A Model for Consciousness

There has been so much debate on consciousness throughout the ages. One of the main problems in defining consciousness is that it is a wholly subjective phenomena. That is, we know that we are conscious. However the second person infers it from our behaviour. That is, they have no direct access to ‘my consciousness’. This subjective-objective divide makes it very hard and almost impossible to measure consciousness and put it on a relative scale.

But this problem is not unique to consciousness. This is also true of human emotions – love, beauty, truth and peace. These are real experiences and often form some of the most profound experiences in life. But it is impossible to measure them on a scale. We cannot ask a scientist to tell us how much we love someone, or which piece of music was more beautiful. These seem puerile endeavours. Only we have access to these emotions and therefore only we are subjectively best positioned to know them.

So what is consciousness? I’ve written about this previously here and here. At the expense of sounding repetitive, I take a slightly different path. I hope there is merit to exploring it in different ways. In the previous articles, we defined consciousness as the ability to know. Note that it isn’t a thing. That is to say, it has no observable properties, for it is the very act of knowing, the act of observation. The best way to think of consciousness is by considering an example. Lets assume there exists a dam filled with water. At the moment, the dam sluice gates are closed. Now, the flowing water does not manifest. But the potential to do so exists. It is just that the potential hasn’t expressed itself. Once the gates are opened, water gushes out to manifest as the waterfall. Therefore the potential to manifest was always there and will always be there – but only in specific conditions does the potential energy manifests itself as moving water. Consciousness is very similar. It isn’t a thing. It is a potential. An ability. And the manifestation of itself, gives rise to the experience of ourselves and the world. Let’s delve a little deeper into the various aspects and manifestations of consciousness.

We can describe eight states of consciousness (at any rate those are the ones I know). These are: Waking, Dreaming, Deep Sleep, Meditation & Flow, Death, Hallucinations & Psychedelics, Coma and Near Death Experiences (or NDEs). Note that, although we say states of consciousness, these are actually distinct states of experience. Consciousness really doesn’t cycle through states. How can the ability to know change? Can the ability of the water to flow change? No. The ability always remains. The manifestation as the waterfall can disappear and change. Similarly, consciousness as the ability to know always is. Our experiences, indeed change – all the time. But whatever experience there is, we know it. Let’s take a comparative look at each of these eight states.

Waking State
In the waking sate, I the subject seems to exist. And the world as the object of experience also exists. Note that the subject-object split is an illusion. Only conscious-experience is. But because experience splits itself into the subject-object duality, states appear. In the waking state, I exist and I know the world. The world in turn is known by our three faculties – thoughts & emotions on the inside and sense perceptions of the outside. We can summarise this into a table, which can be useful in making comparisons across other states.

Sense PerceptionsThoughtsEmotionsSubject ‘I’Ability to Know

Dream State
The dream state is similar to the waking state with the only difference being that experiences is of an imaginary world informed through thoughts and emotions. The sense perceptions are dormant. We say ‘imaginary’ but what makes the so called ‘real world’ real? That is a matter for another post. In a dream, the sense of ‘I’ remains. You see the dreamed world through the perspective of the ‘I’. In fact if you are a little sensitive, you realize that the ‘I’ of the dream feels very similar to the I of the waking state. In fact, it is the same I. While our mind is one – in the dream, it splits into the world and ‘I’. But this division is false. Both the dreamed I and the dreamed world are made of a single substance – the sleeper’s mind. That is itself is worth pondering about.

Sense PerceptionsThoughtsEmotionsSubject ‘I’Ability to Know

Deep Sleep
The deep sleep state is a little challenging. People use the experience of the deep sleep to suggest an absence of consciousness. But, in our model, consciousness always is. Because it is not a thing, nor is it brain activity. Rather, it is an ability to manifest, and ability to have experience. In deep sleep, consciousness is in a seed form. It doesn’t manifest as any experience. Its similar to water being held in the dam. The potential exists. Similarly in deep sleep, consciousness is – but it hasn’t manifested as experience. The fact that you wake up in the morning, proves that consciousness always was, but now, it manifests as waking state experiences.

