The Dawn of Awareness

woman matter and spirit

Nature is not matter only, she is also spirit. ~Carl Jung; CW 13; Paragraph 229.

Travel with me for a moment or two. Back…Back in time…even further back…to the dawn of the fullness of true self-awareness in our primitive ancestors.

What a moment it must have been when humans were able to finally know with certainty…”We are here–we exist.” Sentient human beings, at some point, were able to acknowledge, “I know that I am.” It seems likely that it was not possible to articulate this acknowledgement at first. The realization may have been simply a very rudimentary kind of “knowing.” It must have taken much longer to develop a means of expressing this fundamental acquisition. It is also likely that the earliest form of cognition was visual or composed mostly of mental images, and perhaps the initial apprehension of awareness consisted mostly of abstractions that had no practical means to be expressed except through gestures and actions which eventually drove the necessity of expressing them through the early forms of language.


Countless eons passed with no true appreciation of this fuller and more specific form of awareness or knowledge of existing as an individual, and as a larger social group or species. But when it finally appeared, it must have been astonishing to those who experienced it. Some initial form of it must have been percolating below the surface–protruding into the primitive mind. There was no formal oral language. Perhaps some rudimentary signalling or series of gestures appeared at first, which communicated urgent instinctual needs and desires. At some point, the first truly sentient humans became meaningfully self-aware. At that moment, I can only imagine how they must have opened their eyes one morning, and knew that something was completely different than the day before. It clearly must have been a gradual unfolding, not an instantaneous realization, but when it finally took hold, it began the journey toward self-realization until it eventually blossomed into modern consciousness. On that morning, the early Homo sapiens must have been awestruck, and may not have known what to do with it, or why it was there. Without language, it would be impossible to express the experience in a meaningful way. It may have been frightening in a way, even disturbing. Imagine yourself having an extraordinary experience or brand new sensation and NOT being able to ask yourself or another with words, “What is this strange sensation?” “What does it mean?”

(Photo : REUTERS/Nikola Solic )

As time progressed, the earliest individuals with this new capacity, may have begun to notice this same strange new awareness in others. Perhaps, a glance, a signal, which on a previous day would have naturally resulted in an instinctual response, at some point, saw a day when that instinctual response rose up, but was quieted, suddenly paused, or halted, or stifled. It must have been confusing, having a sense that what was happening had never happened before. Gradually, every experience which followed must have seemed, in an important way, like a new experience, unlike the others before it. The emotional response to such a radical alteration of their daily experience might have produced a degree of chaos initially, making them fearful to some degree. We can only imagine how the experience of self-awareness in each individual may have affected their interactions with others as they struggled to comprehend the ancient world. It may have been like waking up from a dream, suddenly realizing you’re awake. We all know that experience, when maybe we have a repetitious dream, one we’ve had many times, and it suddenly goes quiet. There’s a transitional moment or two when you awake and you’re startled, and you think to yourself, “My God…it was a dream,” or even, “What WAS that?…it felt so real.” For those ancient humans, it WAS real.

son age 4

This capacity to be aware of being aware, might very well have been the driving force behind the development of a more complex and grammatical language, beyond the practical necessities of communicating the day-to-day urgencies of life during those early epochs. Think of all the questions that must have come up, with no words and no one to answer them but themselves. No one to look to, no guidance, no reference books, no wise elder who had already been aware for many years–nothing could have prepared them for the acquisition of such a radical alteration of their daily existence. Try to imagine what it might have been like to experience those first days and nights with full self-awareness, when it truly all came together and was realized by the individual having that experience! When we think back to our earliest childhood memories, they are like little glimpses–fleeting moments where aspects of our experiences suddenly made sense. It must have been very much like that for those early humans, perhaps having been asleep and upon waking, able now to wonder what it was all about. All those moments when they had brief flickering episodes of awareness, now could have a fuller sense of a context within which to better understand the nature of their everyday experiences.


Imagine how compelling it must have been to finally be aware of a subjective experience, and how that might have pressed those early humans to want to EXPRESS and share this feeling, with no possibility at first of doing so except with non-verbal communication. Think about what it must have been like for them to have the realization, for example, of how every clear morning they would see the sun rise above the horizon, and perhaps, before awareness, they would point to it and usually make a sound or a gesture, without realizing what it was, and now, with awareness, it felt necessary to associate that brilliant, blazing, yellow-orange ball in the sky with the gesture or by uttering a sound, as if to indicate, “There it is again, look at it!” Attempting to communicate the sentiment of the idea, not the idea itself, but the feeling which arose within them, may have been the very vehicle for associating what they saw with the gesture or sound that they uttered. At some point, others in those social groups started making the same gesture or sound when they saw the sun in the morning, and whenever any individual had that experience, they also would repeat the sound, and eventually, through repetition, that concept became accepted and associated with that sound.


