Will We Ever Understand the Nature of Consciousness?

Advances in our understanding of cognitive processes are proving tremendous. When it comes to understanding consciousness, you might say the ghost in the machine is a chemical engineer.

A man contemplates the setting sun over the horizon, circa 1955. (Photo by Orlando/Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Predictions are fodder for the imagination. Most of our conscious experience is spent dwelling in the past or contemplating what’s to come. These mental states are interdependent: forecasting is based on past experiences; what happens tomorrow will inevitably alter our perception of history. In fact, musing over both past and future activates the same neural regions. The hard part is staying present.


The editors at Scientific American picked twenty questions they deemed important for the future of humanity. As expected, a few are built on the speculative work of Philip K Dick, Frank Herbert, and Cormac McCarthy. Are there extraterrestrials? Will humans survive Earth by relocating elsewhere? Will our species make it another five hundred years?

These are relevant questions, especially as climate change continues its relentless march. Whether or not we’ll predict earthquakes is especially important to Angelenos like myself. Yet the questions regarding consciousness seem especially timely, which makes a brief quote feel inadequate.

It is a solid quote, however. Asking Christof Koch of the Allen Institute of Brain Science if we’ll ever understand the nature of consciousness, his two-sentence reply is especially insightful. First, he notes that many deny any potential for comprehending the seeming chaos of our hundred billion neuronal connections. Ignore the haters, he continues,

There is little rationale for burying into such defeatist talk and every reason to look forward to the day, not that far off, when science will come to a naturalized, quantitative and predictive understanding of consciousness and its place in the universe.

For a long time I fell into the former camp. Having spent my late teens and twenties studying religion, I was constantly presented with enduring and supposedly unanswerable metaphysical quandaries. Some form of belief system is erected to deal with uncertainties. End of story.

There comes a point when you recognize that mysticism and faith translate to ignorance. “I don’t know” is not analogous to “It can’t be known.” Advances in our understanding of cognitive processes are proving tremendous. The ghost in the machine is a chemical engineer.

For example, the limbic responses to stimuli that we dub emotions are rather universal—what makes us sad might vary culturally, but the neurological markers of sadness run across the board. Same for anger, joy, the gamut of feelings. Changes in skin temperature and moisture, heart rate, and neuronal firings are measurable. We might lie. Blood flow does not.

Unless you’re a psychopath, violent imagery will negatively affect you. (Psychopaths will either be neutral or even comforted by such images.) Out of body and mystical religious experiences are easily replicated with magnets. Synesthesia accounts for the creative processes of some artists, musicians, and thinkers. Research in split-brain patients has revealed the argumentative and ultimately cooperative nature of our most cherished organ.

An experiment by E.J. Masicampo and Roy Baumeister highlights just how predictable humans are. Students were given lemonade, one sweetened with sugar, the other Splenda. Fifteen minutes later they were asked to make decisions regarding apartments. The Splenda group fared far worse.

The human brain is fueled by sugar; the substitute didn’t cut it. The prefrontal cortex of each Splenda student was too depleted to think clearly. Food research is especially telling in consciousness studies, since those nutrients greatly affect how and what we think. Being hangry is a real phenomenon, and it is measurable.

Assigning consciousness to a mystical, godly realm seems part of our evolutionary heritage. How could silly topics like lemonade inform the divine gift of consciousness? How, as the greatest animal ever produced, could we ever think we’ll understand our most primitive inner circuitry? The ego of these researchers.

Perhaps we need to rethink that assumption. Egoistic means believing we’re designed with an impenetrable code. Fifty years ago cracking DNA seemed unfathomable. Today I logged into 23andme to discover I’m likely to consume more caffeine than average (I do), I’m not a sprinter (I’m not), I move a lot in my sleep (my girlfriend confirms this), and I’m predominantly Eastern European (I know that) with hints of Yakut and North African (I didn’t know that). My spit and a hundred bucks revealed that and much more, and we’re really only at version 1.0.

In a culture that champions the individual, believing private thoughts inside of your head are forever yours and yours alone is understandable. But we give so much away through facial expressions and pantomimes it seems we hardly know ourselves at all. Our sacredness is relative. To many humans? Blessed. Leave your comfort zone? Meh.

Can metacognition be that metacognitive? Given how much we’ve learned in just the past decade, certainly. As we continue to wrap our heads around the nature of our heads, many other questions on Scientific American’s list will unfold: Will brain science change criminal law? Will there ever be a cure for Alzheimer’s? Will we use wearable technologies to detect our emotions? Will sex become obsolescent?

We don’t need to understand consciousness to recognize that we are, at root, animals. The last one remains a resounding no. 

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Derek Beres is working on his new book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health (Carrel/Skyhorse, Spring 2017). He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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