states, sleep states, death, animals etc.)  One question that I had about the presentation was in reference to the "gorilla in the midst" demonstration. 

If my understanding is correct, researchers used this as an example of the failure of conciousness, demonstrating that most humans do not notice the gorilla because they are unable to be concious of all things at all times, and further that autistic patients would notice the gorilla because they display a different type of conciousness more similar to that of animals which enables them to be concious of more and in more detail.  This experiment reminded me of an experiment that I learned about in a cognition and memory class that I took while I was abroad.  In this experiment, subjects were asked to listen to an audio recording telling a story and then were exposed at random intervals to a voice calling their name.  Although I don't remember the exact details of the experiment, I do remember that they were asked to pay attention to the story for some detail.  Experimentors found that some people almost always noticed when their name was called, while others almost never noticed.  Researchers therefore proposed that there are really two groups of people: those who are better at focusing on the story and will not notice when they hear their name, and those who are less attentive and will notice when they hear their name. 

It seems to me that the same might apply to the gorilla in the mist experiment, namely that there is not a clear cut difference between autistic and non-autistic people, but that perhaps there is a continuum, and that some non-autistic people do notice the gorilla, and also might conceivably hear their name called.  Perhaps autistic people represent an extreme on this continuum?  Also on a more general note, I'm still unsure of how in these experiments we differentiate between attention and conciousness.  Are they the same thing or simply interrelated?

Thanks guys!

Jenna's picture

This discussion on

This discussion on consciousness has been very interesting, particularly our attempts to come to an agreement about a definition for it.  Like someone mentioned before I believe that consciousness is only in the present and that memory is not a requirement for consciousness.  One reason I believe this is that I think there are certain ethical problems if we define memory as an essential component for consciousness.  For example, if during surgery a paralytic was used without any analgesic and then a drug was given to make the person forget the pain would that be acceptable since the person would not remember the pain?  I would argue that the fact that they could experience the pain at the time is enough to say they were conscious and it is important to recognize that.  Although the person later would never be conscious of the memory of that pain they would have still suffered in the moment.  I also think that the example given in class of the brain as a storage bin with only a certain amount of space is a good example of why we may not remember all our conscious moments.


I also thought the discussion of conscious vs. unconscious learning was intriguing.  I definitely know of times when I feel I learn better somewhat unconsciously.  One example which particularly sticks out is reading for certain classes.  Right now I am taking Classical Mythology and I always remember the stories better if I don’t highlight them and concentrate on the exact words but read them somewhat unconsciously and focus on the actions instead.  However, if I was reading a science textbook the same way and it lacked a central story I would probably read the page but not really absorb anything.  Therefore, I think that unconscious learning can be important and helpful in some situations, but conscious attention is essential for other tasks.  


Finally, I think the idea of consciousness after death is important because it suggests that there is more to consciousness than just a network of neurons.  If this is true and there is not a tangible place or thing to look at when studying consciousness, how can we ever define and better understand it?

Paul Grobstein's picture

Issues re consciousness

Lots of interesting bits in this session, to think more about ...

The gorilla in our midst is a nice illustration of missing things consciously. And worth exploring further. Do autistc people notice the gorilla consciously? Do we all notice it unconsciously?

Does not remembering something mean one has never been conscious of it (eg sleep waking?). Or can one be conscious of something and then forget it. Memento suggests the answer to the second question is yes, so how does one know that someone has never been conscious of something? Can we use the "awareness of alternate choices" criterion here? Or is that something above "basal" consciousness? Alternatively, can "basal" consciousness exist without the potential at least for awareness of alternate choices? In all this, it is clearly important to distinguish between "conscious" and "conscious of". Can one be "conscious" without being "conscious of" something?

Does it make sense to speak of dementia as a loss of consciousness, of other situations of increased predictability of behavior as loss of consciousness?

Does one need to be conscious to act in society? in order to learn unconsciously? Does one have to be conscious to "learn things one doesn't enjoy"?