After many years of primitive associative activity, and the spread of humanity throughout the different regions of the world, different developmental achievements from the various social groups were acquired, shared, and assimilated into the local cultures. The instinctive usefulness of fundamental tasks which enabled the early humans to survive, with this new awareness, could be enhanced and expanded through a more complex cultural and social development. With the eventual creation of language, the ability to teach what had been learned to ensure the survival of their children gave the early humans a unique advantage over every other species. When, at last, they descended into what would become known as the Caves of Chauvet and Lascaux, the pictures that they drew of the animals became symbols of the animals that they encountered in the world. It took many thousands of years more for the very first pictographic languages to appear, but the groundwork had been established, and the beginnings of self-awareness that gave rise to the NEED for self-expression, altered the landscape of humanity forever.

The first sparks of consciousness in humans, which likely appeared in our ancient ancestors hundreds of thousands of years before the appearance of Homo sapiens, eventually blossomed into fullness once the requisite components of human development reached the tipping point, probably during the Aurignacian epoch some 35,000 to 40,000 years ago, but was not immediately useful or practical in the way it is for modern humans in the 21st century. Many theorists today suggest that language was acquired and spread rapidly throughout the human population once it began to appear, and although a rudimentary form of subjective consciousness may not have required it in order to exist, it may very well have made its development essential in order for the fullness of the capacity to be self-aware to unfold.

–more to come–

Emergent Realities


In the Review section of the WSJ this weekend in an article by Frank Wilczek, he casually suggested that it shouldn’t be so difficult to accept, intuitively, that life and mind emerge from matter, as if we were all just somehow mistaken or deluded about the source of life and mind. Wilczek shared the Nobel Prize in physics in 2004. It was awarded jointly to David J. Gross, H. David Politzer and Frank Wilczek “for the discovery of asymptotic freedom in the theory of the strong interaction”. According to the dictionary, “…asymptotic refers to a function coming into consideration, as a variable approaches a limit, usually infinity.”

Here is a short blurb about their award from the Nobel website:

“The scientists awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics have solved a mystery surrounding the strongest of nature’s four fundamental forces. The three quarks within the proton can sometimes appear to be free, although no free quarks have ever been observed. The quarks have a quantum mechanical property called colour and interact with each other through the exchange of gluons – nature’s glue.

This year’s prize paves the way for a more fundamental future description of the forces in nature. The electromagnetic, weak and strong forces have much in common and are perhaps different aspects of a single force. They also appear to have the same strength at very high energies, especially if ‘supersymmetric’ particles exist. It may even be possible to include gravity if theories which treat matter as small vibrating strings are correct.”

How Wilczek feels like his visit to an artist’s rendering in an outdoor light display in Phoenix, Arizona somehow equates to an intuitive affirmation of how life and mind “emerged” from matter escapes me. Although the metaphor of lights blinking off and on is suggestive, in a way, of how brain activity might be viewed if such a thing were possible in the same way, to suggest that MRI, PET scanning, and other techniques for detecting blood flow in the brain are somehow visualizations which answer the age old question about how life and mind emerged, strikes me as completely overreaching. Here is a link to the video on (The narration is only a partial replication of the entire article.)

After decades of research, study, and contemplation of many diverse features of subjective experience, and having expended an enormous amount of effort and energy in the process of discerning what might possibly be behind our extraordinary human subjective awareness of existing as a physical entity in the physical universe, for me personally, as well as for many prominent thinkers throughout human history, the reality is that while our subjective experience of being alive requires the cooperation and integration of physical systems in order for our temporal existence to register with sentient creatures such as ourselves, it is NOT…and I repeat..NOT in any way certain, by any criteria or judgmental standard, that those physical systems are the absolute SOURCE and PRIMAL DRIVING FORCE responsible for that experience in the first place. It is much more likely, in my view, that our physical existence is founded upon and derives its significance from a source as yet to be established with certainty, and very likely to be beyond our capacities for establishing an empirical proof. This inability to demonstrate or define categorically the source of all Life and consciousness does nothing to negate the possibility, that whatever it is that defines it or explains it, there may still be an ineffable and non-material source that produced all that we perceive with our senses, and all that we observe in the vast universe beyond the Earth.


The evolution of biological life in the physical universe on planet Earth has provided our species with an astonishing array of sensory systems, complex biological processes, extraordinary cognitive skills, and a profoundly fragile and beautiful physical environment in which to flourish and evolve, and regardless of our prowess in deciphering the scientific and mathematical underpinnings of the mechanisms and systems which facilitate Life on Earth, none of the intricate details and highly complex processes which support that Life can reduce the totality of our SUBJECTIVE HUMAN EXPERIENCE OF CONSCIOUSNESS to those physical mechanisms only. Suggesting that Life (with a capital “L”) can be reduced to an understanding of those mechanisms alone is like handing out speeding tickets at the Daytona 500. It just doesn’t make any sense at all.


