Awareness VS. Consciousness

This is a video of a talk I gave recently at the Society for Consciousness Studies Conference at Yale/TGI. I posted my notes prior to the Conference in a recent blog. It was a real honor to be asked to speak and I am particularly grateful to organizer Allan Combs for his interest and support. Thanks also to Steve Mitchell for the video, as well as for all the organizing he did for the Conference.

“Consciousness is a word worn smooth by a million tongues. Depending on the figure of speech chosen it is a state of being, m a substance, a process, a place, an epiphenomenon, an emergent aspect of matter, or the only true reality. Maybe we should ban the word for a decade or two until we can develop more precise terms for the several uses which ‘consciousness’ now obscures.”
George Miller “Psychology: The Science of Mental Life” (1962)

I believe that any discussion of “consciousness” requires an explanation of which “consciousness” you are talking about. As Spinoza wrote, “Many errors, of a truth, consist merely of the application of the wrong names of things.” To that end, I am going to do my bit to explain what I’m talking about when I use the term. This is important going forward, since consciousness is a pivotal point in the development of any human, and for humans as a species. And when the things being discussed are very insubstantial, even more clarity is needed to make subtle distinctions.

The important thing to remember is that words are maps, and “the map is not the territory.” A map/word is useful if it helps us locate the territory it describes. As Miller wrote above, there are many territories depicted by the map/word “consciousness.” So I’m going to explain MY particular territory by using the simplest language I can.

I start by delineating the terms awareness and consciousness. At its most fundamental, awareness is “responsiveness to environment.” At the very least, that means that all LIFE is aware. Plants, plankton, and paramecia are all responsive to environment. One might be able to extend that quality to inorganic things, as well, but let’s keep it in the realm of living creatures for this discussion.

Awareness is responsiveness to environment. And that environment could be physical, mental, energetic, spiritual, imaginary, whatever. And the responsiveness would be equally open-ended.

Your body is composed of trillions of “human” cells and trillions more “non-human” cells. (See my post “Coherence and the Human Microbiome.”) Each of those cells is aware, and are contributing information to your body-as-a-whole. Cells are responsive to your internal environment as well as the external. Trillions of bits of information per second. Your five senses are primarily concerned with your external environment and boil that down to a mere millions of bits per second.

Of that, how many bits are you consciously aware of?

Maybe 12-40 BITS per second. Not kilobits. Not megabits. Not gigabits. Bits.

We are not reading the whole newspaper. We are merely catching the headlines through the window of a moving train.

Consciousness is awareness OF awareness, and there is so much more that we are aware of than we could ever be conscious of. Consciousness is the reducing valve that permits us to function as humans. It takes that vast awareness and runs it through the filtering process of your nervous system to render only the tiniest trickle of information digestible by the conscious mind.

Awareness that filters all this information that does not rise to the level of consciousness is not discarded. It is essential to our survival. Just think of all the processes that are occurring in your body that are necessary to sustain life: heart rate, body temperature, blood sugar levels, oxygenation…you get the picture.

These are all happening at a PreConscious level.

PreConsciousness is awareness that is not yet aware of being aware. It includes subconscious, unconscious, sensorimotor, and cellular awareness. (PreConscious should not be confused with the narrower Freudian preconscious: the part of the mind just below conscious awareness, where memories and emotions not repressed can be recalled.)

As we can see, MOST of our awareness is happening PreConsciously, even though our sense of identity corresponds most often to Consciousness. Our vast body-awareness is transcended by objectifying it. That is, it becomes abstractions that Consciousness can organize into cogent narratives that “explain” why we feel the way we do.

There is nothing wrong with understanding your condition. It’s what we humans like to do. We tell stories. Then we start to believe the stories we tell. Then we live the stories.

Where it does become problematic, though, is that this conversion into narrative takes time to run through the nervous system. It takes us out of NOW. We filter out most of our awareness and substitute our story. And after a while, we get lost in this Trance of Objectification.

And that leads to unhappiness. And ill health.

In the video above I suggest an alternative. I’ll write more about that soon.

 

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