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Consciousness is subjective experience or awareness or wakefulness or the executive control system of the mind. It is an umbrella term that may refer to a variety of mental phenomena. Although humans realize what everyday experiences are, consciousness refuses to be defined, philosophers note (e.g. John Searle in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy):

Consciousness in medicine (e.g., anesthesiology) is assessed by observing a patient's alertness and responsiveness, and can been seen as a continuum of states ranging from alert, oriented to time and place, and communicative, through disorientation, then delirium, then loss of any meaningful communication, and ending with loss of movement in response to painful stimulation.

Consciousness in psychology and philosophy has four characteristics: subjectivity, change, continuity and selectivity. Intentionality or aboutness (that consciousness is about something) has also been suggested by philosopher Franz Brentano. However, within the philosophy of mind there is no consensus on whether intentionality is a requirement for consciousness.

Consciousness is the subject of much research in philosophy of mind, psychology, neuroscience, cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience and artificial intelligence. Issues of practical concern include how the presence of consciousness can be assessed in severely ill or comatose people; whether non-human consciousness exists and if so how it can be measured; at what point in fetal development consciousness begins; and whether computers can achieve a conscious state.


The word "conscious" is derived from Latin conscius meaning "1. having joint or common knowledge with another, privy to, cognizant of; 2. conscious to oneself; esp., conscious of guilt". A related word was conscientia which primarily means moral conscience. In the literal sense, "conscientia" means knowledge-with, that is, shared knowledge. The word first appears in Latin juridic texts by writers such as Cicero . Here, conscientia is the knowledge that a witness has of the deed of someone else.

René Descartes (1596-1650) is generally taken to be the first philosopher to use "conscientia" in a way that does not seem to fit this traditional meaning, although this has recently been countered by Boris Hennig. In any event, John Locke had much influence on the 18th Century view of consciousness: in Samuel Johnson's celebrated Dictionary (1755), Johnson gives a definition of "conscious" as "endowed with the power of knowing one's own thoughts and actions," and takes Locke's own definition of "consciousness" as "the perception of what passes in a man's own mind."

Locke offered a definition of consciousness in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) that remained closely intertwined with moral conscience (I may be held morally responsible only for the act of which I am conscious of having achieved; and my personal identity—my self—goes as far as my consciousness extends itself).

Twelve years earlier, Ralph Cudworth used the modern meaning of consciousness in his "True Intellectual System of the Universe" (1678) and associated the concept with personal identity, which is assured by the repeated consciousness of oneself. Cudworth's use of the term also remained intertwined with moral agency.

Philosophical approaches

Representation of consciousness from the 17th century.

There are many philosophical stances on consciousness, including: behaviorism, dualism, idealism, functionalism, reflexive monism, phenomenalism, phenomenology and intentionality, physicalism, emergentism, mysticism, personal identity etc.

Phenomenal and access consciousness

Phenomenal consciousness (P-consciousness) is simply experience; it is moving, colored forms, sounds, sensations, emotions and feelings with our bodies and responses at the center. These experiences, considered independently of any impact on behavior, are called qualia. The hard problem of consciousness, formulated by David Chalmers in 1996, deals with the issue of "how to explain a state of phenomenal consciousness in terms of its neurological basis".

Access consciousness (A-consciousness) is the phenomenon whereby information in our minds is accessible for verbal report, reasoning, and the control of behavior. So, when we perceive, information about what we perceive is often access conscious; when we introspect, information about our thoughts is access conscious; when we remember, information about the past (e.g., something that we learned) is often access conscious, and so on. Chalmers thinks that access consciousness is less mysterious than phenomenal consciousness, so that it is held to pose one of the easy problems of consciousness. Daniel Dennett denies that there is a "hard problem", asserting that the totality of consciousness can be understood in terms of impact on behavior, as studied through heterophenomenology. There have been numerous approaches to the processes that act on conscious experience from instant to instant. Dennett suggests that what people think of as phenomenal consciousness, such as qualia, are judgments and consequent behavior. He extends this analysis by arguing that phenomenal consciousness can be explained in terms of access consciousness, denying the existence of qualia, hence denying the existence of a "hard problem." Chalmers, on the other hand, argues that Dennett's explanatory processes merely address aspects of the easy problem.Eccles and others have pointed out the difficulty of explaining the evolution of qualia, or of 'minds' which experience them, given that all the processes governing evolution are physical and so have no direct access to them. There is no guarantee that all people have minds, nor anyway to verify whether one does or does not possess one.

Events that occur in the mind or brain that are not within phenomenal or access consciousness are known as subconscious events.