Sense PerceptionsThoughtsEmotionsSubject ‘I’Ability to Know

Meditation and Flow
Meditation is akin to the state of flow. Flow is the concept popularised by the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced : Mihay Chick-sent-me-high). It is that state where we feel we lose track of ourselves and time. The activity that we are engaged in is so consuming that we forget the distinction between I the Self and the activity we are engaged it. This is a total divesting of the sense of Self – and it feels marvellous. Artists, sportsmen experience this at their peak performance. But even you and me experience it in our daily lives. It could be in doing simple things like gardening, folding clothes or just talking to someone we love. We forget our self and we merge – as it were – into the activity. Meditation is similar. Meditation is not concentration. Nor is it doing something with a mantra or visualising something. Meditation is to be with what is – totally and fully. It is the opposite of focussed concentration. It is relaxing into the now. The experience of love also is similar.

Sense PerceptionsThoughtsEmotionsSubject ‘I’Ability to Know

Hallucinations & Psychedelics
This is similar to the waking state, with the only exception that the nature of our experience changes drastically. Our sense perceptions, thoughts and emotions are accentuated to unfamiliar highs. Its as if the volume of these three levers has been turned up substantially.

Sense PerceptionsThoughtsEmotionsSubject ‘I’Ability to Know
YES, and heightenedYES, but amplifiedYES, but amplifiedYESYES

This is where the model needs to become more nuanced. How is Coma different from sleep? How is it different from death? The NHS defines coma as follows, “A coma is a state of unconsciousness where a person is unresponsive and cannot be woken.” The person in coma is alive (whatever that means), but cannot return to the normal functioning of how we know a human to be. Nevertheless, they aren’t dead. Their body still has some sort of steady state equilibrium, that prevents its disintegration. [Note that my medical knowledge is severely limited here]. There are people who have come out of coma and there are various states within being comatose (refer to the Glasgow Scale), but we won’t go into that now. For now, when we say coma, it means the worst kind.

Sense PerceptionsThoughtsEmotionsSubject ‘I’Ability to Know
NO? (mostly no)? (mostly no)NOYES

Do people in coma have thoughts and emotions i.e. do they dream? We do not know. But scientists think that they do not. Those people who have come back from coma report no memories of anything while in coma. They say its just like getting knocked out completely. Like a good nights sleep. But note, that there is the potential to come back, which supports our definition of consciousness.

In death, the body that maintained some sort of equilibrium, although constantly changing, dissolves. Rather, we should say, the experience of the body disappears to us and to people who knew us. And for this reason, we need to include another dimension into our table.

Sense PerceptionsThoughtsEmotionsSubject ‘I’Ability to KnowBody in Steady State?
NO? Perhaps yes? Perhaps yesYESYESNO

Now, this is where a materialist scientist would vehemently oppose such an analysis. How can thoughts and emotions or the subject I exist. There is simply no proof for this. This is correct. There isn’t and perhaps cannot be an objective proof of life after death. But remember the problem we had in detecting and measuring consciousness, or indeed emotions. It may be impossible to prove this. Having said that, there is one tantalising source of evidence that we could use – not definitive – but indicative. And that is Near Death Experiences.

Near Death Experiences (NDE)
NDEs have been in our cultural folklore for millennia and have found its way into myths and fables (all unscientific to the rational mind). In the recent few decades, several respected universities and regarded scientists (by some, not all) have begun to document and study these cases. There are thousands of such rigorously documented studies that describe NDEs. An NDE occurs when the heart stops, the brain dies and medicine declares the person dead. But somehow this person comes back after a few minutes or several tens of minutes. This goes against all known medical knowledge and is a puzzle to scientists. However, it is at the heart of the hard problem of consciousness. People who have NDEs come back to tell us of a continuing sense of self and diverse experiences – usually serene and filled with love (but not always). This indicates that the ability to know survives the death of the body, but manifests itself differently. Such people also report the ability to sense things miles away and that space and time somehow shift from the familiar, linear way things are in the waking state (similar to flow or meditation).

Sense PerceptionsThoughtsEmotionsSubject ‘I’ Ability to KnowBody in Steady State?
YES and heightenedYESYESYESYESNO but returns to YES

What all these tables tell us is quite simple. Consciousness always is. It is not impacted nor is it affected by changing experiences. Be it the body, the inner or outer world. And that is a valuable intellectual realisation. But how do we feel-know it? How do we make this knowledge a felt reality in our lives? Let’s look at that in the next post before things get too long and out of hand!

Sunset over the Rockies. 2022

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