What is the “me” that makes one think in a manner that is peculiar to only oneself?
The total “me” is easy to imagine; it must be the accumulation of events and understandings that one has experienced during one’s life, added to the genetically inherited abilities and aptitudes present in one’s brain. As we have noted, molecular memories and the understandings they represent are stored as linked paths and networks of greater or lesser significance through everyone’s brain—the whole constituting the “mind,” just part of it forming the “me” concept. This collection, together with the biochemical activities and emissions of the cells of one’s body, makes the “me” think and act the particular way that one does. As Descartes said, cogito, ergo sum (“I think, therefore, I am”).
Second-level thinking, i.e., when animals analyze situations and recognize their implications, then act upon (or dismiss) what they have understood, may or may not involve consciousness of self. If the situation is totally independent of their own individuality (for example, for an antelope when a lion walks nearby) then an awareness of their own unique identity is not called for (only the need to include the knowledge of such things as their proximity to the lion, wind direction, etc., in their analysis). But, if, in order to correctly assess a situation, an animal needs to separate its identity from that of others (for example, when in a family or grooming group, where knowing one’s social standing, and how others act and react toward one’s presence and actions), then a degree of consciousness of self must be present.
The recognition of personal identity, a separate self or me would have occurred very early in the development of third-level thinking ability. Cassirer knew this when he stated, "it is language that makes his existence in a community possible; and only in society, in relation to a 'Thee', can his subjectivity assert itself as a 'Me'."
Third-level thinking, using words and languages, provides the consciousness we are familiar with, where thoughts can be consciously directed and where moral questions are formulated. This is the detached self that can examine (with some difficulty) what is happening at the second level.
As we have discussed, everything we “know” is built, held and maintained as second-level constructs—developed by second-level thinking that builds neural networks which form and link the memories. These give us the mental images of objects, events and ideas that we carry in our mind’s eye; they are our own Platonic cave-wall shadows. It is the mental construct of one’s own body that one “sees” when experiencing an out-of-body sensation (that of looking down upon oneself). Out-of-body sensations occur as the conscious third level of thought is (semi-consciously) drawn by prevailing circumstances to picture mind images of one’s body as though they were separate and distinct (i.e., disconnected) from the mental networks that denote self.
It was third-level thinking that made some early scientists postulate that there was an imp, or homunculus, directing mental traffic within the brain; the imp turns out to be the mind’s second-level activities.
Consciousness, then, amounts to an awareness of the existence of an assemblage of thoughts and memories within the brain, and of the particular significance that these have to the possessor. The awareness occurs at the third level, and it is the presence of mental constructs that creates the sense of permanency to one’s concept of self. Consciousness is aware of second-level activities, but their rapidity and subconscious independence make them hard to analyze. Second and third-level activities block ready access to first-level consciousness; training and practice aimed at decreasing third and second-level thinking activities (meditation, for instance) may occasionally allow first-level awareness to make itself known (as an experience, not as a detailed representation of the external environment).
Research demonstrates that subconscious biochemical and electrical flows occur before we become consciously aware of them. (We should expect this because mental images must first form subconsciously to be recognized and analyzed for relative significance; only then can those of importance be selected and fed to our conscious third-level thinking where, finally, they may be put into words.) This is why the semi-consciousness we are occasionally aware of seems to have a life of its own. It does. Thoughts at the second level run their own course before we become aware of them. This effectively detaches them from our third-level thinking, and makes them seem to exist as an independent body of thought within our minds.
Conscience is an entirely different issue. In essence, exercising one’s conscience amounts to expressing one’s concept of truth. This, therefore, represents both the highest and the most fundamental level of life’s activities: the highest, because life survives by determining the true nature of its environment; the most fundamental, because life does this to most effectively exploit its resources in order to live. Unfortunately, the true nature of things is readily distorted; by one’s sensors and one’s understanding of signals received by them, and by the words and mental constructs we and others use. Truth, to the extent that it exists, is often costly to obtain; finding it requires openness to the widest possible range of experiences, facts and ideas, then a constant debate over their meaning, with oneself and with others.
Conscience is often associated with morality—knowing “right” from “wrong,” and behaving accordingly. In that morality is always relative to its time and circumstances, it is a lesser concept than the concept of conscience. Most theologies recognize this, some going as far as saying that one’s conscience is God-given and must be followed, even if it contradicts religious teachings.
Most biologists dismiss any discussion of an animal conscience. For example, Hauser, in Wild Minds, states categorically (page 253) that animals have no moral system. But I think that advanced animals may possess a conscience of some degree because they do seek to understand the true nature of their environment, and they can separate a knowledge of “self” from that of another. Animal altruistic behaviour, which has not infrequently been observed, may demonstrate the operation of a conscience and of animal morality.
- Possessing particular body attributes (e.g., long muscular legs that might predispose one to be a runner) contribute to building the mind’s “me” concept, of course.
- The same principles (i.e. networks of varying connective strengths and thresholds) have been used by David Fogel and Kumar Chellapilla in designing a computer program that evolves through survival and replication of successful variants as it competes with similar programs to play the game of checkers. The program can now beat an average human player. This achievement is important because the program was given only the rules of the game—it taught itself how to win. (This is radically different from the IBM computer program Deep Blue that defeated the chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. That computer was given a data-base of many thousands of possible moves and their consequences, and simply ran through them to determine the most advantageous move to make.)
The same has happened to us. Over the ages the universe has taught us how to win, and our memories, neural links, constructs, and the knowledge implicit in the words and language we use, sum up what we each understand of the rules of the game in the conglomerate we call our mind.
Computer programs that, once given a target and some parameters, recursively design to optimize their output, are now reality. In essence, these programs mimic the evolutionary process that life uses. See Steven Johnson, “Darwin in a Box,” Discover, August 2003, 24-25.
- Cassirer, Language and Myth, 61.
- See The Source Of Revelations, footnote 13 for a discussion of oxygen starvation and other considerations.
- Interesting work that can be related to our understanding of consciousness has been conducted by two scientists, using a methodology suggested by Snyder. Young and Ridding used transcranial magnetic stimulation to inhibit frontotemporal neural activity in volunteers, so preventing language and concept manipulation and reducing the volunteers to a savant-like state (where skills demonstrated are always associated with the possession of an exceptional memory). Over a quarter of these volunteers then showed an improved ability to draw pictures and perform mental calculations (although not to the degree frequently demonstrated by some savants).
In our terms, what may have been demonstrated is that savants (and some of the volunteers) could be directly accessing aspects of their first-level consciousness that have been stored for some reason. It may be this (relatively perfect, i.e., unencumbered by second or third-level thought manipulations) memory that is being used by savants, to perform, apparently instantaneously, certain kinds of mathematical calculation and to accurately draw what may have been seen only once a long time ago.
See Douglas S. Fox, “The Inner Savant,” in the February, 2002 edition of Discover, 44-49. Also Donald A. Treffert and Gregory L. Wallace, “Islands of Genius,” in the June 2002 edition of Scientific American, 76-85.
- Much has been written about consciousness. For an excellent discussion, read Antonio R. Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1999). (N.B. Terminology differs between Damasio’s text and mine. For instance, what I have termed “first-level thinking” Damasio describes as “core consciousness.” Damasio, a research neurologist who maintains a clinical practice, describes patients’ disorders to add weight to his hypotheses. He provides many references for further reading.)
- Frans de Waal, in The Ape and the Sushi Master: Cultural Reflections of a Primatologist (New York: Basic Books, 2001) shows how primates, particularly chimpanzees, develop complex social relationships, communicate, possess cultures and exhibit empathy and sympathy.