The Nature of Consciousness


by Jayaram V

Summary: How consciousness arises in natural states, what purposes it serves and how it is different from intelligence.

What is the nature of consciousness? Of what is it made? Is it made up of subtle matter or subatomic particles or particles that are even smaller than them and which are not yet discovered? Is it some form of energy or energy field? Can it be extracted and stored just as any matter or energy, and can it exist by itself outside the brain with or without any physical support?

These are difficult questions for which we have no definite answers. Consciousness may be a form of matter or energy since everything in the universe is made up of matter only or some form of energy. Consciousness which is a part of our bodies cannot be an exception. However, it is certain that the brain is not consciousness. It is an organ which along with other organs in the body creates and supports consciousness and its functions.

From this perspective consciousness is an organic substance or a field of energy which arises from the brain and the body as a projection and creates the illusion of beingness and awareness. It becomes withdrawn, fully or partially when the brain and the body go into restful mode, and ceases to exist when the body dies or the brain dies. Thus, life and consciousness are very similar in several respects. Hence, in Hinduism liveliness and awareness are represented by a common term, chetana or chaitnya. Just as life manifests in the body but is intangible, consciousness too is intangible and physically ungraspable.

In this regard one can use the analogy of a bulb. A bulb is made up certain parts. By itself it is just an inert object, made up of different parts. However, when it is connected to an electric source, it emits light in all directions. We may compare the bulb to the brain, the bulb holder, the electric wire, the socket and the plug to the body, and the light which is radiated by it to consciousness.

By itself, brain is just an organ, made up of biological matter. If you dissect the brain, you will find no trace of consciousness in it. However, a field of consciousness arises from it when it is actively engaged in certain actions such as knowing, remembering, learning, thinking, and so on. We still do not know how brain induces consciousness to performs those functions.

At the most basic level, consciousness is a function of the brain. In its fundamental aspects it is a combination of several types of awareness, tethered to the concept of self. It is the state of being conscious or being aware of itelf, its surroundings and its relationship and interaction with the world and with the things and the environment with which it interacts.. Many faculties of the brain facilitate it and sustain it. In the natural conditions it seems to arise due to a memory-based, information system in which not only the brain but the entire body also plays a significant role. Consciousness arises from the information which is stored in the brain by the activities of the body and the various organs in it.

Thus, consciousness is a state of dynamic awareness which is created and sustained by bits and pieces of information, which the body gathers in response to the environment in which it lives as a part of its survival and continuity. It is primarily meant to facilitate self-awareness, consciousness, survival, self-preservation by creating a world within which mirrors the world outside and which helps it to make sense of the latter.

It is difficult to draw a clear line between consciousness and intelligence. Consciousness itself may be a form of intelligent awareness and intelligence itself may be a form of conscious awareness. They complement each other and facilitate the executive functions of the brain. Human intelligence is useful and very advanced. However, it is neither perfect nor efficient and is prone to cognitive distortions, delusion, confusion and logical fallacies.

Consciousness refers to the state of awareness or of being conscious of things and of oneself, built around the concept of selfness. Intelligence is the ability to make sense of the information which is present in the consciousness or the brain or the environment and use it for intended ends through reasoning, intelligent analysis, observation, inference, interpretation, imagination, pattern identification, etc.

While consciousness facilitates self-awareness, intelligence facilitates self-preservation through problem solving and appropriate survival strategies and self-defensive mechanisms which it creates in response to the patterns, anomalies, threats and opportunities it discerns in the environment.

Consciousness by itself is not much useful, unless it is assisted by intelligence to filter, analyze and interpret the information which the body gathers in its interaction with the external world and use it effectively and efficiently for self-preservation or desired ends. This aspect of consciousness or conscious behavior is guided either by intelligence or instinct or both.

When awareness which arises in the consciousness is created and controlled by the executive functions of the brain, it becomes intelligent awareness. When it is controlled by the instinctual or primitive functions of the brain, it becomes instinctual awareness or mechanical awareness. The former is found in humans only, while the latter is found in many animals.

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