The wild and wacky world of the mind is getting peeled apart, layer by layer, by neuroscience, cognitive science, psychology, and philosophy. The ability to be aware of ourselves and the world we live in is one of the most interesting and most important areas of the mind currently being focused on.
What it means to be conscious individuals matters greatly. Awareness is, as I’ve argued, one of the foundations holding up moral character and responsibility. It is of utmost importance we cut our way through the jungle that is the study of mind and get to the good treasure.
One of the treasures of consciousness is its ability to be improved as a skill, and here’s how it works.
A Working Definition Of Consciousness
I debated a long time putting a definition of consciousness into this article.
Well when it comes to philosophical debate definitions are usually the weakest chain in the link. A good definition encompasses everything it needs to without letting the wrong things in. This is very difficult to do, especially when it comes to something like consciousness.
Many times definitions are used as a foundation for an argument. If the foundation is made of poor material and reeks of moldy bread the house that gets built will be worthless.
An article like this, though, requires a working definition, but I’m going to cheat a little bit.
I’m going to narrow down that definition to a particular attribute of consciousness with the help of the neuroscientist/neurobiologist Antonio Damasio. This should free up much of the legwork, allowing us to get to the treasure much more easily.
Antonio Damasio has had plenty of experience studying the physical processes behind our ability to be conscious.
His theory of consciousness includes three layers. This theory, first developed in his book “The Feeling of What Happens” and expanded upon in “Self Comes to Mind: Constructing The Conscious Brain” has each layer building upon the one before. The final layer cannot come into existence without the first two being available.
The first layer of Damasio’s theory is labeled the Protoself. This layer is actually not a conscious state, but is a state of awareness of a body’s internal state by systems of neurons. This makes it a prerequisite for consciousness. This self is shared by even the simplest of organisms and is akin to your body’s “housekeeping” duties; it reflects the body’s ability to regulate and respond to changes in the environment.
To move from the Protoself to the second layer, what Damasio refers to as the Core Self, the protoself “must be raised and made to stand out…it must connect with the events that it is involved in.”
In short, “it must protagonize.” (1)
The organism recognizes that it is set apart from other objects. The changes that occur to its bodily state give rise to an awareness of feelings.
Perpetually encountering objects different from itself, but evoking a necessary reaction, gives rise to a feeling and suggests the fact that there is a protagonist to whom all these things are happening.
The final layer of consciousness is the Autobiographical Self. As an organism grows and amasses experience and memories the autobiographical self emerges. With the use of higher thinking, experiences are weaved together in the mind, creating a narrative surrounding the individual. Thoughts, feelings, and actions are now “owned” by the individual. Finally, one of the most important aspects of the autobiographical self is that the individual has a sense of autonomy; They believe they are the one’s acting.
Now, if you are still with me, I will share with you my cheat.
My working view of consciousness for this article will only deal with the level of consciousness seen by humans (and possibly some other animals, but that’s another argument): The Autobiographical Self.
So here is my working definition of consciousness, the kind of consciousness enjoyed by most humans:
Consciousness is the active awareness of one’s intellectual landscape coupled with the feeling of control over the landscape and the capacity to weave experiences into a coherent self-narrative.
It will be important to note that what I mean by “intellectual landscape” is very broad and includes everything typically considered available to us in our daily thinking.
Consciousness is not some on/off switch. It is more like a light dimmer, with a gradient of more conscious to less conscious. This definition allows us to find ways to make our mental room a little brighter.
Consciousness As A Skill
A fully mature consciousness is not something merely given to us.
Sure, most of us come into it, but it takes some work. As said before, the autobiographical self emerges when experiences are amassed and memory is available to make those experiences stand out and shape our further behavior.
Humans, however, are not born with experiences locked away. They are born with the hardware necessary but the software must be picked up later on.
Each person journeys through early life and adolescence picking up memories and experiences. They learn who they are and what they are about; where they are and what the world is about.
The most important stage for this process is arguably adolescence. As a child moves into this stage of life their body begins going through many changes. Their sense of self is thrown out of wack, the narrative becomes a jumbled mass a words.
Mature consciousness is greatly determined by this time of life.
What I’m saying can have both good and bad consequences. Just as one child may emerge from adolescence with the full and bright consciousness of a fully mature adult, another may be hampered and may not have a full sense of the reasonings behind his/her actions.
It’s important to note I’m not equating consciousness with intelligence. A super computer is not conscious of its super intellect the same way a human can be conscious. A person can still have amazing intelligence but not be aware of their own motivations, desires, biases, etc.
So, just like reading, human consciousness is a learned skill, and just like reading has a natural point in the lifespan where learning it is easiest and natural.
This doesn’t mean, though, that we can’t keep on improving either.
Since we have a definition of mature human consciousness we also have a direction to go when we set out to improve it.
