“Our experience of consciousness is so intrinsic to who we are, we rarely notice that something mysterious is going on,” writes Annaka Harris in Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind (2019), a book everyone should read (3). “Consciousness,” she continues, “is experience itself, and it is therefore easy to miss the profound question staring us in the face in each moment: Why would any collection of matter in the universe be conscious?” (3). As Susan Blackmore asks in Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction, 2nd Edition (2017), “How on earth can the electrical firing of millions of tiny brain cells produce” our “private, subjective, conscious experience?” (1). “No one,” Blackmore writes, “has yet succeeded in bridging the fathomless abyss, the great chasm, or the explanatory gap between inner and outer, mind and brain, or subjective and objective” (2). In fact, we still do not even have a formal definition of consciousness, of the very thing that makes me me and you you. As neuroscientist (and absolute genius) Christof Koch writes in Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (2012)—watch out for his forthcoming book The Feeling of Life Itself (2019)—we “only encounter the world in all of its manifestations via consciousness. And when consciousness ceases, this world ceases as well” (23). In her (brilliant) lecture at the University of Melbourne (“The Neuroscience of Consciousness”), Baroness Susan Greenfield provides a working definition of consciousness, describing it succinctly as “the first-person subjective world as it seems to you”—it is, she adds, “what you’re going to lose tonight.” That is, when we go to sleep, we are no longer conscious; we are mind without body—in fact, two brain chemicals, GABA and glycine, actually paralyze our muscles while we are in REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. As Stephanie Pappas explains in “Brain Chemicals That Cause Sleep Paralysis Discovered” (LiveScience, July 17, 2012), “This paralysis keeps people still even as their brains are acting out fantastical scenarios; it’s also the reason people sometimes experience sleep paralysis, or the experience of waking up while the muscles are still frozen,” which could be a bit unnerving. During REM sleep, writes Pappas, “the brain is very active, and dreams are at their most intense.” It is during REM sleep, then, that I dream a little too frequently (okay, every night) about my cat Bruce, and it is during REM sleep that GABA and glycine surreptitiously paralyze me, which is also fairly unsettling. And just as we do not fully understand consciousness, so we do not, as neurologist Sanjay Singh tells us in his fascinating TEDex Talk “Dreams, Mind, and Brain,” fully understand why we go to sleep or why we dream. We have hypotheses—we sleep so our brains can consolidate fragments of our experiences and memories from the day into a coherent narrative (discarding what is not essential) and/or so our brains can prepare us for threats during the day by simulating stressful situations in our dreams—but the answers remain elusive. According to Singh, “we know almost nothing about dreams from a neuroscience perspective.” As much as we have learned and continue to learn about ourselves, then, it turns out that we still know very little. We are all enigmas. My selfhood is somehow unknowable even to me. It is marvelous, and it is spooky.
Also marvelous and spooky is the fact that, as Singh tells us (paraphrased), we are actually programmed to forget our dreams as soon as we are out of REM sleep (apparently we forget about 90% of our dreams, which is a real drag). More marvellously, and spookily, Singh explains that if you induce the jerky eye movements that occur during REM sleep it can take you to a different plane of consciousness (minutely mind-boggling). As Carlos H. Schenck, Niels Rattenborg, and Matthew Wilson discuss in “The Mind After Midnight: Where Do You Go When You Go to Sleep?,” World Science Festival, 2015 (paraphrased), while the wakeful brain is responding to the external world, the sleeping brain seems to be responding to some internal world. Indeed, when we dream, we are in a different reality (a different plane of consciousness), and we can embody a multitude of identities and ways of being. I might become another person (maybe Seth Rogen), another species (maybe my cat Bruce), another version of myself (I once dreamed I was funny), and more. While sleeping, our selfhood dissolves, and we are no longer tethered to our identities; there is an obliteration of individuality, an annihilation of separateness, that is replaced by an astonishing and potentially moralizing fluidity of being. This experience is much like reading fiction or watching a television series or film, with the exception that we do not have control over what we “read” or “watch” while we dream. That is, fiction—whether we are reading it or writing it, and whether in the form of a novel, film, or tv show—like dreaming, enables us to temporarily inhabit another’s being: we momentarily become the ostracized creature of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the bored and adulterous heroine of Madame Bovary, the psychopathic and disconcertingly likeable Villanelle in BBC America’s Killing Eve, the adorable and very loveable alien in Spielberg’s E.T., or the death-defying Wilbur of Charlotte’s Web, the book that gave rise to my aversion to eating meat (literature is so powerful that it can even change our eating habits). When we read, write, or dream, then, we are engaging in perspective-taking, whether consciously or unconsciously.
To sum up, consciousness is stupefying. When we sleep and dream, we lose it (consciousness, that is), but we are nevertheless acting out (sometimes wonky) scenes and stories in our minds while we do so (and while our bodies are partially paralyzed!). But what brings us back from unconsciousness to consciousness? Baroness Greenfield likens consciousness, and the awakening or re-awakening of it, to a stone being thrown in a puddle, which (paraphrased) can generate vast and continual ripples, and which will vary according to the size of the stone and to the force with which the stone is thrown. As Greenfield suggests, the stone is like a strong sensory experience such as the loud, and always bothersome, sound of an alarm clock, the equivalent of throwing the stone very forcefully and thereby generating strong enough ripples to wake us up, to return us to consciousness (and free us from paralysis). According to Greenfield, consciousness is more like a dimmer switch—it has levels, gradations. As she explains, you are more conscious now than you were when you were as a child, and you are more conscious than a dog, but a dog is still conscious, and another animal might be less or more conscious than a dog, and so on. “Octopuses, cuttlefish, and squid,” for example, all cephalopods, as philosopher of science Peter Godfrey-Smith writes in Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness (2016), have “large and complex nervous systems” and “mental complexity”; they are, according to Godfrey-Smith, “the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien” (9). This understanding of consciousness as having levels is an ethical one, allowing us to see beings unlike ourselves as possessing an awareness of self—that is, although an octopus is less conscious than we are, it still feels like something to be an octopus (and therefore, I would argue, we should leave the poor guys alone and not eat them for dinner). This is philosopher Thomas Nagel’s definition of consciousness as elucidated in “What Is It Like to Be a Bat”; that is, you are conscious if it feels like something to be you. As Harris writes: “Is it like something to be a grain of sand, a bacterium, an oak tree, a worm, an ant, a mouse, a dog? At some point along the spectrum, the answer is yes, and the great mystery lies in why ‘the lights turn on’ for some collections of matter in the universe” (5-6). My next blog post will continue this discussion and elaborate on Baroness Greenfield’s “stone” analogy for consciousness and consider it in relation to the British Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s drug-induced dream poem “Kubla Khan” (1816).