The description and location of phenomenal consciousness

For centuries, philosophers have investigated phenomenal consciousness. René Descartes, who arrived at the famous dictum 'cogito ergo sum', wrote Meditations on First Philosophy in the seventeenth century. He described, extensively, what it is to be conscious. Conscious experience, according to Descartes, included such ideas as imaginings and perceptions laid out in space and time that are viewed from a point, and appearing as a result of some quality (qualia) such as color, smell, and so on. (Modern readers are often confused by this Descartes' notion of interchangeability between the terms 'idea' and 'imaginings.')

Descartes defines ideas as extended things, as in this excerpt from his Treatise on Man:

Now among these figures, it is not those imprinted on the external sense organs, or on the internal surface of the brain, which should be taken to be ideas - but only those which are traced in the spirits on the surface of gland H [where the seat of the imagination and the 'common sense' is located].
That is to say, it is only the latter figures which should be taken to be the forms or images which the rational soul united to this machine will consider directly when it imagines some object or perceives it by the senses.

Thus Descartes does not identify mental ideas or 'qualia' with activity within the sense organs, or even with brain activity, but rather with the "forms or images" that unite the body and the 'rational soul', through the mediating 'gland H'. This organ is now known as the pineal gland. Descartes notes that, anatomically, while the human brain consists of two symmetrical hemispheres the pineal gland, which lies close to the brain's centre, appears to be singular. Thus he extrapolated from this that it was the mediator between body and soul.

Philosophical responses, including those of Nicolas Malebranche, Thomas Reid, John Locke, David Hume and Immanuel Kant, were varied. Malebranche, for example, agreed with Descartes that the human being was composed of two elements, body and mind, and that conscious experience resided in the latter. He did, however, disagree with Descartes as to the ease with which we might become aware of our mental constitution, stating 'I am not my own light unto myself'. David Hume and Immanuel Kant also differ from Descartes, in that they avoid mentioning a place from which experience is viewed (see "Further reading" below); certainly, few if any modern philosophers have identified the pineal gland as the seat of dualist interaction.

The extension of things in time was considered in more detail by Kant and James. Kant wrote that "only on the presupposition of time can we represent to ourselves a number of things as existing at one and the same time [simultaneously] or at different times [successively]." William James stressed the extension of experience in time and said that time is "the short duration of which we are immediately and incessantly sensible."

When we look around a room or have a dream, things are laid out in space and time and viewed as if from a point. However, when philosophers and scientists consider the location of the form and contents of this phenomenal consciousness, there are fierce disagreements. As an example, Descartes proposed that the contents are brain activity seen by a non-physical place without extension (the Res Cogitans), which, in Meditations on First Philosophy, he identified as the soul. This idea is known as Cartesian Dualism. Another example is found in the work of Thomas Reid who thought the contents of consciousness are the world itself, which becomes conscious experience in some way. This concept is a type of Direct realism. The precise physical substrate of conscious experience in the world, such as photons, quantum fields, etc. is usually not specified.

Other philosophers, such as George Berkeley, have proposed that the contents of consciousness are an aspect of minds and do not necessarily involve matter at all. This is a type of Idealism. Yet others, such as Leibniz, have considered that each point in the universe is endowed with conscious content. This is a form of Panpsychism. Panpsychism is the belief that all matter, including rocks for example, is sentient or conscious. The concept of the things in conscious experience being impressions in the brain is a type of representationalism, and representationalism is a form of indirect realism.

It is sometimes held that consciousness emerges from the complexity of brain processing. The general label 'emergence' applies to new phenomena that emerge from a physical basis without the connection between the two explicitly specified.

Some theorists hold that phenomenal consciousness poses an explanatory gap. Colin McGinn takes the New Mysterianism position that it can't be solved, and Chalmers criticizes purely physical accounts of mental experiences based on the idea that philosophical zombies are logically possible and supports property dualism. But others have proposed speculative scientific theories to explain the explanatory gap, such as Quantum mind, space-time theories of consciousness, reflexive monism, and Electromagnetic theories of consciousness to explain the correspondence between brain activity and experience.

Parapsychologists sometimes appeal to the unproven concepts of psychokinesis or telepathy to support the belief that consciousness is not confined to the brain.

Philosophical criticisms

From the eighteenth to twentieth centuries many philosophers concentrated on relations, processes and thought as the most important aspects of consciousness. These aspects would later become known as "access consciousness" and this focus on relations allowed philosophers such as Marx, Nietzsche and Foucault to claim that individual consciousness was dependent on such factors as social relations, political relations and ideology.

Locke's "forensic" notion of personal identity founded on an individual conscious subject would be criticized in the 19th century by Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud following different angles. Martin Heidegger's concept of the Dasein ("Being-there") would also be an attempt to think beyond the conscious subject.

Marx considered that social relations ontologically preceded individual consciousness, and criticized the conception of a conscious subject as an ideological conception on which liberal political thought was founded. Marx in particular criticized the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, considering that the so-called individual natural rights were ideological fictions camouflaging social inequality in the attribution of those rights. Later, Louis Althusser would criticize the "bourgeois ideology of the subject" through the concept of interpellation ("Hey, you!").