Andrea G.'s picture

I think one of the most

I think one of the most interesting topics we brought up in class last week was the idea of conscious and unconscious learning.  We talked a lot in Human Cognition about how tasks generally begin as conscious processes and after a great deal of practice can often transition into unconscious processes.  The most obvious example of this is driving, as we talked about in our discussion last week.  What I realized afterwards is that it can often happen in reverse as well.  I found it really interesting that knowledge seems to be able to shift from conscious to unconscious simply by directing attention and a little bit of practice in a certain direction.

Personally, this has happened the most in sports.  I've been swimming competitively since I was very young, and it's one of those things that I can just do without thinking about how it happens.  It took some time, but eventually, even the most complicated technical aspects of swimming became fairly unconscious to me.  That didn't change until I got certified to actually teach swimming.  Teaching kids how to swim forced me to bring all of my knowledge about swimming out of my unconscious and into the conscious again.  Whereas I could never have explained the steps involved in a successful flip turn when I was 12, it's now something that I consciously attend to whenever I do one, and as a result, I can express how to do it to a student.

I'd be interested to see if anyone else has had a similar experience or any thoughts on this phenomenon.
ehinchcl's picture

So I think all the

So I think all the discussion about the definition of consciousness is incredibly interesting-- and im not sure that there really is just one right answer. Kendra's above idea about a spectrum seems to me like a good way to define things, as with many of our topics, there is no black and white "conscious" "unconscious" with this definition and it is best to look at it with all of the variability in mind. I think one thing that has sort of been brought up as well is this idea that we will never really know another person's consciousness (beetle in a box idea) which also adds to the complexity of the issue. We define others as conscious all the time-- like when my professors think i am conscious AND attending to the material at hand but i'm actually daydreaming. Does that mean that their interpretation of my consciousness is wrong? (Which brings up a whole different issue that has also been discussed above about attention versus consciousness) Am I "unconscious" with respect to them? I sort of like this idea: that you can be conscious or unconscious WITH RESPECT to things... which fits into a our driving a car example.

Antoher interesting thing that i wanted to bring up, somewhat anecdotally, is the idea of productive thought in an unconscious setting. I know that when im thinking about work just before I go to bed I'll think of some of my best ideas, but then when i fully return to my awake state (even just afterwards when i tell myself i need to write the thought down) i can never get the phrasing or the idea quite right. Is there a state where we are able to think crticially and productively while still being unconscious? this relates to the above topics that were brought up about unconscious education, which i think is really interesting. can we practice putting ourselves into this state of lower attention in order to learn in new and different ways? is this better or worse?

lastly, since this discussion has been a bunch of little tidbits of thoughts anyway, i wanted to bring up the idea of artificial intelligence. We talked about the blue chip (Gillian's presenation i think?) which is trying to create a working brain from the neuron to neuron connections and upward. Would such a creation have consciousness? When we talked about it before we thought that it would-- sort of. We didn't say so explicitly, but we did get the feeling that if the creation was actaully exactly like a brain then it should function as such and have some form of consciousness so we all felt morally that it would be bad to simply turn such a thing off. do we really believe that consciousness is simply a combination of all of the neural connections and firing? as a biologist i want to be able to explain it as such, but this (and the thoguhts above, especially about the after-death phenomenon) really forces you to ponder ideas outside of the root science... such as faith and morality.

thanks for such an interesting discussion

atuttle's picture

Over the past few weeks I

Over the past few weeks I have found myself responding directly to Emily's comments because she does a wonderful job rephrasing some of the themes that other people have brought up over the course of the discussion, so thank you Emily! To address the first point about being conscious towards "X," I am wondering if this is just another way of describing attention. For example, when driving a car for long periods of time you are not actively paying attention to the task for the entire time, but allow yourself to focus on other, more interesting components. Yet the majority of us seem to think that we are driving unconsciously. This example highlights the multiple definitions of consciousness, and the necessary substrates that apply to each version. With this definition, it appears that attention is necessary for a conscious state, yet other definitions of the disorder merely state that a person be "awake." In that case, a daydreamer would still be described as conscious.