In order to begin to understand how our subjective experience of being alive is even possible in the first place, we clearly do need to consider the gradual development of the complex macro-structure of the brain by examining the various stages of mammalian, primate, and hominid evolution, each of which contributed essential individual brain components, and how that development over millions of years facilitated the gradual sophistication of cognition and higher order thinking. However, once these complex structures and extraordinary cognitive talents were sufficiently developed, it might also be possible to accept intuitively, that it then became possible to utilize them in accessing a much broader intellectual and psychological plateau, and to establish a connection to what we describe as human consciousness or “the subjective experiential awareness of being alive.” This then allows us to hypothesize about the important contributions of specific emergent properties which are a consequence of the evolution and structural hierarchy of the network of various brain regions, while still allowing for the interaction with what C.G. Jung described as “the transcendent function,” or “non-physical substrates,” rather than simply characterizing the results as the “emergence of life and mind from matter.”

To assume from the very beginning of the conversation that it shouldn’t be “…difficult to accept intuitively that life and mind can emerge from matter,” sets a tone that feels limiting right at the outset. Moreover, as a means of coming to terms with the origins of life and mind, one might suggest, by that reasoning, it also shouldn’t be difficult to accept intuitively that life and mind emerged from the seeds planted by advanced beings visiting from some other universe in a multi-verse theory of creation, or perhaps as a result of an inter-dimensional crossover billions of years ago. It is the PRESUMPTION that matter alone might have been the sole source of life and mind which eliminates other possible essential components to their existence. While I completely understand that there are advantages for the scientist to justify their mechanistic worldview by simply claiming that Life and mind emerged from matter, I fail to see why it is so difficult to accept intuitively, the existence of other forces or energies, which we do not yet fully recognize or comprehend, which are equally possible and responsible, and required to provide a more comprehensive explanation for Life and mind.


While it is true, as the author suggests, that we have only a limited “…immediate experience when it comes to how physical systems represent information,” I do not agree that it’s primarily because of the way “…our own brains store and manipulate information in patterns of electrical activation.” The author’s report of how “most neuro-biologists accept that those patterns are the physical embodiment of mind,” does not automatically infer that those patterns are the “source” of the human mind, any more than “the patterns of radio waves” are the source of the transmissions we intercept on our car radios. Radio waves are a MEANS of proliferating the ideas and messages and content created by the users of those systems.


As any investigator of Astronomy can attest, there are many randomly generated radio signals in the wide expanses of the cosmos, but it requires an intelligent and deliberate manipulation of those signals to generate something recognizable as a message or to qualify as a type of specific content that is intelligible and meaningful. The mechanisms of thought are astonishingly complex and fascinating to study, and the advances in neuroscience have increased our understanding of those mechanisms and helped us to determine the nature of pathologies, to devise methods of counteracting the mechanisms of disease, and to find ways of reversing or mitigating the damage caused by injuries to the brain. In order to understand why all of the activity and structural complexity of the human brain is accompanied by a profound subjective experiential awareness, the “what it’s like” experience of being, requires a great deal more than “patterns of electrical activation.”

The artist’s depiction of patterns of light that we find so impressive and suggestive of brain activity is a fabulous work of creativity and artistic expression, and anyone who experiences a walk through the display in Arizona might rightly invoke the metaphor of electrical patterns in the human brain. However, it might be more prudent to equate the display with a representation of an underlying mechanism, which facilitates an artistic expression created for the purpose of inspiring and delighting the observers, who are fortunate enough to attend to the pleasures it offers as a work of art.

The Connection of Souls

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The times when I am at my quietest is when I am best able to recall the connection of souls, lingering in memory. Perhaps, as a memory, reflecting on the connection seems delightful in a way that is sometimes difficult to see when we are actually experiencing the connection. Gazing upon those we love, and sharing the special closeness that can only come from such connections, creates a lovely memory of the experience when it happens. The memory of that experience holds particular pleasure because those aspects which we hold on to, those which mean the most to us, are the parts that we remember, even though there are lots of parts. Lots of silliness and laughing, but also crying, and even profound sadness sometimes. We tend not to want to remember the difficult parts because they take away from the joy and the fulfillment that went along with them.


Walking in the brisk autumn air now, inhaling deeply, listening to the wind rustling the leaves that are left, the beauty of the oranges and yellows and browns, all around, stir memories from many years ago. Every year at some point, I walk in the autumn air, but this year was a little different because I felt alone in a way that I have not felt in a very long time. Even as a younger person, who was essentially on his own, I still never felt alone, at least, not in the way that I do now. I suppose these are the parts of the autumn that stick with me so much–the beauty all around no matter where you go; the contrast of the colors against the blue sky; the sweetness in the air, and the crystal clarity between myself and the world. I think because I am older now, I feel this loneliness more profoundly, while still recognizing and acknowledging the unity of everything that lives.