Nietzsche, for his part, once wrote that "they give you free will only to later blame yourself", thus reversing the classical liberal conception of free will in a critical account of the genealogy of consciousness as the effect of guilt and ressentiment, which he described in On the Genealogy of Morals. Hence, Nietzsche was the first one to make the claim that the modern notion of consciousness was indebted to the modern system of penalty, which judged a man according to his "responsibility", that is by the consciousness through which acts can be attributed to an individual subject: "I did this! this is me!". Consciousness is thus related by Nietzsche to the classic philosopheme of recognition which, according to him, defines knowledge.

According to Pierre Klossowski (1969), Nietzsche considered consciousness to be a hypostatization of the body, composed of multiple forces (the "Will to Power"). According to him, the subject was only a "grammatical fiction": we believed in the existence of an individual subject, and therefore of a specific author of each act, insofar as we speak. Therefore, the conscious subject is dependent on the existence of language, a claim which would be generalized by critical discourse analysis (see for example Judith Butler).

Michel Foucault's analysis of the creation of the individual subject through disciplines, in Discipline and Punish (1975), would extend Nietzsche's genealogy of consciousness and personal identity - i.e. individualism - to the change in the juridico-penal system: the emergence of penology and the disciplinization of the individual subject through the creation of a penal system which judged not the acts as it alleged to, but the personal identity of the wrong-doer. In other words, Foucault maintained that, by judging not the acts (the crime), but the person behind those acts (the criminal), the modern penal system was not only following the philosophical definition of consciousness, once again demonstrating the imbrications between ideas and social institutions ("material ideology" as Althusser would call it); it was by itself creating the individual person, categorizing and dividing the masses into a category of poor but honest and law-abiding citizens and another category of "professional criminals" or recidivists.

Gilbert Ryle has argued that traditional understandings of consciousness depend on a Cartesian outlook that divides into mind and body, mind and world. He proposed that we speak not of minds, bodies, and the world, but of individuals, or persons, acting in the world. Thus, by saying 'consciousness,' we end up misleading ourselves by thinking that there is any sort of thing as consciousness separated from behavioral and linguistic understandings.

The failure to produce a workable definition of consciousness also raises formidable philosophical questions. It has been argued that when Antonio Damasio defines consciousness as "an organism's awareness of its own self and its surroundings", the definition has not escaped circularity, because awareness in that context can be considered a synonym for consciousness.

The notion of consciousness as passive awareness can be contrasted with the notion of the active construction ofmental representations. Maturana and Varela showed that the brain is massively involved with creating worlds of experience for us with meager input from the senses. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins sums up the interactive view of experience: "In a way, what sense organs do is assist our brains to construct a useful model and it is this model that we move around in. It is a kind of virtual reality simulation of the world."

Consciousness and language

Because humans express their conscious states using language, it is tempting to equate language abilities and consciousness. There are, however, speechless humans (infants, feral children, aphasics, severe forms of autism), to whom consciousness is attributed despite language lost or not yet acquired. Moreover, the study of brain states of non-linguistic primates, in particular the macaques, has been used extensively by scientists and philosophers in their quest for the neural correlates of the contents of consciousness.

Julian Jaynes argued to the contrary, in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, that for consciousness to arise in a person, language needs to have reached a fairly high level of complexity. According to Jaynes, human consciousness emerged as recently as 1300 BCE or thereabouts. He defines consciousness in such a way as to show how he conceives of it as a type of thinking which builds upon non human ways of perceiving, for example (p. 55)...

Subjective conscious mind is an analog of what is called the real world. It is built up like a vocabulary or lexical field whose terms are all metaphors or analogs of behavior in the physical world. Its reality is of the same order as mathematics. It allows us to shortcut behavioral processes and arrive at more adequate decisions. Like mathematics, it is an operator rather than a repository. And it is intimately bound up with volition and decision.

...and page 65...

It operates by way of analogy, by way of constructing an analog space with an analog "I" that can observe that space, and move metaphorically in it.

...and perhaps most tellingly, page 66...

there is nothing in consciousness that is not an analog of something that was in behavior first.

Some philosophers, including W.V. Quine, and some neuroscientists, including Christof Koch, contest this hypothesis, arguing that it suggests that prior to this "discovery" of consciousness, experience simply did not exist. Ned Block argued that Jaynes had confused consciousness with the concept of consciousness, the latter being what was discovered between the Iliad and the Odyssey. Daniel Dennett points out that these approaches misconceive Jaynes's definition of consciousness as more than mere perception or awareness of an object. He notes that consciousness is like money in that having the thing requires having the concept of it, so it is a revolutionary proposal and not a ridiculous error to suppose that consciousness only emerges when its concept does.

