The science and philosophy of consciousness

To talk about consciousness is like opening Pandora’s Box. The word consciousness now, not only piques the interest of scientists and philosophers, but also individuals in the society at large, who are in search of de-stressing mechanisms and attempting to march towards spirituality.

By consciousness we generally mean awareness, the kind of experience that is lost when one faints or dreams or slips into coma. In ordinary clinical jargon, one uses terms like stupor, sub-consciousness or consciousness. However, these fail to communicate the actual complexities of the subject at hand. Since modern science is not sure about the origin and nature of most psychic phenomena, including dreams, it is tempting to search for wisdom of basic scientists, theologists and philosophers. The Vedas and Upanishads described four state of consciousness as Jagriti (wakefulness), Swapna (dream), Sushupta (deep sleep) and Turiya (non-dual or transcendental consciousness).

From the neurological point of view, consciousness can be defined as the state of awareness of self and environment and one’s responsiveness to external stimuli and internal needs. Consciousness thus has two components: level of consciousness — the degree of variation from normal alertness — and the content of consciousness — quality and coherence of thought and behaviour; the latter determining the spectrum of enlightenment of an individual in terms of behaviour, emotions, memory and perception.

Simple wakefulness is controlled by reticular activating system, a fibre system arising from the brainstem sending impulses to both the hemispheres to keep them vigilant for perceiving external and internal signals. But the content of consciousness is modulated by neuronal circuits of the limbic system, a major component of the mind.

Pure Consciousness, Divine Consciousness or Super Consciousness (Anukarana Chitta) are terms frequently used by mystics since it is generally held in the mystical traditions and not in the scientific reality. To hypothesize scientifically, it could be understood as a state where the content and quality of consciousness (the inner world) is filled with pure thoughts, pleasure and relaxation giving the highest level of contentment and satisfaction.

This state can be achieved when chemical and electrical milieu of the mind is in perfect balance. Such a balance can be achieved by simultaneous activation of pleasure channels and inhibition of channels mediating stress. The Super Conscious mind, working through the conscious and sub-conscious states, brings forth intuition, clarity and insight.

The sub-conscious mind is a very frequently used word and has still not been described very scientifically. In Vedas, it is ‘Vasana Chitta’ and ‘Samskara Chitta’, the mind of ‘subliminal traits’ and ‘impressions’.

The scientists, to begin with, thought and believed that the sub-conscious mind is the “ancient” understanding of the mind in contrast with the more recent cortical level of thinking. More recently, it has come to be understood as the circuitry which connects emotions with past memory residing diffusely in both the cerebral hemispheres. This probably explains the layman’s perception of sub-consciousness, in which there are occasional episodes of amnesia for words or events on the one hand, and brilliant unexpected answers on the other.

The quest to solve the puzzle of human consciousness, the very essence of our being, is one of the greatest challenges for modern science. Lately, multi-specialty integrated programmes are in the process of being launched and offer hope to us for becoming more conscious of the ‘Consciousness’.

From the neurological point of view, consciousness…has two components: level of consciousness and the content of consciousness. It is the content which determines the spectrum of enlightenment of an individual