Thinking about thoughts

This is a random walk on a specific topic. It’s not a well-researched educational article. I wanted to make that clear right away. I may add links to articles that support what I’m saying but I do not claim to be an expert. In fact, if you have more information, please feel free to correct me or send a link my way.

A topic I’ve thought about, and more lately, is thinking. Specifically, consciousness. The most recent line of thought started because lately I’ve been tracking my sleep and my dreams, keeping a dream journal. One morning last week, I woke up and my immediate thought was about how I could tell the difference between the previous moment, when I was sleeping and dreaming, and the next moment, when I was awake. There was a difference, but not one I could articulate. Everyone knows that they’re not the same mental state, but nobody really knows why or how.

Much research has been done on consciousness. We can measure activity in the brain and tell the difference between sleeping, dreaming, and wide awake by looking at an MRI or an EEG, but, again, why do we do them? Why do we need to dream? How does consciousness work? How does the brain (or whatever is generating it) make consciousness? Do other animals have this type of brain state, or are we alone? 

We don’t even really know how anesthesia works, in fact. We can apply it to someone, and they lose consciousness and become insensitive to pain, but all the autonomic body responses, like breathing or heartbeat, continue, much like in sleep (except for the insensitivity to pain bit). How is an anesthetic state different from consciousness or sleeping? What is being shut down?

Our understanding of consciousness is metaphorical at best. We can point to areas of the brain and say, “if that part stops working, we lose consciousness” but we’re not really sure why. We have tools like anesthesia that can shut it off temporarily but we don’t know why. We spend a third of our lives in an altered state that appears to be required for our continued existence, a state we appear to share with many other vertebrates on this planet, but, again, we don’t know why. 

The ambiguity is what leads many people to assume a paranormal or supernatural explanation for it: the soul or spirit is what makes us conscious, a non-physical thing that is made up of our experiences, thoughts, and personality. While I understand the impulse I do not think that is the answer; there are too many other more reasonable explanations. Sure, when I’m dreaming there’s a strong sense of being somewhere else, like I’ve travelled to a distant land or another dimension, but it’s entirely possible, and in fact quite likely, that it’s just another mental state created by my brain. In fact, if we had souls, non-physical supernatural energy fields that were permanent personalities without bodies, would it be possible to affect our basic personality traits via simple physical, chemical or electric changes, as we’ve found? No, the evidence I’ve seen suggests our personalities and consciousness are a result of physical structures and electro-chemical reactions. I understand your potential disappointment and disagreement; but I don’t share it.

The irony of me thinking about consciousness is delicious. 

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