More recently, Merlin Donald, seeing a similar connection between language and consciousness, and a similar link to cultural, and not purely genetic, evolution, has put a similar proposal to Jaynes' forward - though relying on less specific speculation about the more recent pre-history of consciousness. He writes...

To understand consciousness fully, the generation of culture must be explained. Enculturation has been neglected as a possible formative process in its own right, but we have no alternative other than to give it pride of place in any evolutionary theory.

He argues that an earlier "symbol using culture" must have preceded both the personal symbol using of individual consciousness, as well as language itself.

The idea that language and consciousness are not innate to humans, a characteristic of human nature, but rather the result of cultural evolution, beginning with something similar to the culture of chimpanzees, goes back before Darwin to Rousseau's Second Discourse.


According to Vedanta, awareness is not a product of physical processes and can be considered under four aspects. The first is waking consciousness (jagaritasthana), the identification with “I” or “me” in relationship with phenomenal experiences with external objects. The second aspect is dream consciousness (svapna-sthana), which embodies the same subject/object duality as the waking state. The third aspect of consciousness is deep sleep (susupti), which is non-dual as a result of holding in abeyance all feelings, thoughts, and sensations. The final aspect is the consciousness that underlies and transcends the first three aspects (turiya) also referred to as a trans-cognitive state (anubhava) or a state of self-realization or freedom from body-mind identification (moksha). Gaudiya Vedanta recognizes a fifth aspect of consciousness in which God becomes subordinate to bhakti.

Other approaches

Cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience

For a long time in scientific psychology, consciousness as a research topic or explanatory concept had been banned . Research on topics associated with consciousness were conducted under the banner of attention. Modern investigations into consciousness are based on psychological statistical studies and case studies of consciousness states and the deficits caused by lesions, stroke, injury, or surgery that disrupt the normal functioning of human senses and cognition. These discoveries suggest that the mind is a complex structure derived from various localized functions that are bound together with a unitary awareness.

Several studies point to common mechanisms in different clinical conditions that lead to loss of consciousness. Persistent vegetative state (PVS) is a condition in which an individual loses the higher cerebral powers of the brain, but maintains sleep-wake cycles with full or partial autonomic functions. Studies comparing PVS with healthy, awake subjects consistently demonstrate an impaired connectivity between the deeper (brainstem and thalamic) and the upper (cortical) areas of the brain. In addition, it is agreed that the general brain activity in the cortex is lower in the PVS state. Some electroneurobiological interpretations of consciousness characterize this loss of consciousness as a loss of the ability to resolve time (similar to playing an old phonographic record at very slow or very rapid speed), along a continuum that starts with inattention, continues on sleep, and arrives to coma and death . It is likely that different components of consciousness can be teased apart with anesthetics, sedatives and hypnotics. These drugs appear to differentially act on several brain areas to disrupt, to varying degrees, different components of consciousness. The ability to recall information, for example, may be disrupted by anesthetics acting on the hippocampal cortex. Neurons in this region are particularly sensitive to anesthetics at the time loss of recall occurs. Direct anesthetic actions on hippocampal neurons have been shown to underlie EEG effects that occur in humans and animals during loss of recall ( MacIver et al. 1996; see also:

Loss of consciousness also occurs in other conditions, such as general (tonic-clonic) epileptic seizures, in general anaesthesia, maybe even in deep (slow-wave) sleep. At present, the best-supported hypotheses about such cases of loss of consciousness (or loss of time resolution) focus on the need for 1) a widespread cortical network, including particularly the frontal, parietal and temporal cortices, and 2) cooperation between the deep layers of the brain, especially the thalamus, and the upper layers, the cortex. Such hypotheses go under the common term "globalist theories" of consciousness, due to the claim for a widespread, global network necessary for consciousness to interact with non-mental reality in the first place.

Brain chemistry affects human consciousness. Sleeping drugs (such as Midazolam = Dormicum) can bring the brain from the awake condition (conscious) to the sleep (unconscious). Wake-up drugs such as flumazenil reverse this process. Many other drugs (such as alcohol, nicotine, Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), heroin, cocaine, LSD, MDMA) have a consciousness-changing effect.

There is a neural link between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, known as the corpus callosum. This link is sometimes surgically severed to control severe seizures in epilepsy patients. This procedure was first performed by Roger Sperry in the 1960s. Tests of these patients have shown that, after the link is completely severed, the hemispheres are no longer able to communicate, leading to certain problems that usually arise only in test conditions. For example, while the left side of the brain can verbally describe what is going on in the right visual field, the right hemisphere is essentially mute, instead relying on its spatial abilities to interact with the world on the left visual field. Some say that it is as if two separate minds now share the same skull, but both still represent themselves as a single "I" to the outside world.

