Blossoming of Consciousness

Contemplating recent comments about what it means to be a conscious human, I began to consider what really distinguishes us from all the other inhabitants of our planet. There are some distinctively human traits to be sure, but it seems more like a combination of several important capacities and foundational characteristics that sets us apart.

Most living creatures with an adequately developed brain and functional central nervous system, given sufficient stimulation in the appropriate circumstance, will generally demonstrate a fairly predictable response in their behavior, including, many times, human beings. The familiar “fight-or-flight” response when in close proximity to a dangerous carnivore would be a good example. Under most circumstances, depending on the degree of danger and the creature’s inherited abilities and previous conditioning with regard to facing such danger, if adequate motivation was present for either running away or standing up to the danger, most organisms would instinctively tend to select the behavior which provided the best option for survival. While this behavior could still ultimately result in the demise of the organism, in spite of whatever resources may be available to them, when the behavior is instinctively chosen, no judgment or further implication can be inferred.

Conversely, as cognitive creatures, with both instinctual and volitional capacities, humans can not only deliberately override instinctive tendencies, but can also consciously review the available behavioral selections, calculate the likelihood of success of any choice, contemplate previously untried alternatives, innovate extemporaneously with available resources, and even in the face of very low probabilities of success, choose behaviors which instinct alone would generally not permit. In the human brain, with all of its genetically inherited and deeply-rooted predispositions, as well as a variety of involuntary and unconscious functions, we observe mitigation of this sort by virtue of the capacities provided by our distinctly human version of the cerebral cortex, particularly from activity within the frontal lobe. The capacity to deliberately alter or mitigate our instinctive responses, and purposefully alter our environment and behaviors is a characteristic of our species, and one of the distinguishing hallmarks that separates humans from all other living creatures.

One might wish to argue that humans respond instinctively all the time, or that we tend to confer deliberate choice to our actions far more often than is actually the case, but we cannot easily disregard millions of years of evolution simply because we now have a sufficiently sophisticated cognitive capacity. We are, by most cosmic standards, a fledgling species, whose progress from being primarily impulsive creatures with a survival instinct to the more modern self-aware variety has spanned less than a hundred thousand years. Whatever degree of cognitive skill might have been adequate to qualify the earliest version of modern humans as “conscious” or “significantly self-aware,” the earliest evidence of such characteristics being demonstrated seems to fall during the Upper Paleolithic period, which saw the coexistence of the Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon.

In the waning years of survival for the Neanderthals, some evidence of expanding skills with tools has been found, and examinations of Neanderthal fossils show that the skull architecture would have supported the ability to produce language if they were able, but the available fossil evidence is not adequate to support a definitive conclusion in this regard, and there is a fair amount of speculation and disagreement as to what exactly constitutes a fully developed and meaningful vocal communication. However, the capacity and ability with language is another one of the predominant characteristics of modern Homo sapiens, and represents a significant evolutionary survival advantage.

Along with the ability to communicate through language, modern humans were finally able to associate temporal objects with symbolic representations of those objects, as evidenced in the ancient cave paintings in Ardeche, France in the Caves of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, now believed to have been placed there some 34,000 years ago by the Aurignacian culture. However the actual progressive skills of Homo sapiens unfolded, it is clear that when it finally became possible for our ancient ancestors to make significant and meaningful use of their cognitive skills, human beings were profoundly altered, and were no longer simply another primate species struggling for survival in the ancient world.

If we begin with the idea that truly modern humans had finally achieved a significant degree of useful and discernable “consciousness” around this time, it would take another 30,000 years for the first appearance of “writing” to occur, when the Sumerians created their “cuneiform” writing system, and by definition, the beginning of “recorded history.” Everything that happened in between these two landmark developments represents a period of “blossoming” of our human consciousness, within which both language and culture flourished and expanded into what would become a global phenomenon.

Methods for communication have also been documented among other species on our planet, and we have observed a whole range of behaviors which could be described as an indication of various degrees of “consciousness,” in those life forms, including astonishing achievements in the construction of habitats, particularly tenacious species surviving unimaginable adversity, and mind-boggling evolutionary adaptations within species, over the millions of years of evolution. As amazing as they are, these accomplishments pale in comparison to what one lonely branch of primates has managed in the last 50,000 years.


Overcoming instinctive behaviors, deliberately and “consciously” choosing our path through the millennia, as disastrous as some of those choices have been and continue to be, distinguishes humans from every other known species. Whether we are able to survive and thrive in the future, could very well depend not just on our progress toward understanding human consciousness, but also on our willingness to transcend both our history and our narrow view of what might possibly explain “consciousness.”

John H.

