The feeling of consciousness is something that has eluded many scientists and philosophers for years. Previously a poor choice of study for scientists, the field that studies the “hard problem” has outgrown itself. Not only are brain scientists looking to uncover it, but physicists also want a piece of the mystery.
This wide range collection of experts comes to the same questions: How do we come to have these experiences? Is it a brain phenomenon? Is it a separate force not seated in the brain? Could we ever explain the hard problem (how our neural baggage can create the experience that we know as consciousness) posed by David Chalmers two decades ago?
Annaka Harris, an amateur on the topic (as she describes herself), brings life to all these different quests and interrogations in her debut book, Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental History of the Mind (Harper).
Annaka Harris on Being Conscious
The brain is the source?
Harris is no stranger to the different circles that discuss the topic of consciousness. Married to neuroscientist and podcaster, Sam Harris, she has dedicated part of her life to help and assist with different science writings and has held long conversations on the topic of consciousness with experts on the field like Christof Koch, Anil Seth, and Rebecca Goldstein. As she later explains, various conversations and an early interest in the topic, has gravitated Harris towards the mystery of consciousness.
Her book starts where most books start when talking about the topic, the brain. Harris explains the different illusions and workings of the brain that may uncover two big mysteries about being conscious: 1. What evidence of consciousness can we detect from the outside? 2. Is consciousness essential for our behavior?
To the first question, Harris does a really good job on explaining the few instances where our consciousness is non-existent, including the famous case of Jean-Dominique Bauby, whose body was completely paralyzed (almost, in a complete state of coma), but could communicate with one of his eyelids. She brilliantly explains instances where other living organisms may show some signs of consciousness.
For example, when talking about plants, we mostly feel that these organisms don’t meet the requirements to be characterized as conscious beings. But, as Annaka details, when plants get a stimulus from light, heat, light, etc., they can show the same behaviors as “conscious” creatures. Even some tree behaviors, like the one, showed by Suzanne Simard during one of her TED talks, shows some communication and assistance like the ones we would expect from humans.
To the other question, Harris takes the idea of free will to try to illuminate the necessity of consciousness for our behavior. When reading this chapter, you get the feeling (conscious feeling for the sake of the argument) that this is a more condensed explanation that the one provided by her husband, Sam, in his 2012 book, Free Will (Free Press) – to her credit, Harris does recommend Harris’ book for further information in the footnotes. She throws the well-known facts against “free will”, like the Benjamin Libet experiment, showing that even when people consciously make a decision, the brain has already decided what action to take 200 milliseconds earlier. By using the arguments of Michael Gazzaniga and Daniel Wegner, Harris builds a solid argument on why consciousness is not necessary for behavior. As she later extends,
“It seems clear that we can’t decide what to think or feel, any more than we can decide what to see or hear. A highly complicated convergence of factors and past events – including our genes, our personal history, our immediate environment, and the state of our brain – is responsible for each next thought.”
Panpsychism and its possibility
The brilliance of both answers takes away the brain-centrist vision of consciousness. The books even demonstrate why some neuroscientists won’t go out of their comfort zone to uncover the mystery, staying on the neural-correlations argument. This strict zone, as Harris explains, excludes probably the other biggest alternative theory (in her opinion) that could illuminate the problem. Panpsychism (pan for “all” and psyche for “mind” or “soul”) is the theory that consciousness might not be a strict phenomenon of the brain, and that it could be a separate force “composed of some other substance”. Harris explains that “panpsychism proposes that consciousness is intrinsic to all forms of information processing, even inanimate forms such as technological devices”. If you’re following this line, your cell phone could have some form of consciousness.
When hearing this argument for the first time, one almost instantly cringe at this absurd proposal (“You are telling me that even a rock can have consciousness!”). In fact, many aficionados of the topic of consciousness can’t help themselves on sharing articles online that read, “Can the universe be conscious?” Even Christof Koch has a special place in his house in which all the whacky mails by people asserting that they have resolved the “hard problem” of consciousness are dump there. As he previously stated, researchers and theories must respect the contributions that previous neural scientists have done to the field of consciousness.
And yet, one can see Koch agreeing on the possibility of the panpsychism theory. In fact, this is the brilliance of Harris’ book. She forms a solid argument for panpsychism, probably the best argument for the general public. Detail by detail, unlike the first half of the book (which respected the neural contributions that Koch talks about), Harris mounts several commentaries and contradictions on panpsychism and its rival theory, consciousness as an emergent property for the brain. Arguably, the best line on why we are more biased towards the brain explanations is this one: “The illusion of being a self, along with an experience of continuity over time through memory, may, in fact, be a very rare form of consciousness.”
Annaka Harris brings consciousness to the public
Conscious should be added to all the libraries of aficionados and experts that are interested in the mystery of consciousness. Is not just that Harris has been able to condense this confusing field into 119 pages, is that her clear writing can make any curious get deep into the current state of the field. Unlocking the mystery of consciousness has a long way to go and like V.S. Ramachandran once stated, we need a modern-day Einstein of neurology to advance the field. But with books like the one that Annaka Harris wrote, public understanding of consciousness is less mysterious.
Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind
by Annaka Harris, Harper
Harper, 119 pp., $21.99 (USA)/ $26.99 (Canada)