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Consciousness

A recent email to me was from someone who says his church 'says we are to be in the world not of the world.' 'We are in the world among other sinners but we shouldn't partake of the temptations offered, [so we should be] not of the world.' This doctrine inspired the following reflection on consciousness.

The human brain has two main states, awake and asleep. You cannot consciously force yourself to fall asleep because it is a different state of the brain, so the brain must make the physical transition, not your thinking about it. Thinking about sleep can cause a problem falling asleep since that mental concentration essentially prevents the change in state.

Consciousness is the physical state when the brain (and person) is awake and alert (and usually thinking, but day dreaming is not sleep). When awake the brain is continuously receiving sensory stimulation from the senses of sight, smell, sound, taste and touch. The brain will perform memory pattern matching in response to this stimuli, sometimes automatically invoking cross sensory memories, like a particular memory of a taste in response to a certain smell, or a visual memory in response to a particular sound or touch. Thinking or actively contemplating certain sensory images is not required to get these spontaneous responses; it is what the brain will do naturally (sometime called the subconscious ( at a lower level). The brain controls the muscles but conscious thinking is not always required. A simple example is moving arms and legs to break a fall but thinking is not always required for the reaction.

Human beings are social creatures by our nature, much like our closely related primates, the bonobo and the chimpanzee. Human beings innately (so no thinking required) have empathy, a capacity to identify with another being, to share the feelings being experienced by another. Most people possess a capacity for compassion and sympathy. Each person is intuitively aware of other people even without having to specifically learn such a skill (though the natural skill can be developed further). A person can sense by observing another's facial expression something about that person's emotional state, such as happy, sad, anger, etc. Listening to the voice inflections also contribute to this sense of another's state, where a catch in the voice can convey some emotional discomfort and the melody of the message conveys a question, doubt, or excitement. Observing hand and arm motions can also sometimes add to the understanding or intensity of a particular message.

Our interest in the other person can intensify our awareness of these nonverbal signals, where one might note a tear in the eye or a muscle twitch that would be missed if engaged in a conversation with a stranger. This process of being involved in an intimate conversation with a close friend does not require 'thinking' where a person consciously comes to a decision that 'I will concentrate deeper on what she is saying' just as a person will not consciously decide 'I will choose to pay less attention to whatever he is saying' when forced into an unwanted conversation. The tenor of the personal relationship can set the framework without any thinking about it as a mix of consciousness set on a subconscious basis.
Our consciousness basically develops within the reach of our senses. As one walks along a path in the park, our sight will enable consideration of which direction to walk, in light of what is of interest near and far in different directions. Our hearing will note what is in the area, where we might hear voices. The brain does not have to actually think about it to identify any of these sounds to react to them, like relating different voices to particular acquaintances.


Driving a car can be an interesting mix of conscious and subconscious attention.  A person can carry on a conversation while subconsciously keeping the car in the lane and maintaining the correct speed. Of course, there is a undefined balance to this mix so if too much attention is given to the conversation then the subconscious driving ability will be impaired.


Since humans are social beings, group behavior is very important and inherent (i.e., participation does not require thinking). Rather than each person remaining an isolated consciousness (represented as a soul, often defined as an internal non-physical entity isolated from the body and from the souls of others), in a group a person's behavior can shift to where the group will act in a coordinated way. A team of coworkers can meld different skills and levels of experience to achieve success that would not be possible with uncoordinated individual efforts. There is a variety of large or small groups, with different reasons for membership in these groups. Imitation is also in an interesting aspect of a group behavior.

If our consciousness is considered our soul (with its memories and emotions),and it is also securely rooted in our physical body then that conflicts with teaching our soul is a supernatural entity that temporarily exists within our body and becomes detached (isolated from its host) only through death. Some preach the soul existed before our birth and still exists after our death, implying a total detachment from the human experience. That is not a suitable description of the human consciousness.

Thinking is mentioned sometimes in relation to consciousness. Thinking is the mental process of analyzing the sensory inputs and forming conclusions based on past experience and related memories.  Thinking is needed for making a decision. It can also involve checking the time relationship of events, which can lead to the illusion of cause and effect in natural processes. Recognizing the chaos in nature can be important. Believing events are guided by a supernatural hand according to God's plan or in a ghostlike life after death can be a problem with appreciating the challenges of this life.

Thinking is what the brain does when it is conscious, as the brain deals with signals from the various senses, compares them with patterns in the memory, thereby making decisions on behavior. When sleeping, the brain is unconscious, a time when the brain does some memory management as the body does its own maintenance processes. As confirmed with EEG, thinking is based in the brain's electrical activity (so not in something supernatural). Other animals have also been monitored with EEG to find similar physical processes in their brains. When asleep and dreaming the brain appears to evoke sequences like when awake, as
if the dream is a ‘what if’ to put the day’s events in place.
This thinking process can provide the illusion that there is a sensory wall (hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, touching) around the thinking. The brain remains physically connected to all the senses but the thinking process can be such through concentration some or all of the senses can be ignored, though subconsciously the brain can still recognize those sensory signals (like when caught in an intense conversation but still able to avoid walking into a wall).

This sensation of being separate from the senses apparently leads to the belief in some the consciousness is also somehow separate from the brain and body. This illusion leads to a number of religious beliefs, including the soul (found in a variety of religions, from modern to primitive) but also the belief that God creates this soul separate from the body, magically puts it in the body at conception and magically allows it to continue existence after death in some supernatural form and place.

Thinking also involves the analysis of the world, including how to capture what is sensed and how to analyze that information. One simple trick for linear analysis is recording events by time, to distinguish those events that occur before others. For example, a musician could play a melody with a violin. For someone to be able to replay that melody, notes are assigned for each moment in time in the form of musical notation. Of course when playing the violin there is a flow between notes, not where the musician somehow generates each note in succession as can be envisioned with a keyed instrument like a piano. The musical notation is an aid to the musician, a convention for how to play it.

The analysis can also include assigning a name to each possible separate event that can be determined within a process. This process of analysis can be compared to putting a grid of latitude and longitude lines on a globe. The lines are not really there but they enable an easier calculation of distances and relationships between places.

This thinking process leads to at least one religious concept, first cause. A time relationship can be useful when trying to find critical events in a process or sequence, to be called a cause and effect. Since the linear analysis of nature when done by time results in the observation something will occur before something else, therefore there must be an event that comes before all others, leading the claim that must have been God turning the switch or whatever phrase is used to claim the flow of nature needed something to begin its flow. Splitting anything by time does not mean it really has that split in nature. If a snake always comes out of its hole head first then that does not mean the head of the snake is the cause of its tail.

Thinking is not good or bad; it is just what the brain does, just like in other animals. The entity doing the thinking is not somehow detached from the brain. Any detachment is an illusion, not a perceived separation for what is called a soul.
A person's consciousness is an integrated part of the environment. They are inseparable, except by total sensory deprivation which has a number of different psychological consequences. Who we are is much more than a soul that is somehow wrapped up inside our body, isolated from everyone else. When a religion teaches a person's consciousness is 'in the world' but 'not of the world' that indoctrination directly conflicts with the understanding of the dynamic nature of the human consciousness.

created - April 2011
last change - 08/19/2018
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