I think Stephanie makes a good point by reiterating that science takes a complex and ambiguous phenomenon and breaks it down to several different operational levels. As a result, multiple definitions for concepts like consciousness or love may exist. Furthermore, I agree with Emily that significant thoughts or ideas may come from different mental states, including peri-consciousness or even sleep. While we are alive our brains never stop working. Even in the deepest sleep different areas of our brain continue to function, and may lead to more creative or nonlinear thinking. Sleep studies have found that sleep can lead to disinhibition--thoughts that would otherwise be strained out of our conscious experience may break through in a sleep-like state.

Finally, I am skeptical of post-death consciousness. I believe that experiences that people recount come from the moments before brain-death, when neurons may become activated haphazardly due to a breakdown in brain homeostasis (i.e., lack of oxygen, energy, etc.) If an individual regains consciousness, it is possible that the experiences they describe may come form those seconds of neural disorder. The experience may seem like it lasted a longer period of time, but then again some dreams feel like they are played out over several hours (whereas brain imaging studies indicate that dreams only last several seconds in the real world). Then again, science may not be able to explain everything in life, and there is definitely wiggle room for alternative beliefs/ explanations :-)


~Alex Tuttle

Haverford '08

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?

Emily Alspector's picture

Defining Issues

As I think most people also realized, defining consciousness proved to be the most difficult part of conversation last week, and defining terms has been an impediment on most or many of our conversations. Maybe it is because it seems abstract and even undefinable because it's all we know; when we are not conscious we aren't aware and so it is out of our element to try and verbalize. Regardless, it is an incredibly interesting topic, and I'm glad we made it part of our seminar.

I really think sleep, and dreams in particular, is really interesting. Thinking of ways the unconscious can effect our behaviors is almost scary but yet undeniable. I don't know much about the topic, but I know that having a nightmare or intense dream can mess with my awake-state, so why wouldn't unrealized memories have a similar effect? What's also interesting is that phase when you're waking up and still uncertain if reality is reality or if your dream is reality, a fuzzy consciousness almost..if there is a mechanism of consciousness, I wonder if it takes time to "warm up", so to speak, which is why we are groggy in the morning (and with lack of sleep). With that, maybe the mechanism needs to recharge, and that is why we so often daydream, doze off, become "unconscious" for a few minutes at a time.

I also think discussing evidence for consciousness is an interesting one, one that overlaps with the question of consciousness in animals. I partly hate questions like this because they have no answer, but they are interesting nonetheless. We like to break things down according to what we know we are capable of and equate those things with consciousness (social abilities, morality, etc). It's interesting, too, to assume that these are all things that we have with absolute certainty; if we've learned anything from this seminar it's that we know even less about our brains than we care to admit (in fact, I might say we "know" next to nothing..). Clearly, consciousness cannot be accounted for by other uncertain qualities. I think it could be interesting to equate consciousness with learning, be it a life lesson or a math formula. Learning indicates a memory has been formed, and in class we made a pretty good argument that without memories there is no evidence for consciousness.

Mawrtyr2008's picture

Unconscious Education

            I’d like to go back to Natsu’s comment about learning new languages.  I worked in Paul’s lab this summer with Ian, and we spent a lot of time examining current education systems and brainstorming about educational reform. An often cited example about education, one that is totally relevant to a discussion about consciousness, is language acquisition.  When you take a step back and think about it, learning language of any kind, let alone two or three, is a daunting task, especially when you look at who primarily does the learning… kids.  Isn’t it interesting that we debate whether young children are conscious, and they can still learn language?  Perhaps there’s something here… Out of all the time children spend learning language, a very small portion of it is conscious education (doing workbooks, being forced to read a book by a teacher, practicing grammar exercises) and yet they still learn language!  Most of that time is spent learning language unconsciously, being educated inductively.

            There’s quite a bit of evidence besides the language example (though I think that’s the most interesting one) that suggest that great things can be produced unconsciously.  I think the word “unconscious” sounds…. passive?, stupid?, lazy?, undesirable? inauthentic?.... so in keeping with many of my other posts, I think the meaning of this word, all the cultural baggage it carries, needs to be changed. That, in sum, is why I think this is a great topic for inquiry and an area of research that I’d be eager to read more about.