There are three key areas of improvement:
- Awareness of the intellectual landscape.
- Control of the landscape.
- Weaving together experiences into a coherent self-narrative.
Each of these areas has one or more ways of improving.
Awareness of your own reasoning is one the most important skills you can learn. When you are aware of the workings of your own mind you are able to take advantage of that knowledge.
Current research into what goes into our decision-making shows that very strange things can have a profound impact upon the outcome of our thinking.
For instance, one of the most popular instances of this is called Priming. Priming is when exposing a person to a certain stimulus can directly influence their response to another.
If someone has been talking to you about hospitals and then another person gives you a word search puzzle you will be more likely to find the word “doctor” than you would “turtle.”
Beyond the tricks, however, are deeper ways that you think as an individual. When encountering difficult situations or problems we tend to follow lines of thinking that have worked for us in the past. This isn’t a bad thing but blindly following the same protocol in light of good evidence to the contrary leaves us banging our head against a brick wall.
So how do we improve our ability to be aware of our intellectual landscape?
Each situation we find ourselves in can be a learning experience, both outwardly and inwardly. When you find a solution or make a mistake don’t just look at the results, look at the thought process that lead you to that result. Did it work? Does it need to be changed?
Ensuring these self-regulatory cues and questions are in place puts you at an advantage to being aware of how you make decisions and how you think.
The way we reason can change over time and unless we are aware of the change we are more like a ship drifting along with the current than one controlling the sails.
Controlling how we conduct ourselves is a skill directly tied to success but it also contributes to our consciousness as a mature adult.
When you are aware of the reasonings behind your decisions and are able to feel in control of your actions those reasonings are more significant to you than they would be otherwise. The driving force behind your actions is the rigorous training of your own thoughts, and as such, they carry a heavy weight to them. They are yours and you must own them, good or bad.
What results is a level of maturity where a person accepts moral responsibility and agency, which is necessary in a social environment like the one’s humans tend to be in.
So how do we improve this skill?
First, it goes back to being aware of our intellectual landscape. We need to be aware of it in order to feel in control. Secondly, we need to learn and think through our own ethical beliefs.
So often we pick up the beliefs of our parents, or church, or community and give no thought to them later on. Part of feeling in control is feeling that our ethical beliefs are our own, and that means sifting through all those things we once took for granted and giving them a critical eye.
Are they values we need? Or rubbish to be thrown aside?
Answering these questions honestly produces a free-thinking and reflective individual.
Weaving A Self-Narrative
Having awareness includes the present but it also includes a view of the past and how that coincides with what is currently happening and how it will affect what will happen.
A self-narrative is not merely collections of “I did this” and “I want to do that.” I guess it could be, but improving that narrative is making it deeper, richer.
An enriched self-narrative is one that includes an explored and well explained context. The world itself is explained as clearly and concisely as the characters. In this way, the decisions we make and the reasons for those decisions make sense in a larger context.
This takes some attempting at understanding the world, as deeply as you can. The more you are able to learn about the world and the people within it, the more you are able to learn about yourself and the place you fit.
To improve the weaving, we have to have the other two aspects of mature consciousness, we need to understand our reasoning and feel in control.
When all of these things combine what is created is a rich story, something that’s not just something we talk about, but truly defines who we are.
In this way, the ability to weave our own narrative is vastly more important than any other skill. To reason about ourselves takes honesty, which can be extremely difficult at times. It also means sometimes going easy on yourself and realizing that mistakes can happen. We need a perspective of the world that is both capable of motivating us while still keeping to reality.
Wrapping Things Up
Finally, we have come to a point where we can see how consciousness in the human sense is a learned skill, one which naturally comes about, but also one which can be directed into something greater.
A person who improves their consciousness expands their ability to move in positive directions. Since they know who they are and what they are about they steer clear of those activities and associations that would limit them.
They are not merely awake. They are able to “see” and understand more of what is going on as they peruse their daily life.
Actions are not merely responses to stimuli but directed by codes of conduct determined by sound and self-reflection and which fit into a coherent self-narrative.
So to summarize, in order to improve our consciousness we need to focus on three main areas:
- Being aware of our intellectual landscape.
We need to keep one eye inward and self-regulate in order to see how we make decisions and how we can make them better next time.
- Improve our self control.
Taking time to reflect upon our values and ethical codes and whether or not they are sound and worthy of following.
- Weaving a rich self-narrative.
Developing ourselves through going after great experiences and reflecting upon those experiences; how they transform us and how they fit in in the larger picture.
Focusing on these three areas that make up human consciousness will allow you to improve your skills as a mature human, give you all the skills to be more successful, and make your life truly meaningful by making each action and experience significant.
(1) Quotes taken from “Self Comes To Mind.” Antonio Damasio. pg. 214, 215.