A number of scholarly studies on human consciousness identify a close relationship between human consciousness and the brain processes of a human being. This study is an examination of the literature existing on these two areas with an aim of establishing whether there exists a relationship. To achieve this, the study will evaluate consciousness and its functions in a human being, evaluate brain processes and their functions and from the two analyses, make efforts at establishing either a similarity or a distinction exist between them. An evaluation of consciousness
Questions about consciousness have been with humans for a long time. According to Pearson (1999), traces of the questioning on the nature of human consciousness were there as early as during the Neolithic period, when burial practices expressed some spiritual belief which had some connotations on some reflections or thought on the nature and existence of human consciousness. The earliest forms of cultures and intimation into human consciousness are therefore only available through historical connotations on the then existing people’s reflection on some aspects of human consciousness.
There are those scholars who argue that consciousness, as it is known today’ is a phenomena that arose much later in the development of humans, as late as after the Homeric era as postulated by Jaynes (1974). In this view of the development of consciousness knowledge, earlier humans acted without necessarily correlating their actions and thoughts. As such, they were unconscious of their actions and acted primarily on a response to physical threats as opposed to awareness of need.
Earlier scholars who attempted to define consciousness included Rene Descartes in the 17th century and John Locke, in the period of late 17th century (Stanford Encyclopedia, 2006). Their efforts to define consciousness have formed a basis upon which modern human consciousness is constructed from. In Descartes, ‘Principles of Philosophy’, written in 1640, he defined human consciousness as self-awareness. Locke, in 1988 correlated consciousness to both thought and personal identity (Stanford Encyclopedia, 2006).
Modern attempts to define consciousness have been attempted by scholars (Gennaro, 1995 and Carruthers, 2000) who postulate that the word consciousness is a broad umbrella term covering a broad range of metal phenomena. In its wide range, consciousness can refer to a state of an organism in its wholeness, also referred to as creature consciousness or to a certain mental process or state also referred to as state consciousness. Since consciousness is a broad term, this section will highlight the meaning of consciousness in different contexts.
A person, or a cognitive system, may can be said to be conscious in a number of ways; the first sense is what Armstrong (1981) referred to as sentience. A sentient creature is one that is able to sense its environment and respond to it. In this sense, the ability to sense and respond to an environmental stimulus is equivalent to being conscious. The challenge in this definition lies in making a distinction between the responsiveness portrayed by living and animate creatures such as animals and humans and the responsiveness inherent in inanimate objects such as flowers and trees.
This is because a flower responds to physical environmental as evident in withering during the dry season. The other sense of defining consciousness is wakefulness (Cole, 2002). In this sense, an organism is considered conscious not only by possessing inherent ability to respond to the environment but by being in a state or a disposition to actually respond to it. Consciousness in this sense refers to being normally alert or awake. In this definition, an organism would be considered unconscious if it were in a deep state of comma or sleep.
In this definition too, there also lies some blurred explanation since by defining consciousness as so, one may need to define it further in terms of levels of consciousness. For instance, it is possible for a creature to be half-asleep, implying that it requires a slight arousal for it to be conscious, as in the definition. Another form of consciousness, identified by Carruthers (2000) is self-consciousness. This is a high level order of consciousness in which the creature is not only aware but also having the correct understanding of the state of its awareness.
Among humans, self-consciousness may denote ones ability to differentiate himself from others, in aspects such as language, hierarchy, status etc. One who is unable to make such a distinction would invariably be referred to as self-unconscious. In philosophy, self consciousness is equivalent to self-knowledge, which is used to commonly refer one’s knowledge of particular mental states including beliefs, sensations and desires (Stanford, 2003). A challenge that lies in this definition is that it disregards conscious forms of life, which may still be undergoing growth and development.
For instance, a young child may be unaware of his status or privileges and as such, when consciousness is defined in this manner, it may assume that such is not conscious. Features of consciousness As mentioned earlier, consciousness is an umbrella term enveloping a broad range of issues. To distinguish consciousness, it becomes imperative to assess the features that combine to bring out the conscious phenomena. By analyzing these features and later analyzing the features of the brain processes, it will be possible to assess the existence of a relation between the two.