The bilateral removal of the centromedian nucleus (part of the Intra-laminar nucleus of the Thalamus) appears to abolish consciousness, causing coma, PVS, severe mutism and other features that mimic brain death. The centromedian nucleus is also one of the principal sites of action of general anaesthetics and anti-psychotic drugs. This evidence suggests that a functioning thalamus is necessary, but not sufficient, for human consciousness.

Neurophysiological studies in awake, behaving monkeys point to advanced cortical areas in prefrontal cortex and temporal lobes as carriers of neuronal correlates of consciousness. Christof Koch and Francis Crick argue that neuronal mechanisms of consciousness are intricately related to prefrontal cortex — cortical areas involved in higher cognitive function, affect, behavioral control, and planning. Rodolfo Llinas proposes that consciousness results from recurrent thalamo-cortical resonance where the specific thalamocortical systems (content) and the non-specific (centromedial thalamus) thalamocortical systems (context) interact in the gamma band frequency via time coincidence. According to this view the "I" represents a global predictive function required for intentionality. Experimental work of Steven Wise, Mikhail Lebedev and their colleagues supports this view. They demonstrated that activity of prefrontal cortex neurons reflects illusory perceptions of movements of visual stimuli. Nikos Logothetis and colleagues made similar observations on visually responsive neurons in the temporal lobe. These neurons reflect the visual perception in the situation when conflicting visual images are presented to different eyes (i.e., bistable percepts during binocular rivalry). The studies of blindsight — vision without awareness after lesions to parts of the visual system such as the primary visual cortex — performed by Lawrence Weiskrantz and David P. Carey provided important insights on how conscious perception arises in the brain.

In recent years the theory of two visual streams, vision for perception versus vision for action has been refined by Melvyn Goodale, David Milner and others. According to this theory, visual perception arises as the result of processing of visual information by the ventral stream areas (located mostly in the temporal lobe), whereas the dorsal stream areas (located mostly in the parietal lobe) process visual information unconsciously. For example, catching a ball quickly would engage the dorsal stream areas, whereas viewing a painting would engage the ventral stream. Overall, these studies show that conscious versus unconscious behaviors can be linked to specific brain areas and patterns of neuronal activation. .

An alternative and more global approach to analyzing neurophysiological correlates of consciousness is referred to by the Fingelkurts as Operational Architectonics. This still-untested theory postulates that thoughts are matched with and generated by underlying neurophysiological activity patterns that can be revealed directly by EEG.

Experimental philosophy

A new approach has attempted to combine the methodologies of cognitive psychology and traditional philosophy to understand consciousness. This research has taken place in the new field called experimental philosophy, which seeks to use empirical methods (like conducting experiments to test how ordinary non-experts think) to inform the philosophical discussion. The aim of this type of philosophical research on consciousness has been to try to get a better grasp on how exactly people ordinarily understand consciousness. For instance, work by Joshua Knobe and Jesse Prinz suggests that people may have two different ways of understanding minds generally, and another suggestion has been that there is actually no such phenomenon as consciousness. Further, Justin Sytsma and Edouard Machery have written about the proper methodology for studying folk intuitions about consciousness.

Evolutionary psychology

Consciousness can be viewed from the standpoints of evolutionary psychology or evolutionary biology approach as an adaptation because it is a trait that increases fitness. Consciousness also adheres to John Alcock's theory of animal behavioral adaptations because it possesses both proximate and ultimate causes.

The proximate causes for consciousness, i.e. how consciousness evolved in animals, is a subject considered by Sir John C. Eccles in his paper "Evolution of consciousness." He argues that special anatomical and physical properties of the mammalian cerebral cortex gave rise to consciousness. Budiansky, by contrast, limits consciousness to humans, proposing that human consciousness may have evolved as an adaptation to anticipate and counter social strategems of other humans, predators, and prey. Alternatively, it has been argued that the recursive circuitry underwriting consciousness is much more primitive, having evolved initially in premammalian species because it improves the capacity for interaction with both social and natural environments by providing an energy-saving "neutral" gear in an otherwise energy-expensive motor output machine. Another theory, proposed by Shaun Nichols and Todd Grantham, proposes that it is unnecessary to trace the exact evolutionary or causal role of phenomenal consciousness because the complexity of phenomenal consciousness alone implies that it is an adaptation. Once in place, this recursive circuitry may well have provided a basis for the subsequent development of many of the functions which consciousness facilitates in higher organisms, as outlined by Bernard J. Baars. Konrad Lorenz sees the roots of consciousness in the process of self-exploration of an organism that sees itself acting and learns a lifetime. Behind the Mirror: A Search for a Natural History of Human Knowledge