The feeling combined with this recognition suggests the dual nature of all aspects of life, especially to be alone, but also to be one with all life simultaneously. It is a gift. It is a consequence of our humanity–a temporal manifestation of the infinite, the spiritual, the ineffable. It is a paradox to know for certain that there is unity among all people, all creatures, all parts of the universe, and to feel so desperately, profoundly alone simultaneously. It evokes mystery; it evokes contemplation. What could it be? What does it mean? Why is it so?

Walking alone down the street, feeling at once completely unified with everything I see and feel and sense, in every way, and yet, distinctly alone, individual, apart. The differences between myself and other living entities is a signal that there is a variety and a number of differences in the way that consciousness manifests in the world. If you go down deep, and when we say “go in deep” or “go inward” we mean not temporally, but spiritually within us–when we do that–it emphasizes both our unification with all life and our inner separateness from it, and the simultaneous recognition of both becomes clearer when we withdraw within.

(c) Southampton City Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) Southampton City Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

I close my eyes and try to see, not with my eyes, “…for they are wise.” But to hear the sounds; to feel the warmth of the sun against my skin; the rising and falling of my chest as I breathe; the air flowing in and out of my lungs; the pulse throbbing in my wrists. Descartes wrote, “I think, therefore I am,” but for me more than thinking, it is when I FEEL, that I can say with confidence, “therefore I am.” Feeling has always been that which allows me to know that I exist. The temporal feelings or sensations that we get through our five human senses, the sense that we exist, it feels like something–existence as a person–as a human–as a living entity–a sentient being–it feels like something. There is something that it is like to be a human individual, who is, through his spirit or soul, connected to all things.


All the feeling in the world, all the sensations, all the input to our brain from all the different regions, somehow comes together and synchronizes and processes all that data–electrical impulses flying all throughout the body–reporting the sensory information, extrapolating meaning and memory and discernment, when all of those things coalesce. The focal point of that coalescing is the feeling–the experience of being.


Sitting in a hot tub of water can evoke a feeling that can be blissful. The relaxation in a soothing, warm liquid is an acknowledgement of what all that data can turn into. It evokes contemplation, sensation, and memory. How many times I have laid in a tub surrounded by a very warm liquid, and how often it has brought memory to mind. Memory, as we now know, is not like reading a transcript, or watching a videotape, or constructing a digital rendering of what happened in the past, but an actual reconstruction in our minds. The coordination of the brain regions that are responsible for memory, the flow of stimulation from the hippo-campus, to the frontal cortex which interprets the data from our memory centers, is a tool, a mechanism that brings the memory of the feeling back. It stimulates the brain to recreate the way it felt and that is why we do it. We remember the texture of the skin we once touched or saw. We remember the different aromas which bring us to recall those blissful moments spent inhaling the air, and the processing of the accompanying data that passes through the olfactory senses teaches us how to remember them.

clouds water3

I have a very distant memory, which feels to me like it may be an ancient memory, of laying in a pool of warm water in a cave where there must have been a natural underground spring that made the water warm. I remember cautiously sinking into it in order to become slowly accustomed to it, and laying back with some leaves and other natural gatherings behind my head. I remember looking up, seeing the steam rising up from the water, in the afternoon, with no worries. There was a hole in the dome which covered me, allowing me to see the sky, which was mostly deeply dark blue, with an occasional swatch of a white, puffy cotton cloud, or a wispy steam of a smoky cloud that would slide by. I seem to remember saying to myself, “I must remember this experience.” It was a deliberate intent to impress the memory in my brain, and to hold it in my soul. It feels like an ancient memory from a distant past, so I cannot say for certain if it was retained somehow through the eons of time, or if I picked it up like a transmission through an antenna in my soul, and now its vibrations resonate in my brain. It feels like a memory to me. I feel, therefore I am. I experience life, therefore I am alive.

If we didn’t have feeling, if we only had knowledge or data from our senses that merely informed us, and we weren’t able to integrate that information into a feeling–if there was no such thing as a feeling– it is MY feeling that we would not converse, we would not communicate, we would not be as alive as we are today. Being alive means feeling genuine, interpreting the data in our brains to the point where it evokes the memory of a feeling, and we re-experience that feeling in memory, and that moment comes alive for us, we suppose, exactly in the way that it did when it was impressed upon the soul.

I remember hearing the seagulls. Perhaps the natural spring was in a mountain near a beach. There was no other sound aside from the water, the birds, and the music in my soul. With eyes closed, the memory of experience was fully engaged. A moment of repose, of silence, of solitude, forcing me to contemplate a memory of a feeling. I cannot completely or precisely replicate them. They only rise up within me in my solitude. In spite of the difference in time and possibilities, the unknown, the uncertain, the vague, all of it comes together in a moment of solitude.