The Illusions of Neuroscience and the Certainty of the Mysterious

In an article in the April-June 2009 issue of Scientific American Mind called “The Power of Symmetry,” by Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Diane Rogers-Ramachandran, we learned that through our own subjective experience of visual stimuli, we can verify the brain’s tendency to impose symmetry on what we see, and through a deliberate method of presenting specific visual patterns, researchers can evoke the brain’s inclination to make sense out of visual patterns. Our knowledge of how the brain functions enhances our understanding today of how visual stimuli is interpreted with regard to imposing symmetry. What struck me about the implications of the research conducted in the article, aside from the insightful look at how the brain processes visual cues, was the mention several times of how with “intense mental effort,” we can briefly override the brain’s “natural preference” for symmetry, when interpreting “apparent motion.” Since we frequently experience the visual aspects of the world without consciously being required to make a deliberate mental effort to interpret them, our natural inclinations generally prevail, resulting in what the Ramachandrans described as “a global imposition of coherence.”

While the precise neural mechanisms supporting our conscious and unconscious brain activities are still not well understood, the ability of an individual to exercise “intense mental effort” to override the brain’s natural inclinations is, for me, a clear indication that whatever mechanisms are engaged in ANY brain process may be subject to disruption or alteration with adequate effort, and suggests to me also that a comprehensive explanation of consciousness itself may include influences not necessarily attributable to specific neural mechanisms!

Dr. Pawan Sinha, PhD in the Summer 2011 Issue of Brain World Magazine – article by Lauren Marks
See full article here: http://brainworldmagazine.com/2011/06/qa-with-dr-pawan-sinha-phd/

“There is a very influential idea in the domain of visual neuroscience that essentially says that information from the eyes is not processed as a monolithic whole, but rather it’s split up into different kinds of attributes. There’s color, there’s motion, luminance, high-resolution information, low-resolution information. And the belief is that these different attributes are being processed by different groups of neurons. The outputs of these neurons are eventually combined by some process that still remains mysterious. We don’t really know how that combination comes about.”

It is wonderfully refreshing to read in a prominent magazine dealing with neuroscience, a statement by an “associate professor of vision and computational neuroscience at MIT,” which acknowledges that there are some aspects of the way our brains work that are still mysterious. What we have learned over the decades that scientists have dedicated to figuring out the brain is enormously interesting and has given us many benefits in treatment options for all sorts of pathologies and traumatic injuries, but the brain is so complex and so essential to the ability to figure itself out that we sometimes lose sight of the enormity of the task, and the far-reaching implications of each new discovery.

More to come….

Little Girl Saved, Little Girl Lost-Triumph of the Human Spirit

When the stage collapsed at the Indiana State Fair last week, people panicked and ran initially, but once the immediate danger had passed, a hundred or so rushed toward the scene to help. Amazing pictures of people trying to lift the fallen structure, and stories of heroic efforts to assist those who were injured gave us all some solace in the face of terrible losses and injuries. Today on the internet, the face of one of those injured, a little girl named Maggie, showed us all the power of the human spirit to rise, particularly in the face of tragedy.

A handful of different people rushed to assist Maggie, who was pinned underneath the metal framing which fell, and managed to stop the bleeding and free her in an enormously difficult circumstance, and I could not help but feel a connection to the extraordinary story of selfless action on behalf of a little girl who needed saving.

Equally astonishing, was the story of another little girl named Rachel, about the same age, who had decided on her 9th birthday to forgo presents in favor of collecting donations for children in distant lands who needed clean drinking water. Before her goal could be realized, Rachel was lost in a terrible car accident, but the gift she was attempting to bestow on others, captured the imagination and attention of hundreds of other human spirits, and became an instant focal point for the generosity and beauty of Rachel’s spirit.

Over one million dollars has been raised so far, and anyone interested can visit the site to find out more:

http://mycharitywater.org/rachels9thbirthday

When much of the world struggles with the daunting challenges of war, domestic strife, and economic upheaval, news about such triumphs of the human spirit lift us up and reassure us that in spite of all that is truly wrong with the world, there is reason to hope for a better outcome for humanity than what often seems like a gradual decline into oblivion. Evidence of the power of the human spirit to overcome even the most daunting challenges may not come often, but when it does come, it makes those who wish to reduce human nature to the random fluctuation of physical systems in our biology look a bit less in touch with what really matters.

Thank Heaven….for Little Girls!

East Germany and the Human Spirit

In August 1961, a barbed-wire barrier was erected between East and West Berlin. A few days later, workers started building a concrete block wall. Residents of East were no longer allowed to enter the West. The “Iron Curtain” that Winston Churchill had spoken about in a 1946 speech had now come to fruition. (MSN homepage 8-13-2011)

This photo from 1961 shows the Berlin Wall, built by the East German government to seal off East Berlin from the part of the city occupied by the three main western powers (U.S., Great Britain and France), and to prevent mass illegal emigration to the West.