Marissa Patterson's picture


Hey everyone,

Thanks again for such a great discussion topic. I was also very interested in the concept of multiple types of conciousness as brought up by a few people in this forum. I do think this is something that occurs and it is what makes the difference between coma/surgery anesthesia/sleeping/"zoning out"/being awake. It is essentially different levels of the same mental processes. Glitches in this system (or control over it) may be what is going on during surgical anesthetic awareness or even sleep walking/talking. The anesthetic awareness thing is an interesting idea. I think that once I did have it, I remember getting ear tubes when I was about 7 or 8 and watching what was going on and seeing the room around me, but then when I got tubes again a few years later and mentioned that, they said I shouldn't have been able to remember anything. However it is definitely possible that I was imagining the surroundings.

I think Natsu's question about conciousness and time is intriguing. I think many times you can be very concious of your situation and the events that are happening but not to the passing of time (such as a fun experience with friends). Time really does seem to fly when you're having fun. In what ways is that rapid passing of time different from the rapid passing of time that might occur when "unconciously" driving a long distance alone? Are the mental congitions that keep track of time flow functioning differently in these situations, or are they just similarly not concious at the moment?

Also, I dont think this was brought up in class, but when we were talking about unconsious learning in class, it made me think about A Brave New World and their unconcious sleep-learning process. If I remember correctly, they found that facts could not be taught that way, but that stereotypes and likes and dislikes could be, which they exploited to cultivate their different castes. Though this is a piece of fiction, I do think that might make sense, because I feel that a deeper understanding and ability to analyze information is necessary for school subjects, but for likes there often isn't much thought about it other than "I like it because I do." However there may have been some kind of crucial unconcious moment when some kind of event occured (perhaps your mother made a comment) that led you to learn to prefer this. Just a thought...

Amelia's picture

Memory not a part of consciousness

In addressing one of Natsu’s questions, I don’t think we have to remember an event at all once we leave the situation to say that we were conscious. Consciousness, to me, is always in the present. You can be conscious from minute to minute and (like a person with amnesia) while not remembering anything. It seems to be that in class we wanted to tie memory and consciousness together, but it seems that memory of a conscious experience is different from the experience itself. We should not say that someone was not conscious of something when in fact they were at the time, they simply can’t remember it any more. Trauma seems to serve as a good example. I have seen people who during a traumatic event are certainly conscious of what is going on around them, what is happening, and their internal state during the event, and yet do not remember the event at a later time. They are certainly conscious of both the experience (physical pain) and the repercussions of the event, but they do not remember it actually happening. While I would say they do not have a conscious memory of the event, at the same time were conscious at the time and are certainly conscious of the results of such an event. Perhaps part of the consciousness of trauma is to erase the memory…

Also, what does this mean for people who are from some sort of brain injury unable to recall events? While people like HM (I think that was who we were talking about…) are unable to consciously remember anything from one minute to the next, in that one minute they are completely conscious. He has no conscious memory, but that does not mean he is unconscious.

I wanted to bring up again the study I mentioned in class. This study found that when researchers gave some people in comas fMRIs (I might have said EEGs in class), these people showed simply brain activation to people without comas (as well as in comparison to their own ‘baseline’ state) for all sorts of specific thought tasks (such as imagine yourself playing tennis). I find this remarkable, and difficult to deal with since we think of people in comas as unconscious. While not everyone in comas responded the same way in this imaging study, from our perspective they all were the same. How are we to tell if people are really unconscious in comas? Maybe this experiment could be used to determine if people are conscious…I’m not sure. It offers evidence, however, for more careful determination of coma status. Perhaps comas could be thought of on different levels instead of a general unconscious state. While we like to think of people with their eyes closed and not moving as being unconscious since we think of them as sleeping, we need to reevaluate this idea and understand that maybe that some of the people in comas may be just like us sitting still with our eyes closed---we might not be able to see, but we’re conscious of what’s going on.

natsu's picture

Some more thoughts on consciousness

I'm glad to see that several people have continued to explore the first question that I posed during my presentation: Do we have to be able to define consciousness before we can study it scientifically?  As I mentioned, I think this is a really interesting question to think about, especially because a lot of the topics that we explored in our seminar this semester (e.g. diversity, love and pain) are broad and mysterious.  Yet, they are attracting an increasing number of scientists these days.  My personal answer to the question is no.  While it really was difficult to even discuss these topics without concrete definitions, I think that studying them scientifically will help us clarify a lot of questions and lead us to a better definition.  Of course, whether we really want to agree on single definitions for these topics is another question...