We always suppose that we might be able to evoke those feelings again, even at such a distance in time and space, like my experience of the warm water in that ancient space, and that somehow, if we could travel through time and relive them, that they would be the same as we remember them. However, my sense is that if we could do that, they might actually seem radically different than our memory of them. It wouldn’t be because our memories are faulty or somehow impaired, but that the feeling and experience of life holds so much more within it, like when we are sharing closely, personally, or intimately. There is a feeling there that would be enhanced by being fully present in the same place. At some point, the fullness of that experience would manifest, with every nuance of it being realized and that would feel differently than the memory of it. We might find it to be a diminishment of the memory in one way or another, but whatever might result, we would still want to hold on to what enhanced it, and to let go of what might diminish it.


More important than the beauty of the memory of those experiences–those feelings–is the connection of souls. It is more important than any other aspect of those moments. It is, in my view, the ultimate experience of feeling that is possible in our temporal existence. We can hold each other close, feel each other’s skin against us, embrace at length, cuddle, and share the experience unadorned. It can be beautiful, but it will always be temporary. At some point, it won’t be possible to do again, but the connection of souls will never perish. The unity remains, and we must rely on the memory of the connection to sustain us.



In my previous post, I wrote about author Richard Brautigan, whose success in the late 1960’s and throughout the 1970’s brought him great notoriety and financial rewards for a time. His tendency to engage in a variety of self-destructive behaviors, and a degree of recklessness in attending to his own well-being, over time, ultimately led to his gradual decline into near obscurity, and to tragically choosing to end his own life at age 49. While my life has been much different in a number of ways, the lessons contained in his all-too-brief life, as well as in the lives of others with similar outcomes, have challenged and complicated my own journey in ways that have forced me to re-examine my path–to stop here at the crossroads–and to take a long, deep, breath.

Naturally, I have all the usual concerns about the future and planning for retirement that most people do. All of my children are grown and have started having their own children, but the opportunities presented by an “empty nest,” have actually unsettled me a bit. For a handful of years now I have been attempting to formalize my research and writing into a more coherent stream in this blog, and it has been both illuminating and challenging to direct and sustain my energies in the process. It seems that I am quickly approaching a point where I must consider my choice of direction for the time I have left to act in this life. Looking ahead and looking back, as well as looking at the divergent roads that may lead in one direction or another can be daunting, especially when measured against the responsibilities and demands of sustaining oneself in the 21st century. The crossroads can represent an approach to the culmination of everything that came before reaching them, but it can also bring to bear the memories of all the uncertainty and mystery that one had to face in order to arrive there in the first place. As always, not all choices are equally viable, but now there is far less time to redirect them, should it become clear that alternative choices may have provided an opportunity for a better outcome.

Throughout most of my life, trying to discern in which direction I should turn when I’ve arrived at crossroads has always been a bit problematical, but these days it seems heavy-laden with considerations that reflect the uncertainty and mystery even more than before, as well as a heightened awareness of them, brought about by a number of harsh life lessons in recent years. A post by a fellow blogger and creative writer, David Cain, speaks to the central dilemma:

“I will never see the world quite like anyone else, which means I will never live in quite the same world as anyone else — and therefore I mustn’t let outside observers be the authority on who I am or what life is really like for me. Subjectivity is primary experience — it is real life, and objectivity is something each of us builds on top of it in our minds, privately, in order to explain it all. This truth has world-shattering implications for the roles of religion and science in the lives of those who grasp it.”


Clearly, I have been in the torrent of the world this past month. October managed to escape me with my attention focused elsewhere, even though I have been struggling to hobble together an important blog post which I hope to be posting this week. The quote from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is actually from a play he completed in 1790 after a trip through Italy entitled, “Torquato Tasso.” I was able to locate an English translation from the original German by Charles Des Voeux which is available online thanks to the Harvard College Library Dexter Fund. In that play, the character Leonora reassures Alphonso:

“A talent doth in stillness form itself–A character on life’s unquiet stream.”

I have been swimming in “life’s unquiet stream,” and in moments of stillness, perhaps I have been developing a degree of character in the process. One can only hope! I also revisited a musical recording from my youthful days in the military by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer:

The Sage

I carry the dust of a journey
that cannot be shaken away
It lives deep within me
For I breathe it every day.

You and I are yesterday’s answers;
The earth of the past came to flesh,
Eroded by Time’s rivers
To the shapes we now possess.

Come share of my breath and my substance,
and mingle our stream and our times.
In bright, infinite moments,
Our reasons are lost in our eyes.

–Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Pictures At An Exhibition Lyrics


Reviewing the events of my life these days, I’ve begun to see the role that the expectations of others has played in many of my choices. Beginning with my experiences in the formal education portion, not only was I constantly concerned about not meeting the expectations of my parents and teachers, but I often suffered the consequences when some performance I gave fell short of those expectations. All of my efforts were inevitably scrutinized to the point where it seemed I was only just barely surviving that scrutiny, until eventually it all came to a breaking point–a crossroad–when I turned in one particularly awful performance in my sophomore year at college, which resulted in re-directing my life away from the university for a time, and propelled me toward the events which took place in each of the far-flung locations I have been describing this past year as a young soldier, winding his way through the labyrinth of spiritual awakening.

