What is Consciousness? (Part Four)

Earlier in this series of articles I depicted consciousness as a sheet of paper, mostly illuminated by a soft light, with a fuzzy spot of brighter light somewhere on its surface. I can understand if the reader is thinking, “This doesn't explain anything!” Analogies can be unclear like that, so let me explain the illustration in more detail, and then go on to show what this means to us in daily life. In particular, I'll describe how we experience suffering.

The sheet of paper represents all that the brain can potentially sense or recall. The soft illumination represents all that the brain is currently sensing or recalling. The fuzzy spot of light represents the cycle of attention.

The cycle of attention is what makes consciousness feel more real than reality itself. It's what makes the illusion of self so very convincing.

The cycle of attention is a constant re-experiencing. That which the brain experienced is reloaded from memory to be experienced again. This is what gives us our illusions about time, by the way; we only actually live in the present moment (as a dog does), but the cycle of attention distracts us from this fact. In addition to the reloading of the past, the cycle of attention can also be fed by speculations (such as dread) about the future. This further extends our illusions about time.

With all of this extra activity going on, is it surprising that one spot in our awareness is (to return to the sheet analogy) “brighter” than the others? It is, in fact, getting a huge excess of input. A single candle might not light up a room, but a hundred candles will.

It is, however, misleading to think of the spot as being in a single location in our brain. This is the homunculus fallacy — the idea that there is a place inside us where our essence resides. The homunculus fallacy is obviously in error because it simply takes the problem and shifts it further inwards. That is to say, it doesn't actually explain anything. The spot of the analogy is actually numerous regions in the brain, and they don't even have to be the same regions each time. That is one reasion why the spot is depicted as fuzzy around the edges. What makes it seem unified is the logical process of relating that spot — that ephemeral pattern of neuronal activation — with our narrative about self.  It's not just any spot; it's your spot.

The Problem of Pain

If you can indulge me for a moment, I'd like to make a personal aside.

Many years ago I read a book by C.S. Lewis, entitled The Problem of Pain. Lewis was a Christian apologist and I was reading his books in an attempt to rescue my waning faith. He seemed like a kind, intelligent fellow and I'd like to have met him. But this was the last of his books that I ever read. Indeed, halfway through the book I realized that he really didn't know the answer, and that probably nobody could explain the problem of pain in a manner consistent with the mainstream Christian viewpoint. (This was years before I'd encountered The Gospel of Thomas.)  To make a long story short, Lewis's book did not strengthen my faith. On the contrary: halfway through reading it I gave up in discouragement, and within a few days I experienced a massive and sudden perspective shift that changed me from believer to atheist.

Nowadays I understand The Problem of Pain far better, though it would be more accurate to call it The Problem of Suffering.

Pain cannot be avoided. Sorry, but unless there's something neurologically wrong with you, you can't live without experiencing some pain. What you can do, to a greater or lesser extent, is prevent the conversion of pain into suffering.

Recall how, earlier on in this article, I defined the spot that represents consciousness:  it is a cycle of attention. If the attention focuses on pain (either physical or psychological), or fear, or need, then it becomes suffering. That's all there is to it.

It has been said that animals don't feel pain the way we do. This is true, though (I hesitate to add) misleading. Pain is pain, and if you can spare an animal pain — particularly ongoing pain, which is nearly identical to the cycle of attention — then please do so!  Having said that, let's consider how non-human mammals experience pain differently from humans. 

I'll use a cat as an example because I'm familiar with cats. I have no insight into how, say, dolphins or horses experience pain, so please do not over-apply what I say here to cover all animals.

A Lesson from Lily

Some years ago my sweet little cat Lily went outside to have her fun, as cats are wont to do. Shortly thereafter it started raining heavily, but she did not come back in. The rain continued for hours and I concluded that she'd found shelter to wait out the storm. After a few hours more, though, I decided to put on a rain coat and go out looking for her.

I wandered the neighbourhood, calling out in the special voice I reserved for her alone. Suddenly I heard her distinctive mew coming from a bush about 10 meters away, over by the train tracks. I called out to her again and she started slowing limping towards me in the pouring rain. Limping. She was missing her front right  paw.

I do not know how it happened. Perhaps it was a train or maybe it was a car. Whatever the case, she was soaking wet and obviously in pain. Yet she fixed her gaze upon me and hobbled directly to me, looking neither left nor right. I picked her up and attempted to shelter her from the downpour as I brought her home.

She was purring, as injured cats are known to do. But she did not, and never did, whine or complain or show any extreme reaction to her situation. This was, to me, extremely puzzling, though I was grateful, too.

I had to have Lily euthanized. She was my all-time favourite cat, so it saddens me to write about this. But I am grateful for the gift of knowledge she granted me in her last hours. Through her stoicism she demonstrated to me the difference between pain and suffering.

There is no doubt that she was in pain. Yet she did not cycle her attention on that fact. So her pain was in exact proportion to her situation. Technically, I can say that she was suffering to some extent, because the pain was (I assume) ongoing. But the suffering was not like the suffering a human would have felt because her mind did not amplify the pain into anguish.

I cannot emphasize enough how important this lesson is. The world is full of unhappy people who could suffer less if they understood that their minds are amplifying their pain — making it more real than reality itself. 

Does this not supply a visceral (not intellectual) proof of what consciousness is? Would you have been satisfied with a mere intellectual proof? Indeed, would a dry, intellectual proof be a sufficient answer, since (as previously noted) merely modeling the process is misleading because it's not the thing itself?

You can probably remember occasions when you've experienced pain without suffering. If you've ever voluntarily participated in any sports you've almost certainly experienced this phenomenon.

My two favourite sports are hiking and old-style rollerskating (i.e. in a rink with wheels-at-the-corners skates). Both of these sports subject me to pain. Let me assure you that I've had some horrendous tumbles while rollerskating. Yet the pain ... doesn't hurt!

Can you imagine pain that doesn't hurt? If you've ever done sport enthusiastically then you almost certainly can. Of course, it's not completely accurate to say it doesn't hurt. It's unpleasant and it's a warning, and the pain might persist for a while. But in such cases the mind does not transform it into suffering.

It's not just a question of adrenaline. Both hiking and rollerskating could leave me sore for a day or two. But that soreness didn't hurt, either. It was just some pain, which was perfectly natural and not a problem. I didn't obsess about it, and therefore it was, for the most part, edited out of my consciousness.

I hope the foregoing examples clarify my “spot of light” analogy. If not, well, I might find other ways to explain it later. We'll see.

Whence the Cycle?

You may be wondering why we use our brains in such a way as to have the cycle of attention. Considering that it converts pain into suffering, it might seem like a horrible thing to do. And so it is, though it can also be argued that it has evolutionary advantages. That's a topic for another day. For now, let's discuss the immediate reason we do it.

It's quite simple, really: we are taught to think that way. Our parents, and later our teachers, teach us to think in that manner. And why do they do that? Because that mode of cognition is currently part of human culture. It doesn't have to be so, but it is.

Let's be clear about this:  we suffer because of the way our culture teaches us to use our minds.

I'm fairly sure that the Buddha (and possibly Jesus) saw this long, long before I did. But of course they had to describe the problem in terms that they (and their audience) knew. Neither of them knew about neurology, or game theory, or computers, or evolution etc. So it's hardly surprising that their explanations were less accessible to a modern audience than mine might be. Not that my explanations are all that clear. I'll see what I can do about that.

Part Five of this series of five articles about consciousness can be found here.

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