Something that really intrigued me during our discussion is the idea of the unconscious mind state and its benefits.  We tend to think of consciousness being associated with focus and attention which help us maximize our performance.  Yet, when we think of a pleasant mind state it seems like most people will imagine a state that is nearly unconscious.  Moreover, it is interesting to think that unconscious learning might actually be better than conscious learning.  I have to admit that that is how I gained my ability to learn new languages - I always used to do my homework while listening to English music on the radio and I firmly believe that this is how my ears got trained to an extent that now I am able to pick up on new languages really easily. 


The discussions above about consciousness after death are really interesting too.  It reminded me of a time when I fainted a few years ago.  I was visiting a museum with my family and I clearly remember hearing my grandparents making a huge fuss and getting an emergency wheel chair to wheel me outside.  It was really strange how I could hear everything they were saying but all I could see was this grey-blackness moving around and I could not feel anything at all.


Danielle's picture

Defining Consciousness...


            I have been thinking about a good definition of consciousness, and after our class discussion I have come to the conclusion that there are many ways to define consciousness. I think the definition of consciousness differs according to the context. The consciousness of a particular person at any given moment is different than the consciousness of a person interacting with another person. Consciousness at any given moment is driven by behavior within the surrounding environment. Our consciousness is driven by behavioral choices that change on a daily basis. Repeated behavioral choices evolve into habits which I think are not conscious behaviors. As someone brought up in class, habits are unconscious behavioral choices and to get rid of habits a person must be conscious of these behavioral choices. Overall, I think consciousness can be defined by a person’s interaction with the ever changing and ever evolving environment.

            I think that interactions between two people require another definition of consciousness. In this case, consciousness involves a social and emotional connection between two people, which is driven by language. This definition of consciousness allows us to understand why pet owners consider their pets to be conscious. I think that we associate consciousness with social and emotional language. Animals communicate with their owners via language, verbal and physical, such as barking or wagging of the tale, and these behavioral cues make animals conscious. Human consciousness, similar to animal consciousness, requires language. For a person to be conscious they need to be communicating in some form to another person. This is why people in comas are considered unconscious, because they cannot communicate with the language needed to be considered conscious and usually do not express any form of social or emotional language.




ebitler's picture

life after death?

Okay… so I was going to post about how I agree with Felicia about there being different types of consciousness and with Stephanie that it may be more productive to study particular aspects of consciousness rather than try to define something that our culture has made un-definable. But then I was completely blown away by the idea of consciousness after death.

It hadn’t even occurred to me that consciousness could persist after death. This is totally interesting for me to think about. And I think it’s incredible that not only did people’s consciousnesses persist (something I have heard about before as an “out-of-body” experience and hadn’t made the connection until Stephanie brought it up), but also that the consciousness of a blind man could see when not restricted by the physical limitations of the body.

I’m not sure how much faith I can really put into this anecdotal evidence. It seems reasonable to me that if a person is dying (or technically dead if their heart stops) that some brain function would continue for at least a little bit. (Does anyone know if neurons stop firing the second the heart stops? I would guess not but I really couldn’t say for sure). So I would think that during that point in time, our brains might integrate the various perceptions relayed to it or existing memories in a very different way. So it could interpret the sensory neurons firing with the most relevant information available (i.e. the information that the brain had collected just before the heart stopped and the brain was deprived of oxygen- information about the environment and hearing the technicians working to save the life). And I guess I think that could explain some of the sensations that people are experiencing and reporting. But that’s just a theory and I obviously don’t have any evidence to back that up.