There are challenges for me these days, but I have been seeking guidance and support and remain hopeful that November will be a first step in a positive direction. Thanks to all my readers and friends for your patience and comments!

Quest for Consciousness

sunset chaos

“The working hypothesis of this book is that consciousness emerges from neuronal features of the brain. Understanding the material basis of consciousness is unlikely to require any exotic new physics, but rather a much deeper appreciation of how highly interconnected networks of a large number of heterogeneous neurons work. The abilities of coalitions of neurons to learn from interactions with the environment and from their own internal activities are routinely underestimated. Individual neurons themselves are complex entities with unique morphologies (form and structure) and thousands of inputs and outputs. Their interconnections, the synapses, are molecular machines that come equipped with learning algorithms that modify the strength and dynamics of synapses across many timescales. Humans have no real experience with such a vast organization. Hence, even biologists struggle to appreciate the properties and power of the nervous system.”

– Christof Koch from his book, “The Quest for Consciousness; A Neurobiological Approach”

“Given the centrality of subjective feelings to everyday life, it would require extraordinary factual evidence before concluding that qualia and feelings are illusory. Philosophical arguments, based on logical analysis coupled to introspection, are not powerful enough to deal with the real world with all of its subtleties in a decisive manner. The philosophical method is at its best when formulating questions, but does not have much of a track record at answering them. The provisional approach I take in this book is to consider first-person accounts as brute facts of life and seek to explain them.”

– Christof Koch from his book, “The Quest for Consciousness; A Neurobiological Approach”

In spite of my great admiration for Christof Koch, and for many of those like him, who approach the subject of human consciousness from a more materialistic view, for me personally, these explanations are ultimately unsatisfying in a big way. In pondering these materialist viewpoints in my own “quest for consciousness,” I keep coming back to the “brute facts of life,” in the unambiguous appearance of the very first indications of sentience in Homo sapiens – omnivorous (eating both animal and plant foods) mammalian primates – Anthropoids – who finally demonstrated evidence of the beginnings of modern consciousness.

human evolution

Even with all of the “neuronal features of the brain” present in our earliest ancestors who had them; we still really weren’t fully “conscious” right away in the same sense that we are now. With all of our accumulated experience as a hominid species, and hundreds of thousands of years in possession of the basic components of our “modern” brains, it took both an expansion of the cerebral cortex generally and the frontal lobes in particular, as well as the most advantageous structure and proportion in the brains of modern humans, to finally be ABLE to demonstrate conscious awareness of the sort we are reading about in the quotes above. And even AFTER we acquired this capacity in the Upper Paleolithic period in the Aurignacian culture, we didn’t start right off developing mathematics and science. We painted cave walls with astonishing artwork, formulated primitive ideas, and began to teach our young what we learned, but it took almost another 30,000 years of human progress to come up with cuneiform, developed by the Sumerian culture during the third millennium BC, and establish the foundations for various other systems for communication and formal languages. In nearly every one of the various ancient cultural and regional human societies and various groupings in human history, once it was finally possible to record and express their subjective awareness of existing in the world, an acknowledgement of a non-physical component to the experience of being alive eventually appeared.


However, just HAVING the “neuronal features of the brain” didn’t automatically produce philosophy or physics. Like all forms of life throughout the history of the planet, we were evolving physically, intellectually, psychologically, and spiritually. The degree of what we may wish to describe as consciousness in many of our fellow primate and mammalian species, while clearly SIMILAR in certain cases to our own, points to an astonishing degree of variance in RESULTS ACHIEVED with only a relatively small degree of difference in physiology.

I keep getting this nagging “feeling” that brain physiology, as ESSENTIAL as it is, cannot be the cause of consciousness “EMERGING” from the brain. Evolution may have “SELECTED” a species-specific brain structure and subsequent functional prowess, but the results of that selection may not have simply and only produced an advantageous survival strategy, but rather, it may have been that by achieving a sufficient number of “neuronal features,” humans may finally have achieved a level of sophistication that provided a fuller degree and quality of ACCESS to an ever-present and ubiquitous “field or force” of consciousness–a fundamental feature of the nature of life in the universe. With all due respect to Christof Koch, in my view, it does not necessarily follow that consciousness EMERGED only as a result of our specific brain structures and functions.

history of the world

An interesting corollary subject within the discussion surrounding our subjective experience of consciousness is the way in which all of our previous lifelong subjective experiences provide the foundation for our comprehension and apprehension of our current experience in this very moment. Naturally, without having any previous relevant life or learning experiences to draw upon for comparison, any subsequent experience would, by definition, be viewed as a “new experience.” While new experiences are inherent in any circumstance in which we have not been previously familiar in a specific way, as when we travel to a foreign country for the first time, or when we take our first trip on an airplane, even as the specifics of those circumstances provide a degree of subjective experience that could not have been part of our previous existence, there are other foundational experiences that we use to compare against those which are specifically new. Depending on the extent and variety of prior experiences, the assimilation of those which are “new,” may require a great deal more effort to come to terms with them.


