The extent of understanding consciousness through scientific investigation
Explaining and describing what consciousness actually is and how we come to have consciousness could prove a difficult task. Consciousness can be studied from different perspectives drawing on subjects such as philosophy or biology. Current works through scientific investigations tend to focus on cognitive and neuroscientific approaches to this topic. Real life cases highlight different aspects and ways of thinking about consciousness.
One way of describing consciousness on its own is to think of it as a feeling of being aware or as an experience of the physical environment.
Consciousness seems to be in close relation with awareness of the here-and-now’. In an attempt to describe consciousness we could and up describing the things around their characteristics and the content, a process rather than us. If trying to reflect on consciousness we come to realize that what we are describing is already in the past. Therefore there is a curious overlap here with another psychological process, memory.
There are different aspects of consciousness.
As an example in a state of sleepwalking automatism and consciousness seems to merge together leaving us with the question of to what extent do we have awareness during sleepwalking? The real-life case of Ken Parkes (1980, cited in Braisby 2003) shows the complex behaviour in a state of somnambulism that happens in the absence of conscious awareness. Although in this case the neurological damage was not made clear.
Brain damage to the parietal lobe and frontal lobe can cause visual neglect in which case behaviour is consistent with the visual information processed but it is not available to consciousness due to neurological damage. Marshal and Hannigan (1988, cited in Braisby 2003) reported a case of a woman with unilateral neglect arisen from damage to the right hemisphere in the brain. Hannigan presented her with a set of cards, some similar and some different. She had to identify similar cards, which she managed but she was not able to differentiate very well between the cards if they differed from one another, mostly ignoring or not being conscious of the left hand side of the pictures.
This case and others (e.g. Bisiach and Luzzatti 1978, cited in Braisby 2003) give insight into visual neglect and so through such scientific investigations we gain a better understanding of consciousness though not an exact definition of it.
For example blindsight patients can access visual information without being aware of it, which can reveal even more about consciousness (e.g. regions of the brain that might play a role in awareness). Cases of posttraumatic amnesia a memory disorder can show how there might be degrees of consciousness and non-consciousness.
However from a philosophical point of view investigating consciousness is a problematic task since it is unclear how something non-physical like a raw feeling or experience (consciousness) can be related to something physical such as the state of the brain. Also because consciousness cannot be directly observed speculations and inferring has to be used to explain its essence.
There are also different kinds of consciousness.
Access consciousness (Block 1991, cited in Braisby 2003) refers to the conscious experience we have when we access information from mental processes (e.g. verbal reports). Block suggests that we are conscious whenever we think about a mental state or have feelings or reminiscing. The activity of recognition and perception also involve access consciousness. Verbal reports are evidence of access to our perceptions. Being conscious of an object for example allows us to identify, reason and communicate about that object.
Block refers to consciousness described as a raw feeling or experience’ or the phenomenal consciousness. According to him this type of consciousness goes beyond being able to access perceptual information. It encompasses the experience or feel as well as the sensation.
Block and Young distinguishes a further two types of consciousness. Monitoring consciousness involves us being able to monitor our actions and mental states and as a consequence allows us to take action if needed. A failure in monitoring consciousness can be seen in everyday mistakes such as someone unwrapping a sweet but putting the paper in their mouth instead of the sweet; or more seriously in the inability to recognize and deal with one’s own illness. In such cases there is retained consciousness but there is a failure to monitor the behaviour.
Young and Block’s final identified consciousness is self-consciousness, which involves awareness of the self in the present, past, and future. Head injuries have major effects on the sense of self. There are numerous incidents where patients report having lost their conscious awareness of having a body for example but not the sense of being (Damasio 1999, cited in Braisby 2003).
Attempts of explaining consciousness can be taken through different perspectives. Drawing on these perspectives such as cognitive psychology or neuroscience helps to form a fuller picture of consciousness and the focus is on a theoretical understanding of conscious awareness.
In Baars’ cognitive theory (1988, cited in Braisby 2003) consciousness is seen as something arising from the relationship or interaction between different cognitive processes (e.g. perception, attention and memory). His idea consists of some basic components (input processors, global workplace (consciousness), receiving processors (unconscious) through which it is possible to understand certain aspects of consciousness such as access consciousness to some extent.
In a biological approach Damasio (1999) differentiates two kinds of consciousness. Proto-self’ is a suggested sense of stability, a sense of our core self or core consciousness of our body and the outside world and the relationship between them.
Autobiographical self or extended consciousness arises from core consciousness. It is suggested by Damasio that we extend ourselves into the past and future. Autobiographical self that is based on long-term storage of information gives a stable sense of self.
Despite of these convincing arguments on explaining consciousness there is much unlearnt for example how all the above relates to physical matter such as the brain.
Damasios ideas explain relationships between representations of organisms and representations of the outside world but nothing of how consciousness actually arises from these representations.
The way philosophers approach consciousness is by admitting first that it is very problematic to explain consciousness. An obstacle such as trying to find answers to how experiences or feelings (mind) arise from physical basis (body) proves to be the most difficult (Chalmers 1995-96, cited in Braisby 2003).
According to Searle (1999) experiencing conscious states are always inner, subjective and qualitative and the difficulty lies in these three aspects. An acceptable scientific account could only be given if we know what it is like’ (Nagel, 1974) to be in a conscious state. Consciousness being inner’ cannot be observed objectively, it has to be inferred what it is like’ for others.
Other philosophers (e.g. Dennett) take quite a different position away from psychological evidence, doubting even the conceptualisation of consciousness to be clear.
Does scientific investigation provide a full account of consciousness?
Consciousness is very complex. Although some progress has been achieved by investigating consciousness through different perspectives however developing a theory for conscious awareness is proving difficult.
Accounts of the different aspects of consciousness give a better understanding of real-life cases through neuroscience which in turn help explaining conscious awareness in terms of how body can be related to mind.
Baars and Damasio’s proposals from a cognitive and biological view of the self and of accessing and monitoring conscious awareness bring out the important aspects of consciousness.
Consciousness has been described by Block as a raw feeling or experience’ called the phenomenal consciousness that encompasses sensation. The philosophical views of Chalmer’s and Searle try to explain how conscious mind relate to the body.
These attempts on finding a resolution succeed to a certain extent in helping to understand consciousness by logical thinking however there is no real physical evidence, scientific theory or a real explanation of what consciousness actually is.