The characters of consciousness as identified in literature include; A qualitative character- Siewert (1998) had suggested that there exist some experienced desires or thoughts in all forms of consciousness. These are the ones that form the qualitative character of consciousness but they do not necessarily refer to sensory states. In essence, consciousness embodies some kind of feelings, though it is itself higher than normal physical feeling. When an individual is conscious of something, there is a ‘feel’ attached to it, which happens beyond the physical human feelings.
Phenomenal structure- phenomena as applied in both psychology and philosophy denotes how things in the world or the world in general appear to an individual. For consciousness to be complete, this feature ought to be present, that is, there should be an effort deep within oneself that attempts to interpret a certain event or knowledge of the world around an individual. The phenomenal structure of consciousness, as portrayed in theory shows that consciousness is made up not only of sensory ideas but also by complex representations of space, time, body, self and the world (Siewert, 1998).
Representational theories of consciousness as published in the Stanford philosophy encyclopedia shows that representation of the world as it is has evolved slowly to become an important theme in the study of consciousness (Stanford Encyclopedia, 2006). Subjectivity- Consciousness is subjective in the sense that what is conscious can only be experienced by that creature in the prevailing condition. Creatures with similar capabilities are the only ones that can understand the’ what-it is like’, a common phrase used to define consciousness (Nagel, 1974).
In this sense, consciousness is subjective, that is, it is understood from the creature’s point of view as opposed to being objective where facts would be understandable based on available evidence. Self perspective- According to Searle (1992), conscious experiences exist not as isolated events but as states or modes of a conscious subject to self. For instance, the consciousness of pain is a happening experienced by a conscious subject. The appearance of the sky as blue is a phenomena that appears as so to a subject.
This implies that for consciousness to exist, the ‘self’ subject which can be identified by, ‘I think’ needs to be there. The self perspective is a crucial feature in consciousness since for any event to be reflected to the level of awareness; there is need for the intellectual participation of the self through past experience. The requirement for this intellectual part in the subject is an important aspect of this study since intelligence forms one of the brain processes and therefore serves to suggest that there is a close link between consciousness and brain processes. Unity- a conscious system involves some form of unity.
Cleeremans (2003) postulate that consciousness has a unity characteristic; this unity is that which arises from the subject’s ability to connect varied information’s and representations and make a coherent judgment. It is this unity in consciousness that can enable an individual to make a relation between past and present interpretations and therefore direct consciousness in a focused direction. Other features that are associated with consciousness include intentionality and transparency, a feature that recognizes the arousal of consciousness about an event due to an individual’s intent to do so (Cole, 2002).
For instance, one’s consciousness about the 9/11 attack comes to an individual through an intentional thought. Once the intention matures, the inner self becomes conscious of the event and the individual is said to be ‘aware’. There is also a dynamic flow of information in the conscious state. This dynamic flow is also referred to as a stream of consciousness in which the subject conscious state is active and visualizes events in a dynamic manner, just as in real live (Stanford Encyclopedia, 2003).
Through these features, consciousness in a subject performs some functions/ processes, most of which may borrow from both sensory and cognitive aspects. Consciousness plays the first role of flexible control of the physical actions of a subject (Anderson, 1983). When consciousness is defined as self-awareness, it implies that an individual measures and weighs options concerning an issue and as such, all actions are controlled in a state of awareness. In addition, consciousness enhances capacity for social coordination.
Humphreys (1982) argues that a subject that is conscious is not only aware of itself and therefore its immediate needs but is also able to extend the awareness to other similar creatures. In a human context, being conscious therefore enables an individual to be conscious of others surrounding him which results to responsiveness to the events occurring in the social arena. Participation and responsiveness to the social environment leads to an integration of the like-subjects so that the social system develops values, beliefs, structures, intentions and perceptions.
In addition to social coordination, consciousness presents a subject with an integrated representation of reality. By combining experiential organization and dynamism inherent in consciousness, it presents the world in an easy to understand frame. According to Campbell (1994), the features of consciousness help to constitute a meaningful structure of the world. Additionally, consciousness plays the following functions, all of which are additions, either to physical or cognitive processes; it enhances informational access, enhances freedom of will and intrinsic motivation (Wegner, 2002).
Going by these explanations, it is evident that the realm of consciousness is made up of both sensory functions and intellectual processes, implying that a significant part of consciousness is dependent on brain processes. In the section below, a brief outline will be made of what constitutes brain processes and make efforts to establish a correlation between them and the features and functions of consciousness discussed above.