The real issue, though, is in the accumulation of subjective knowledge of our existence in the first place. As all human adults are aware, each of us arrives in the world as newborn babies, with only a very limited unconscious experience of life in the womb. Sensory data acquired during that time, while fairly universal in nature, depending on the health and lifestyle of the mother, have a clear but limited effect on our eventually conscious subjective experience. Our early life as an infant, also subject to the subtleties and specific conditions of the environment in which it takes place, are in large part unconscious for a number of years after birth. There are rare exceptions to the general flow of conscious memory accumulation, which generally begins in the third or fourth year of childhood, but for most of us, our early childhood memories most often transmit only a vague sense of those experiences, and are often characterized by episodic “bits and pieces” or “snippets” of conscious recollection.


Once a child achieves a rudimentary functional level of conscious subjective awareness, somewhere around five to seven years along, more lasting and significant memories begin to accumulate, and a broader range of foundational subjective experiences allow the young child to begin to interpret the world with a degree of perspective commensurate with whatever experiences were available during their early development. An experience of deprivation or limited nurturing during the early years can profoundly and adversely affect the development of the child, and providing a richer and more stimulating environment can produce a commensurate increase in the quality and character of their development, along with a substantially increased range of productive subjective experiences with which to interpret and understand the world around them.

In combination with our inherited genetic makeup and a host of other mitigating factors in our specific familial and human lineage, as well as whatever degree of cultural orientation or psychological conditioning that may take place, we often navigate through later childhood and adolescence as much unconsciously as consciously, eventually acquiring a more independently achieved view of the world, based many times on which opportunities are either present and utilized, withheld, or unavailable. While there are no guarantees of a specifically positive or negative outcome in spite of any and all of these mitigating factors, the contributions which they potentially represent can affect our ability to assimilate new experiences significantly.

Evolution of Cognition


The evolution of life on our planet has produced an extraordinary variety and diversity of species, and the paths followed by many of the branches on the tree of life have held sway for millions of years before ending completely or splitting off into whole new species. The ability of each branch to continue into the future has depended on the ability of each particular organism to adapt to changing circumstances, or to develop capacities, talents, or skills which conferred some increased survival advantage. Those organisms which acquired the necessary advantages were able to pass them along to the next generation of offspring through a combination of genetic inheritance and by demonstrating useful survival strategies through their specific nurturing behaviors.

2 brains

Anyone who spends time reviewing the recent publications in neuroscientific and cognitive studies is bound to come across the persistent urge of scientists and reductionists to equate “being conscious”–i.e. being awake, alert, and alive–with “consciousness,” which is more correctly viewed as a unified, subjective, and integrated whole phenomena, composed of and supported by a great deal more than that. This disparity within the ranks of those who investigate brain functioning leads many of them to conclude that consciousness is “generated” by the brain alone.

To be fair, every investigation into the subjective nature of human consciousness clearly must address the role of our complex cognitive apparatus in facilitating access to our subjective experience of it. Without a nominally functional brain, educated through a basic selection of life experiences, supported by a rich variety of sensory stimulation, a minimal degree of specific learning activities, access to the storage and retrieval of memories, and some proficiency with language, access to our subjective experience–the “what-it’s-like” character of being would still be taking place, but would be far less useful and be of a wholly different quality.

early humans2

Our early hominid ancestors, the earliest versions of Homo sapiens, and perhaps even Homo erectus and Homo habilis, must have possessed some degree of access to consciousness, in spite of having developed only a limited capacity for cognitive awareness. When we examine what is known about the early history of humanity, and compare the progress through the millennia from the earlier versions of “modern” humans who painted images on cave walls some 35,000 years ago, to that of our 21st century human experience, it becomes clear that simply possessing the same requisite brain structure as those previous ancestors was not sufficient to allow them the immediate acquisition of sophisticated and comprehensive appreciation of our subjective experience of consciousness.

The unfolding of human consciousness, the gradual sophistication of human activities, the evolution of the human body and brain structures, and the subsequent increases in cognitive talent, eventually provided the first modern humans with an adequate foundation for apprehending the “what-it’s-like” subjective awareness of being alive, and initiated a coordination of the gradually improving array of brain functions to make use of the more unified subjective awareness of existing as a physical being in the physical universe. In order for these early humans to achieve a penetrating and subjective self-awareness required them to possess not only a nominally functional brain, supported by an equally functional central nervous system, enhanced by each of the sensory systems which provided the necessary neural stimulation for the developing brain, but also to have a reasonably healthy body that was ambulatory with basic cardiovascular and digestive functionality as well. The sustained integration of all these bodily and cognitive functions over tens of thousands of years eventually became sufficient to bring subjective awareness into fullness, which established the groundwork for the development of language, and the subsequent ability to express that awareness in a meaningful way.