The more interesting explanation is that there really is a consciousness that is separate from our brains, and that persist after the death of the organ. I’m not really sure what I think about this as it’s sort of a topic that requires a certain type of faith. But I do definitely think it’s an interesting idea. It hadn’t really occurred to me that we don’t see because our eyes have neuronal inputs to our brains that reconstruct the data to provide a sense, but rather that we see because our eyes provide an input mechanism to a consciousness that requires such a mechanism when contained in our bodies. And if that’s the case, it makes me wonder what happens to the consciousness when it’s separated from the brain. We have some accounts of its visual perspective immediately after death from the patients who were revived. But does it stay with the body forever? Or more specifically the brain? And what does that mean for all the brains of humans that are removed for scientific research (something I watched in person today- very “interesting”)?

Again I’m not really sure that I believe any of this, but I certainly think it’s interesting to think about and I’d be curious to hear if other people have thoughts about a consciousness separate from brain.

Thanks for an interesting topic!


Stephanie's picture

thoughts on consciousness

The study of consciousness brings up similar issues as the study of love (my presentation topic).  First, both love and consciousness cannot easily be defined, and there appears to be no universally agreed upon or single definition for these topics.  Then, the question arises, can something that is not completely defined be studied?  One approach researchers of love have taken, which also may be helpful for researchers of consciousness to take, is to recognize the multidimensionality of the topic at hand and instead study specific components related to the main topic.  For example, when studying love, you can study specific aspects such as commitment, attachment, or infidelity.  

One other interesting idea is to consider if our consciousness survives after death?  I recently was told by a friend who attended a conference at Haverford at few weeks ago about a talk on the survival of consciousness after death.  According to my friend, the researchers performed a study where they interviewed a couple hundred individuals who were brought into hospitals 'dead' and then ended up being revived and brought back to life.  Many of the individuals who experienced this, described that while they were 'dead' they could perceive what was going on still, they saw the emergency room and saw doctors and nurses working on their body.  To make this evidence even more convincing, they also had a blind individual experience the same thing, and the blind individual was also able to see and describe the situation very accurately giving details about the color of the walls and what exactly was going while his or her body was being revived, and details of what was being done to them.  I found this evidence really interesting.  It suggests that maybe our brains create the thing that is consciousness and even once our brains and bodies cease to exist our consciousness lives on some how.  I found a website that describes some the evidence of consciousness surviving after death (i'm not 100% sure this is the same evidence my friend heard presented at the conference, but it seems pretty similar- so it may be the same).  Here is the website: 

I thought the idea of consciousness living on after we die to be an interesting and controversial one, I'm still not sure how I stand, but I definitely am interested in learning more about it.  I'd be interested to hear what other people think about consciousness surviving us after we die.  

Felicia's picture


The definition issue is surely what frustrates me the most, but I can’t seem to figure out if I even think it’s terribly necessary to have one specific definition for all the “types” of consciousness we were talking about. It seems to me that consciousness may be a broad term for this translation from biology into behavior, and we can work definitions out from there. Maybe we could make a distinction between “attentive consciousness” and “inattentive consciousness”, and with that I think we can talk about why the perception of time and the role of memories is different in each of those. I’m finding it hard to separate awareness from consciousness, though it seems possible (maybe because I’m not aware of the things I’m not aware of doing?). I’m wondering, too, about the mind/body experience here and what role it plays in consciousness (and indeed our definition of consciousness). For example, I’m chewing gum right now, and every once in a while I’ll blow a bubble, and it’s not something I’m aware of doing most of the time, because my attention is placed on writing. It’s really interesting to think that “I” am not conscious of doing something, but my body is.


I also have a problem saying that someone who is “inattentively unconsciously” driving a car is unconscious. I think, rather, that there is a conscious being unconsciously doing a task. I’m not sure where the line is for a person being considered conscious/unconscious, but I think it has something to do with proper function of the body, so that a person with a properly functioning body is inherently conscious. Again, I think we could also go into more depth about what constitutes a properly functioning body. Does this mean that a rat with a properly functioning body is conscious? Sure, why not? I got the sense in class that we were hesitant to apply conscious to other beings (aside from pets, which is something else altogether) because it somehow invalidates the importance of our consciousness, but I don’t see why there aren’t levels and depths as we talked a little bit about. The fact that other organisms may be conscious – and I think that they definitely are – doesn’t make or ours less important. Or does it? Would applying our definition of consiousness to animals change the way we view animal morality and our use of animals in science?