To see the complete article By Chris Rodell, msnbc.com contributor:

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/44060292/ns/travel-news/t/years-ago-berlin-wall-arose-divide/#.TkabcWFIqLs

As a young man on military assignment in what was then, “West Germany,” I had the opportunity to spend several months monitoring military activities on the border of “East Germany.” Having first learned about the construction of the Berlin Wall in grammar school history class, the sense of what it was all about was not entirely clear, but later on in high school, the full implications of the separation of East and West Germany were much clearer, so when I was sent to Germany on my first overseas tour of duty years later, I had a keen sense of what the “Wall” represented. After my first visit to the border area, the value of the freedoms we enjoy as Americans took on a whole new level of appreciation.

My assignment took me to a number of small towns and villages on the West German side, and it was clear from the particularly warm and friendly reception US troops experienced in these places that the people who lived in the border towns knew very well that the wall was meant to prevent the East Germans from leaving, and not to keep the Westerners out as the Soviets proclaimed. After World War II, millions fled the Eastern section to escape the difficult economic and political disadvantages until the wall was built, beginning fifty years ago today, August 13, 1961 in Berlin.

It is difficult for people today to appreciate what it was like to experience such a sight during the “Cold War,” and as a young soldier on duty there, in the winter of 1975, I wrote a description of the first time I saw “The Wall:”

“The road leading up to the border was sinister, desolate, and uninviting. The trees which lined the road were all barren and lifeless, silhouetted against the snow and the sun-lit mist which lingered in the valley ahead. I paused momentarily along the roadside and took a deep breath. An unnatural silence filled the air around me, and I felt my heart begin to throb against my chest; my very life force making more noise than anything else around me. As I slowly began to move toward the wall, my footsteps crunched rhythmically in the snow, and I felt frightened even though I was unaware of any particular cause for alarm.

Finally, I stepped up to the “grenzubersichtspunkt,” or “border observation point,” and saw the fence which ran conspicuously along the landscape, cutting it in half.”

“All fear had left me now, replaced by bewilderment. The mass of barbed wire and concrete appeared more menacing up close than it had from a distance, and I was momentarily stunned, holding my breath until I slowly exhaled as I took in my first up-close glimpse of the inexplicable sight. I searched within myself for some sort of understanding or context to explain the experience in terms of my own temporal life. There was none, and there could be none.

As I turned to leave, I wished there had been more than just a vague recollection of history lessons to prepare me for what I saw on that frozen road, thousands of miles from home. I walked away from that place changed forever.”

Thousands of young East Berliners crowd atop the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate on Nov. 11, 1989. One day earlier, an official had declared that starting from midnight East Germans would be free to leave the country, without permission, at any point along the border. (Gerard Malie / AFP – Getty Images)

The triumph represented by the demolition of the wall in 1989 is clear evidence of the power of the human spirit, and also demonstrates how our cognitive endowment, which provides us access to an extraordinary experiential awareness, gives us a sense of unity with all humanity–an essential component to our understanding of human consciousness.

Consciousness and the World We Create

David Darling has pressed the matter of consciousness into the moment vividly for me, not simply due to his compelling prose, but also because of the immediacy of consciousness and its relationship to the world we inhabit, which often offers us conflicting priorities based on our personal sensitivity to the events which transpire in the temporal portion of our reality. From the simple beauty of the beams of sunlight filtering through the trees in the front yard, all the way through to the urgency of world events, our consciousness encompasses every nuance of our existence in ways that generally escape notice much of the time, but occasionally in ways that feel like a punch in the stomach.

For five years, starting in 2003 when my son deployed to Iraq and then later in 2007 to Afghanistan, our world was turned upside down while he endured a total of almost thirty-six months in a combat zone, battling the forces of terrorism, and pressing forward through unimaginable challenges in both endurance and comprehension of the world created by the circumstances of life in the 21st century.

Through all the countless hours of doubt and uncertainty for him, there were untold hours of the same for all of us who love him, but through it all there were innumerable moments when all the abstractions and implications of OUR existence were inextricably linked to HIS, and the world we were striving to create constantly was a world which included his safe return to us when his obligation was completed.

We were among the fortunate families who were able to welcome our son back to the USA in 2008, and the world we created in our little corner of the globe suddenly seemed brighter and more hopeful than it ever had in those many years prior to that day.

When we see stories in the news of the continuing loss of life over the struggles in the world, not just as we have recently seen in Afghanistan, but in many other places in the world today, the pursuit of our understanding of consciousness and its fundamental nature take on an even greater urgency, particularly in view of how the world is desperate for a means to end the division and erosion of our natural inclinations to recognize the universal oneness which binds us all together.

David Darling struck home on this point when he wrote:

“Every human being, and every human mind, has roots that extend indefinitely far back through time…the consciousness of the individual is inextricably tied to the consciousness of the whole…Everything in nature is actually connected or implicated with everything else….(and) Whether we like it or not, consciousness has a persistent habit of intruding into all our discussions about the nature of mathematics, physics, and reality as a whole. We cannot just step outside of ourselves to discover what things would be like–assuming they still existed at all–if we were not here.”

The world we humans are creating currently…needs work….