The Consciousness Question

Nature, nurture, and the hundred billion neurons in between

A Diminishing of Consciousness

As the world changes, we must look for ways to keep using our whole brain.

The view held by most neuroscientists is that the incredible cellular structure of the human brain has evolved over some 500 million years. First came the original brainstem sitting atop the last vertebra of the spine, and known as the reptilian brain – the ancient seat of instinct. Then followed the evolving of the cerebellum ‘attached’ to the rear of the brainstem – providing spatial body control in addition to serving as an early ‘memory bank’. And then comes the limbic system with the thalamus at its center…. Ultimately – some neuroscientists suggest between 4 to 2 million years ago – we have, with the development of the cerebrum, the brain we know today. Overlying the earlier structures it is composed of two hemispheres – left and right…. each overlaid by an outer, folded layer of ‘gray matter’ known as the cortex, and the one connected to the other by a conduit of nerve fibers known as the corpus callosum. It is this cerebrum (with its cortex and linked two hemispheres) that becomes the seat of our most sophisticated mental processes. (This is a very cursory summary of brain development: a more comprehensive account can be found on pages 151 and 152 of my book What the Hell Are the Neurons Up To?)

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The wide range of human awareness owes its complexity to the fact that the cerebrum’s two hemispheres are responsible for two significant aspects of consciousness, yet work together to create an overall system of awareness. To put it briefly, the left hemisphere (left brain) is OBJECTIVE – bringing together the mental factors of identification, analysis and reason (linking cause and effect), that allow us to comprehend the factual nature of the outside world as perceived by means of the five senses. It is the home of the reasoning intellect, has us living in Time, allows us to respond to external ‘happenings’ and deduce how things are the way they are. The right hemisphere, on the other hand, is more SUBJECTIVE – induces a more abstract, reflective and highly personal level of awareness where we are not so much aware of linear Time – fostering an imaginative, contemplative, creative, searching for meaning…. wondering why things are the way they are in the time-space world, and to what end? In addition – and equally significantly - this subjective way of feeling and thinking brings us to wonder just ‘who’ and ‘why’ we are on this journey we call ‘life’.

The greatest mystery is not that we have been flung at random between the profusion of matter and of the stars, but that within this (physical) prison we can draw from within ourselves images powerful enough to deny our own nothingness.

So wrote Andre Malraux, the French writer, historian, and World War II Resistance Leader, referring to the inventive and creative achievements of the scientists, artists, philosophers, and the visionary prophets and priests of many spiritual persuasions… who are present throughout human history.

Consequently it can be said that consciousness, if fully employed…. drives us to live a double life. One foot in our material environment and worldly events, courtesy of the Senses and ‘left brain’ hemisphere; the other in the ‘right brain’ hemisphere where our inner private life of feelings, thoughts and reflections, determine our personality, our attitude to life…. and promote a sense of Self.

So it could be said, speaking informally, that if we are to realize our full potential as individuals – it is necessary to live life ‘playing with a full deck…’, employing both hemispheres working in conjunction with each other.

But the question must be asked as to whether we do, in fact, live with such a dualistic consciousness nowadays?

Two hundred years ago, as the industrial revolution in Britain got under way, the English poet, William Wordsworth, wrote ‘The world is too much with us…’ Nowadays, with the technological revolution forging ahead, and knowing much more about how consciousness works, we could change that line to read, ‘The left brain is too much with us…’ For we live very much in the world: defining success in material terms; social ‘net’ working – the world at one’s fingertips; constant entertainment demanded and provided; the lure of new places, new ‘happenings’ – the need to be ‘on the move’ being an end in itself. We live by the clock. All helping to keep us grounded in the ‘here and now’.

With the arrival of the computer, education has come to lay too much emphasis on ‘knowing the facts’: fact-finding by computer as its main focus. In some cases, the personal element in the presence of the teacher is not even part of the learning experience. Does a teacher ever point a finger at a student and say, “ O.K. Smith… what’s your opinion about that?” Browsing in books would seem to be on the way out. Here is the English poet and novelist Robert Graves giving an address at Oxford University: ‘This is a critical, not a poetic age, I am told. Inspiration is out in favor of the prevailing analytic spirit. But I am old-fashioned enough to demand ‘baraka’, an inspirational gift not yet extinct, which defies critical analysis.’ Graves is talking about good, old-fashioned right brain stuff.

So do we have either the time or inclination to live a full life – allow the right brain to come into its own as the mental power that maintains you as an individual, distinctive, entity living an ‘inner’ life? One that responds to the Senses and intellectual challenges offered by the ‘outside’ world, and brings intuition and imagination to present an opinion about the relative truth, credibility, viability…. and ultimately the value… of ‘this or that’? If not, the right brain may, over the years, slowly atrophy - retire from the scene of consciousness, leaving us to become merely ‘left brain robots’.

We have, over millions of years, been provided with the mental means to discover ourselves as distinct personalities, individual human entities. We need the inclination, discipline and time…. to not only move forward into the whole of the external world, but also to know the ‘reality’ of one’s own inner being.

Graham Collier, author of What The Hell Are The Neurons Up To?, is an exhibiting landscape and portrait artist in Britain, an artist-philosopher in America, and a frequent Antarctic voyager. more...

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