Functions of Consciousness

Functions of Consciousness
Function Purpose
Definition and context-setting Relating global input to its contexts, thereby defining input and removing ambiguities
Adaptation and learning Representing and adapting to novel and significant events
Editing, flagging, and debugging Monitoring conscious content, editing it, and trying to change it if it is consciously "flagged" as an error
Recruiting and control function Recruiting subgoals and motor systems to organize and carry out mental and physical actions
Prioritizing and access control Control over what will become conscious
Decision-making or executive function Recruiting unconscious knowledge sources to make proper decisions, and making goals conscious to allow widespread recruitment of conscious and unconscious "votes" for or against them
Analogy-forming function Searching for a partial match between contents of unconscious systems and a globally displayed (conscious) message
Metacognitive or self-forming function Reflection upon and control of our own conscious and unconscious functioning
Auto-programming and self-maintenance function Maintenance of maximum stability in the face of changing inner and outer conditions


Since the dawn of Newtonian science with its vision of simple mechanical principles governing the entire universe, some philosophers have been tempted by the idea that even consciousness could be explained in purely physical terms. The first influential writer to propose such an idea explicitly was Julien Offray de La Mettrie, in his book L'homme machine (Man as machine).

The most influential modern physical theories of consciousness are based on psychology and neuroscience. Theories proposed by neuroscientists such as Gerald Edelman and Antonio Damasio, and by philosophers such as Daniel Dennett, seek to explain access consciousness and phenomenal consciousness in terms of neural events occurring within the brain. Many other neuroscientists, such as Christof Koch, have explored the neural basis of consciousness without attempting to frame all-encompassing global theories. At the same time, computer scientists working in the field of Artificial Intelligence have pursued the goal of creating digital computer programs that can simulate or embody consciousness.

Some theorists—most of whom are physicists—have argued that classical physics is intrinsically incapable of explaining the holistic aspects of consciousness, but that quantum theory provides the missing ingredients. The most notable theories falling into this category include the Holonomic brain theory of Karl H. Pribram and David Bohm, and the Orch-OR theory formulated by Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose. Some of these QM theories offer descriptions of phenomenal consciousness, as well as QM interpretations of access consciousness. None of the quantum mechanical theories has been confirmed by experiment, and many scientists and philosophers consider the arguments for an important role of quantum phenomena to be unconvincing.


We generally agree that our fellow human beings are conscious, and that much simpler life forms, such as bacteria, are not. Many of us attribute consciousness to higher-order animals such as dolphins and primates; academic research is investigating the extent to which animals are conscious. This suggests the hypothesis that consciousness has co-evolved with life, which would require it to have some sort of added value, especially survival value. People have therefore looked for specific functions and benefits of consciousness. Bernard Baars (1997), for instance, states that "consciousness is a supremely functional adaptation" and suggests a variety of functions in which consciousness plays an important, if not essential, role: prioritization of alternatives, problem solving, decision making, brain processes recruiting, action control, error detection, planning, learning, adaptation, context creation, and access to information. Antonio Damasio (1999) regards consciousness as part of an organism's survival kit, allowing planned rather than instinctual responses. He also points out that awareness of self allows a concern for one's own survival, which increases the drive to survive, although how far consciousness is involved in behaviour is an actively debated issue. Many psychologists, such as radical behaviorists, and many philosophers, such as those that support Ryle's approach, would maintain that behavior can be explained by non-conscious processes akin to artificial intelligence, and might consider consciousness to be epiphenomenal or only weakly related to function.

Regarding the primary function of conscious processing, a recurring idea in recent theories is that phenomenal states somehow integrate neural activities and information-processing that would otherwise be independent (see review in Baars, 2002). This has been called the integration consensus. However, it has remained unspecified which kinds of information are integrated in a conscious manner and which kinds can be integrated without consciousness. Obviously not all kinds of information are capable of being disseminated consciously (e.g., neural activity related to vegetative functions, reflexes, unconscious motor programs, low-level perceptual analyses, etc.) and many kinds can be disseminated and combined with other kinds without consciousness, as in intersensory interactions such as the ventriloquism effect (cf., Morsella, 2005).

Ervin Laszlo argues that self-awareness, the ability to make observations of oneself, evolved. Emile Durkheim formulated the concept of so called collective consciousness, which is essential for organization of human, social relations. The accelerating drive of human race to explorations, cognition, understanding and technological progress can be explained by some features of collective consciousness (collective self - concepts) and collective intelligence


As there is no clear definition of consciousness and no empirical measure exists to test for its presence, it has been argued that due to the nature of the problem of consciousness, empirical tests are intrinsically impossible. However, several tests have been developed which attempt to provide an operational definition of consciousness and try to determine whether computers and non-human animals can demonstrate through their behavior, by passing these tests, that they are conscious.

In medicine, several neurological and brain imaging techniques, like EEG and fMRI, have proven useful for physical measures of brain activity associated with consciousness. This is particularly true for EEG measures during anesthesia that can provide an indication of anesthetic depth, although with still limited accuracies of ~ 70 % and a high degree of patient and drug variability seen.


