What is consciousness? What (or who) is the observer of our perceptions, thoughts and actions.
“Control of consciousness determines the quality of life.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Understanding that we are evolved animals, there must have been a point when the mutation that shifts the human brain from the rest of the animal kingdom occurred and that there was a benefit for having this new ability.
We know that many animals have thought. We can observe them problem solving, indicating that they are capable of synthesizing the information in front of them with the abilities they have and the previous experiences they have learned. So is that consciousness?
“Imagination is more important than knowledge” Albert Einstein
Many scientists who study this issue of metacognition (the ability to be aware and understand our own thoughts) believe that consciousness cannot just be the ability to problem solve, or problem solve extrapolating previous experiences. Instead it is the ability to use the skills of simulation to problem solve our engagement in the world before the moment of need has arisen. In short, the skill of imagination as a tool creates our ability to see into our future and make decisions.
Metacognitive consciousness brings in the categories of skills: understand our own strengths and weaknesses, anticipate the task variables, and develop strategies that will be “at the ready.”
The idea that the consciousness—the idea that we associate most closely to personhood— is just an evolutionary coping tool for survival. The implications to questions of “I” and “soul” certainly come into question when we orient ourselves to the reality that the conscious human being is just a mental skill for forethinking-based problem solving.
“It all makes more sense when I’m out here alone. I can talk myself into anything” Pat Conroy
Nevertheless, the virtue of reading this demonstrates how metacognition works. The ability to take symbols in series, transform those symbols into language, use our simulation brain to unpack and contemplate this knowledge is an amazing evolutionary advancement.
“Specific knowledge will not be as important to tomorrows people as the ability to learn and make sense of new information.” D Gough
Self-awareness has always been essential to learning with the three simple tools of “Plan, Do, Review.” When we think of process improvement in business or mindfulness meditation for enrichment of the individual the ability to approach the world purposefully, use self-regulation of action, and use evaluative reflection about the process demonstrate how consciousness is a tool necessary to being a successful human being.
Again, this is a vastly different skill set of the animal kingdom where the object level of reasoning is, by all understanding, solution-focused with what information is before and the experiences in the past. The ability of “simulation” and imagination, the ability to plan and reflect adds a valuable new dimension to thought. It also allows for the creation of language to not only share information at the moment but also encapsulate it for collaboration in the future.
The creation of the automobile or computer was not the invention of one person but the historical ongoing collaboration of math and science over thousands of years. The ability to share information longitudinally benefits from the same metacognitive skills.
As valuable as this metacognition is this, if our skill of self-awareness is just an evolved tool, then do I really exist? The idea of Descartes “I think therefore I am” is undermined when the idea of consciousness of thought is put into question. Why do we believe in the idea of our personality existing?
It is very possible that the creation of the individual personality and idea of free will for volitional choice is also essential to the survival of the species. We know that the idea of free will affects our effectiveness and the idea of our individualism has significant importance to our interactions with others. The belief in the individual conscious allows use to connect with one another. It is our belief in our autonomy that paradoxically creates the mortar of the community.
The idea that our personality is a distinct inner-universe of existence of being creates interesting delusions of separation and autonomy. I have found no real science that has definitive understandings of why; however, the mechanisms of the belief of autonomy may create a manageable framework that allows us to make decisions within the “Plan, Do, Review” model. Many studies have shown that those who do not believe in free will and self-control diminish in their performance and ability. There is something in the belief in autonomy that creates motivation and promotes productive solution-creation.
In addition, the idea of being autonomous and separate from others has demonstrated important in creating social bonds and cooperation. The idea of empathy to bond with other human or community is created through the understanding of autonomy. A lot of our interaction with the world is not done with complete understanding of all the emotional (bio-physical responses to environments) and precognitive (pre-programed responses of thought) processes.
So few people are really aware of their thoughts. Their minds run all over rite place without their permission, and they go along for the ride unknowingly and without making a choice.” Thomas M Sterner
When we think of consciousness as something separate from the evolutionary creation of the human body and brain, then there is a disconnect between the purpose of consciousness and the reason for it. Referencing philosophy and theology, the question of “why I am here?” is supplanted with “who am I?” and then “does ‘I’ exist?” The implications that the ability to ask the questions of existence as a result of a random evolutionary survival mutation of brain processing is provocative and possibly disorienting.
“The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.” Carl Jung
In the area of mental health, it is very helpful. Understanding why human beings work the way we do provides strategies to support more meaningful engagement with the world around us. Understanding that the brain works in a “plan, do, review” model allows each of us to work on strategies within that model to problem solve in the way the brain was designed to work. It gives credence to focusing our work on meaning making over hedonic pleasure seeking for long-term life satisfaction. It gives value to developing mindfulness-based practices in our daily living. It gives insight into the maladaptive thinking that creates distress in our lives. It also informs us that the questions of “why we are here?” and “do we have free will as separate beings?” are less important than the questions “what do I want to be here?” and “my belief in choice empowers me.”
So to understand what is is that is thinking (the brain) and the observer of that thinking mechanism (the imagineering process that we call consciousness) allows us to develop strategies to bring more satisfaction to this existence. We can see how mindful practice, meaning making engagement, etc. are all valuable in the system that is the human mind.
And when we find that our mental and emotional life is in distress or unmanageable, we can use this insight into devleoping solutions to adding to the quality of our lives and place in the universe. This growth mindset opens opportunities to accept who we are honestly and grow deeper meaning and purpose.