Elliot Rabinowitz's picture

Some thoughts...

Consciousness personally proved challenging to discuss this past week due to its lack of a solid definition. While talking about it, people seemed to refer to lots of different kinds or types of consciousness. As like many of the topics we have discussed, using one term to represent a number of distinct things leads to difficulties. I think this flaw hindered our conversation – we repeatedly got caught up on what “consciousness” really is, while it in fact seems impossible to generate an all-encompassing definition for this complex, multi-faceted concept. If someone can create a really solid definition that brings in all of our thoughts, that’d be awesome. But, considering how many years people have been struggling with this task, I don’t find it likely to be solved any time soon. With that said, I think our conversation did lead us to some interesting areas to analyze further in depth throughout this forum.


Two general sub-areas in particular grabbed my attention. First, the differences (if there are any) in the consciousness of someone who is not awake. That could include someone who is asleep, hypnotized, comatose, sleep-walking/talking, etc. Along with the differences between these states comes the importance of comparing consciousness in the moment and consciousness in some longer period of time. For instance, certainly hypnotized people (and sometimes people who sleep-walk/talk) can be aware of their surroundings, reflect on their own actions in a larger environment, judge those actions/thoughts, and maybe even change them during the hypnotic state and potentially even afterwards once awoken (e.g. using hypnotism to alleviate phobias). However, their abilities to make decisions and interact with the environment seem at least partially controlled by someone else – the hypnotist. Should they be considered conscious? Are they conscious in the moment, but not once the wake up? Is it not consciousness at all and the influence of hypnosis depends on the power of the unconscious mind? I’m not really sure, and I think a lot of these questions can be broadened to the other “not awake” states I suggested above. Discerning what the differences between all of them, particularly in relation to consciousness, is not an easy endeavor.


The other part of the our conversation that really hit me was while our discussion concerning the power of the unconscious mind for not only learning, but also enacting complex and astounding physical and intellectual tasks. For athletes and musicians, I think this definitely makes sense – practice makes perfect. Getting something so engrained in one’s mind (or nervous system) so that one’s muscles just “know” how to do it can allow one to somehow do it better than actively attending to every muscle movement. However, I then think about this in non-extracurricular activities, but about performances such as surgery. For example, what if I need surgery on my knee – I would want my surgeon to do the best job possible. However, would it better for him/her to unconsciously do the procedure or rather think about each step meticulously, making sure to not mess up? In being so careful, would he/she maybe be more likely to screw something up? The applications for this unconscious performance seem endless in many aspects of life, but I’m not sure I like the idea of having my surgeon (no matter how experienced) just not really pay attention while cutting my leg open.


Thanks for an engaging discussion and I’m interested to see what the rest of you think…

natsu's picture

Quick summary of questions from this evening

Hello everyone,


Thank you so much for your participation in our discussion on consciousness!

Here is a quick summary of some of the questions that came up in our seminar tonight:


Issues around defining consciousness…

·        Is attention a necessary component of consciousness?

·        Are conscious thoughts always associated with a concept of time?

·        Is memory a necessary component of consciousness?

·        Is being aware of options for action a criteria of consciousness?


Issues around assessing consciousness…

·        What do we use as evidence for consciousness? (Self-awareness?  Morality?  Empathy?  Social understanding? Fear? Happiness?)

·        How and why do we know that our pets, or anybody around us, are conscious?


Some more questions to think about…

·        How long do we have to remember an event or some information to be able to say that we were conscious?

·        How do we know that people in a coma are really unconscious?

·        What would a classroom that enforces unconscious learning look like?  Will it be effective?

·        Are our habitual actions unconscious?

·        How come we can function without being conscious? (Like sleep-walking)

·        How much does what we don’t attend to influence our behaviors?


Looking forward to hearing more about your thoughts on consciousness