Clearly, even before the arrival of Homo sapiens, some previous and more limited versions of this basic awareness, which might have been present in the hominid populations as the threshold for our more comprehensive cognitive awareness approached a minimal level, may have provided the seeds for the blossoming of our ability to more fully access consciousness as we do in our 21st century world. Many of the advantages and advances along the way for human beings socially, culturally, and cognitively have been enriched and expanded by our subsequent evolution since humans first began to demonstrate their capacity for intelligence and self-awareness, and became more evident as a fuller and more comprehensive human subjective awareness became commonplace.

As with most other human capacities, cognition is absolutely essential to our survival, and while we need our miraculous brains to make sense of experiences, to retain memories, and to advance our understanding of ourselves and our universe, each of our capacities provides a vital component, and our bodies and each of our sensory and biological systems contribute essential elements that make experiential functionality useful. While our brain represents the central locus of our mental activity, and acts as the coordinator of both bodily and cognitive functions, simply “being conscious,”–alert and awake–does not describe the comprehensive phenomena of consciousness, and to suggest that the brain alone “generates” consciousness reduces this profoundly important aspect of our humanity to merely being another bodily function like respiration and digestion.

Enormously important contributions are being made all the time in neuroscience and cognitive studies, and pursuing the goals of these endeavors helps us to more fully appreciate the astonishing array of important discoveries that often result from attention to them. Surely, in the interest of scientific curiosity and advancement in all areas of human understanding DEMANDS that we remain open to other possible areas of contribution to such a complex and profoundly important phenomena as our subjective experience of consciousness.

The Foam of a Wave

Brazomar Beach Spain

“Understand that the body is merely the foam of a wave, the shadow of a shadow.” — Buddha

Eric Kandel, who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research on the physiological basis of memory storage in neurons in 2000, in his book, “In Search of Memory,” emphasized the “biology of mind,” by reminding us that:

“Each mental function in the brain–from the simplest reflex to the most creative acts in language, music, and art–is carried out by specialized neural circuits in different regions of the brain…the cellular mechanisms of learning and memory reside not in the special properties of the neuron itself, but in the connections it receives and makes with other cells in the neural circuit to which it belongs.”

He announces at the outset that his personal quest to understand memory “…has intersected with one of the greatest scientific endeavors–the attempt to understand mind in cellular and molecular biological terms.” Amazingly, on page 149, he still acknowledged that he “…learned from experience that there are many situations in which one cannot decide on the basis of cold facts alone, because facts are often insufficient. One ultimately has to trust one’s unconscious, one’s instincts, one’s creative urge.”

The more I learn about brain physiology and the complex interactions amongst the microscopic neural substrates, and the subsequent results of such interactions, the more it seems to me that all of it points toward a synthesis–or symbiosis–of many functions that ultimately provides us with the means to achieve an awareness of our subjective experience.

brain functions2

The complex physiology of brain functions; the interdependence of multiple neural networks; the coordination and integration of numerous brain regions–all these and more as-yet-undetected or poorly-understood components of cognitive function, when operating at a minimally functional level, allow the perception of our subjective experience of our existence to enter conscious awareness. What we describe as “the perception of subjective experience,” is the result of these “components of cognitive function,” operating at least at a minimally optimal level. However, while all varieties of perception–the perception of light by the eye; of scents by the nose; of sound by the ear; of taste by the tongue; and of touch by the skin–require each relative sensory system to be sufficiently functional, those systems do not “create” the light, the scent, the sound, the taste or the touch. Perception, while essential to experience, does not “create” experience, but rather, it facilitates our awareness of the experience.

This is one of the main reasons that attempting to define the subjective experience of consciousness as the result of brain physiology alone misses the mark in my opinion. A much more likely explanation for the “what it’s like” experience of our existence could come from broadening our views to include a recognition that the Universe and every temporal aspect and condition of that existence might well be a manifest expression of some form of cosmically inclusive and fundamentally inherent force like electromagnetism or gravity. The precise nature of this force, while elusive and profoundly complex, may well be a phenomenon which is expressed by and which becomes visible and tangible as the Universe. It is due to our cognitive abilities as humans with a highly complex brain and central nervous system that we are able to enjoy experience and to express our awareness of it. It is much more likely in my view that human consciousness is a consciousness that is not produced BY us, but rather one of which we are aware and that is made manifest THROUGH us.


Our extraordinary brains allow us to quickly process an astonishing array of sensory and cognitive data, and to integrate both conscious experience and unconscious contents, through which we gain access to an expanded awareness. Knowing we exist, being able to think, and being able to express our awareness of existing and thinking, through our higher cognitive functions, provides us with a conduit for consciousness–a transcendent link between the tangible and the intangible. The life that we know as sentient beings may well be like the foam of a wave. The fragility of the foam is only a harbinger of the force of the ocean tides, which are brought to life through a much greater force beyond the earth itself. We do not experience the pull of the moon’s gravity directly, but we are, nonetheless, existent within a universe which includes that gravity–a shadow of a shadow.