The Psychology of Consciousness

by Saberi Roy

On the problem of consciousness and its relations with mind, matter and the universe.

The study of consciousness is one of the oldest and also one of the newest disciplines in philosophy and sciences. The problem of consciousness has been described as ‘what it is like to be’ by Nagel 1974, which emphasizes on how does it feels to ‘be’ something or someone. The study of consciousness is about the conscious and subjective experiences and highlights the ‘explanatory gap’ between the material aspects of perception as in brain mechanisms and the more subjective non-material aspects of perception.

The definition of consciousness is rather complicated and ambiguous as consciousness can have several meanings such as thoughts, expressions, self awareness, perception and a whole gamut of mental experiences. Consciousness can be explained either subjectively or the state of awareness of something with our unique individual sense of perception or objectively with brain mechanisms in which mental functions are thought to be nothing more than neural activity.

So there are two distinct paths to studying consciousness:

1.) Consciousness as related to higher self and understanding, studied in mysticism, occult, transpersonal psychology, spirituality, and even Jungian psychoanalysis.

2.) The scientific study of consciousness as is seen in modern approaches in philosophy of mind where consciousness is explained with brain mechanisms or in terms of subjective experiences

Thus the two distinct approaches to the study of consciousness would be old school or new school approaches in which the old school psychology of consciousness would discuss religion and spirituality, and Jungian psychoanalysis as also experiences of altered states of consciousness as in dreaming, hypnosis, drug induced states. The new school psychology of consciousness is about understanding the explanatory gap between the subjective and the objective, between mind and matter, between neural activity and subjective experience and the quest for understanding consciousness in a scientific manner. The new school of psychology has attracted scholars from all fields including quantum mechanics, biology, philosophy, psychology, linguistics and cognitive science. Some of the questions that are central to consciousness studies are – can a machine be ever conscious if consciousness is only about brain mechanisms? Is animal mind different from that of humans? What are the neural correlates of consciousness if any and can consciousness be explained only with neural or brain activity? Is consciousness largely a subjective experience characteristic of being human? when does a being actually become conscious and what is the physical mechanism behind this?

I will now describe some of my personal views on consciousness and what it means to be conscious or how consciousness could be explained scientifically. The study of consciousness should involve both the new and old schools of psychology and all forms of consciousness should be studied as a combination of subjective and objective experience. The subjective experience or sense of ‘what it is like’ is found in higher animals and is the most developed in humans. Although some form of subjective experience could be seen in the other animals as even animals express certain emotions in a specific manner. The objective experience is about perceiving the external world with the help of brain mechanisms and objective experiences are usually similar for all human beings like we all perceive the same colors and textures. Psychology has traditionally tried to understand all measurable aspects of consciousness such as attention, wakefulness, perception, cognition and sense awareness. Altered states of consciousness are also used to measure biological changes in the body, to provide a mind-body interaction framework. However these traditional approaches have given way to the more philosophical problems in consciousness and considering modern directions in consciousness, the psychology of consciousness will have to be studied empirically in keeping with the requirements of scientific knowledge but from a philosophical perspective.

We can also call this as the objective consciousness and subjective consciousness and objective consciousness is the general sense awareness also known as consciousness in which being unconscious would mean a temporary loss of sense awareness. Subjective consciousness is the feeling of’ what it is like to be’ or what it is like to feel a certain thing. This is the deeper description of our subjective experience and varies from one person to another. Whereas objective consciousness is general sense awareness, subjective consciousness is about being aware of this basic consciousness and thus subjective experience seems to be more important than objective consciousness in psychology, at least from a philosophical viewpoint. We are all conscious of having experiences which is subjective yet the experiences have elements of objectivity as well as subjectivity. A combination and balance of subjective and objective consciousness is found in most individuals although lower animals thrive on objective experiences and humans deal extensively with the subjective or interpretation of the objective.

Chalmers, a philosopher in consciousness studies has described the ‘easy and hard problem in consciousness’ – the easy part of understanding consciousness are those aspects of consciousness which can be reported, accessed, controlled etc. and the hard part is the experience which highlights the way an experience is felt. The main problematic of consciousness is whether the brain itself and the neurons which help us to perceive the external world also help us to experience what we perceive. The natural answer would be that the brain is capable of producing both the subjective and the objective experience or that the nerves are perfectly reducible to explain all experience in humans. The challenge would then be, if we build a machine with the complete physical and brain structure of a human being, will that lead to manufacturing a ‘conscious’ being? In this case, some scientists believe that it is not possible to replicate the entire brain structure and create a being with a brain structure exactly similar to that of the human. The problems arise in our understanding of brain mechanism and finally to the understanding of matter. When we do not know how a thought corresponds to a particular brain activity, we cannot know the entire dynamics of the brain and its association with conscious experience.

Finally the understanding of consciousness will depend on the understanding of brain mechanisms at the level of fundamental matter and the role of quantum mechanics becomes important here. Understanding matter at a level which can explain very minute details of the thought process through the minute details of brain activity would be important and this is where consciousness studies deals with the philosophy of matter more than the philosophy of mind. The main focus of the psychology of consciousness should be to integrate the subjective and objective experiences and explain mental phenomena with these experiences adequately. Objective consciousness as in perception of the external world (colors, odors, textures and basic sense awareness) and subjective consciousness or perception of the internal world (as experiencing or understanding what it is like) should be both examined to understand consciousness from a psychological, biological, evolutionary and philosophical viewpoint. As far as explanation of subjective experience with brain mechanisms is concerned, there may never be a solution as we may not be able to understand the nature of matter completely. There are some questions which don’t have answers and cannot be understood within out limited human knowledge. Some of these intriguing questions which may not be amenable to humans are:

  • The creation and infinity of the cosmos
  • The attributes of matter at the fundamental level
  • The deepest experiences of the human mind

These questions remain linked in a way because one question helps to explain another. The deepest experiences of the human mind are related to our understanding of matter and the nature of matter can be only comprehended with a clear picture of the universe and all unidentified cosmological issues. Consciousness is thus not just an isolated problem but one of the three basic problems in our quest for knowledge and intricately related to the other problems of mind, matter and the universe.

About the Author:
Saberi Roy is a writer and her articles on politics, science, philosophy and religion have been published in online journals. Apart from writing on global issues, religion and politics, she also writes popular articles to popularize psychology on the web. She is also a published poet. She has Master’s degrees in Psychology (MSc – Calcutta University), Consciousness studies with physics (MS – BI-BITS Pilani) and in Philosophy (MA – University of Leeds, UK). She has wide intellectual and interdisciplinary interests and is mainly keen on surrealism and arts, psychoanalysis, science-religion interface and quantum explanations of mind and matter. Author of two books – A Collection of Poetry and Reflections in Psychology(I)& (II).