Though often thought of as a test for consciousness, the Turing test (named after computer scientist Alan Turing, who first proposed it) is actually a test to determine whether or not a computer satisfied his operational definition of "intelligent" (which is actually quite different from a test for consciousness and self-awareness). This test is commonly cited in discussion of artificial intelligence. The essence of the test is based on "the Imitation Game", in which a human experimenter attempts to converse, via computer keyboards, with two others. One of the others is a human (who, it is assumed, is conscious) while the other is a computer. Because all of the conversation is via keyboards (teletypes, in Turing's original conception) no cues such as voice, prosody, or appearance will be available to indicate which is the human and which is the computer. If the human is unable to determine which of the conversants is human, and which is a computer, the computer is said to have "passed" the Turing test (satisfied Turing's operational definition of "intelligent").

The Turing test has generated a great deal of research and philosophical debate. For example, Daniel Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter argue that anything capable of passing the Turing test is necessarily conscious, while David Chalmers, argues that a philosophical zombie could pass the test, yet fail to be conscious.

It has been argued that the question itself is excessively anthropomorphic. Edsger Dijkstra commented that "The question of whether a computer can think is no more interesting than the question of whether a submarine can swim", expressing the view that different words are appropriate for the workings of a machine to those of animals even if they produce similar results, just as submarines are not normally said to swim.

Philosopher John Searle developed a thought experiment, the Chinese room argument, which is intended to show problems with the Turing Test. Searle asks the reader to imagine a non-Chinese speaker in a room in which there are stored a very large number of Chinese symbols and rule books. Questions are passed to the person in the form of written Chinese symbols via a slot, and the person responds by looking up the symbols and the correct replies in the rule books. Based on the purely input-output operations, the "Chinese room" gives the appearance of understanding Chinese. However, the person in the room understands no Chinese at all. This argument has been the subject of intense philosophical debate since it was introduced in 1980, even leading to edited volumes on this topic alone.

The application of the Turing test to human consciousness has even led to an annual competition, the Loebner Prize with "Grand Prize of $100,000 and a Gold Medal for the first computer whose responses were indistinguishable from a human's." For a summary of research on the Turing Test, see here.


See also the concept of the Mirror stage by Jacques Lacan

With the mirror test, devised by Gordon Gallup in the 1970s, one is interested in whether animals are able to recognize themselves in a mirror. The classic example of the test involves placing a spot of coloring on the skin or fur near the individual's forehead and seeing if they attempt to remove it or at least touch the spot, thus indicating that they recognize that the individual they are seeing in the mirror is themselves. Humans (older than 18 months) and other great apes (except for most gorillas), bottlenose dolphins, pigeons, elephants and magpies have all been observed to pass this test. The test is usually carried out with an identical 'spot' being placed elsewhere on the head with a non-visible material as a control, to assure the subject is not responding to the touch stimuli of the spot's presence. Proponents of the hard problem of consciousness claim that the mirror test only demonstrates that some animals possess a particular cognitive capacity for modelling their environment, but not for the presence of phenomenal consciousness per se. Gallup's mirror test has also been criticized as logically invalid because negative results are uninterpretable. Prosopagnosiacs, for example, may fail the test despite having the ability to report self awareness.


One problem researchers face is distinguishing nonconscious reflexes and instinctual responses from conscious responses. Neuroscientists Francis Crick and Christof Koch have proposed that by placing a delay between stimulus and execution of action, one may determine the extent of involvement of consciousness in an action of a biological organism.

For example, when psychologists Larry Squire and Robert Clark combined a tone of a specific pitch with a puff of air to the eye, test subjects came to blink their eyes in anticipation of the puff of air when the appropriate tone was played. When the puff of air followed a half of a second later, no such conditioning occurred. When subjects were asked about the experiment, only those who were asked to pay attention could consciously distinguish which tone preceded the puff of air.

Ability to delay the response to an action implies that the information must be stored in short-term memory, which is conjectured to be a closely associated prerequisite for consciousness. However, this test is only valid for biological organisms. While it is simple to create a computer program that passes, such success does not suggest anything beyond a clever programmer.


The merkwelt (German; ) is a concept in robotics, psychology and biology that describes a creature or android's capacity to view things, manipulate information and synthesize to make meaning out of the universe.

In biology, a shark's merkwelt for instance is dominated by smell due to its enlarged olfactory lobes whilst a bat's is dominated by its hearing, especially at ultrasonic frequencies. In literature, a character's merkwelt can be defined by their particular consciousness. For the collective, the plural is merkwelten. It is related to the original German meaning of zeitgeist and indeed a merkwelt can be thought of as a more general, individual zeitgeist.

To have a merkwelt, the individual must be self-aware. This "self-awareness" may involve thoughts, sensations, perceptions, moods, emotions, and dreams.

See also

Cognitive science



Physical hypotheses about consciousness

Sociology and Socio-linguistics





  • Block, N., Flanagan, O., & Güzeldere, G. (1997). The Nature of Consciousness: Philosophical debates Cambridge, MA: MIT.
  • Carruthers, P. (2007). In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (version Sep 11, 2007)
  • Farthing, G. W. (1992). The Psychology of Consciousness. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
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  • Searle (2005). Consciousness. In Honderich, T. (Ed.) (2005). The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (2nd ed.). Oxford.
  • Velmans, M., & Schneider, S. (Eds.) (2007). The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  • McKenna, T., McKenna, D. (1975). "The Invisible Landscape - Mind, Hallucinogens, and I Ching". Seabury Press.

Further reading and external links

  • Baars, B. (1997) In the Theater of Consciousness: The Workspace of the Mind. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 2001 reprint: ISBN 978-0-19-514703-2
  • Baars, Bernard J and Stan Franklin. (2003) How conscious experience and working memory interact. Trends in Cognitive Science 7: 166–172.
  • Blackmore, S. (2003) Consciousness: an Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-515343-9
  • Blackmore, S. (2005) "Conversations on Consciousness". Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-280623-9
  • Block, N. (2004). The Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science.
  • Carter, Rita. (2002) Exploring Consciousness. UC Berkeley Press. ISBN 0-520-23737-4
  • Chalmers, D. (1996) The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-511789-9
  • Chalmers, D. (2002) The puzzle of conscious experience. Scientific American, January 2002. [551]
  • Cleermans, A. (Ed.) (2003) The Unity of Consciousness: Binding, Integration, and Dissociation. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-850857-1
  • Crick, F.H.C. (1994) "The Astonishing Hypothesis". London Simon & Schuster Ltd. ISBN 0-671-71295-0
  • Eccles, J.C. (1994) How the Self Controls its Brain, (Springer-Verlag).
  • Franklin, S., B.J. Baars, U. Ramamurthy, and Matthew Ventura. (2005) The role of consciousness in memory. Brains, Minds and Media 1: 1–38, pdf.
  • Halliday, Eugene, Reflexive Self-Consciousness, ISBN 0-872240-01-1
  • Harnad, S. (2005) What is Consciousness? New York Review of Books 52(11).
  • Harnad, S. (2008) What It Feels Like To Hear Voices: Fond Memories of Julian Jaynes
  • James, W. (1902) The Varieties of Religious Experience
  • Immanuel Kant (1781). Critique of Pure Reason. Trans. Norman Kemp Smith with preface by Howard Caygill. Pub: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • John Locke (1689). An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
  • Libet, B., Freeman, A. & Sutherland, K. ed. (1999) The Volitional Brain: Towards a neuroscience of free will. Exeter, UK: Short Run Press, Ltd.
  • Llinas R.,Ribary, U. Contreras, D. and Pedroarena, C. (1998) "The neuronal basis for consciousness" Phil. Tranns. R. Soc. London, B. 353:1841-1849
  • Llinas R. (2001) "I of the Vortex. From Neurons to Self" MIT Press, Cambridge
  • Metzinger, T. (2003) Being No One: the Self-model Theory of Subjectivity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Metzinger, T. (Ed.) (2000) The Neural Correlates of Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-13370-8
  • Morgan, John H. (2007) In the Beginning: The Paleolithic Origins of Religious Consciousness. Cloverdale Books, South Bend. ISBN 978-1-929569-41-0
  • Morsella, E. (2005) The Function of Phenomenal States: Supramodular Interaction Theory. Psychological Review, 112, 1000-1021.
  • Neumann, Erich. The origins and history of consciousness, with a foreword by C.G. Jung. Translated from the German by R.F.C. Hull. New York : Pantheon Books, 1954.
  • Penrose, R., Hameroff, S. R. (1996) 'Conscious Events as Orchestrated Space-Time Selections', Journal of Consciousness Studies, 3 (1), pp. 36-53.
  • Peters, Frederic (2008) "Consciousness as Recursive, Spatiotemporal Self-Location"
  • Pharoah, M.C. (online) Looking to systems theory for a reductive explanation of phenomenal experience and evolutionary foundations for higher order thought Retrieved December14 2007.
  • Sanz, R., López, I., Rodríguez, M. and Hernández, C. (2007) 'Principles for Consciousness in Integrated Cognitive Control'. Neural Networks, 20, pp. 938–946.
  • Scaruffi, P. (2006) The Nature Of Consciousness. Omniware.
  • Searle, J. (2004) Mind: A Brief Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Sternberg, E. (2007) Are You a Machine? The Brain, the Mind and What it Means to be Human. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
  • Tolle, Eckhart (1999) The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. New World Library. pp 36–37. ISBN 978-1577311522
  • Velmans, M. (2000) Understanding Consciousness. London: Routledge/Psychology Press.
  • Velmans, M. and Schneider, S. (Eds.)(2006) The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness. New York: Blackwell.

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