What Is Consciousness?

Prospects for a scientific explanation of conscious experience.

Posted Apr 08, 2011

People experience perceptions such as blue, sensations such as pain, emotions such as happiness, and thoughts such as believing that spring has finally arrived. Will psychology and neuroscience ever be able to explain how people have these kinds of consciousness?

Psychology and neuroscience have made major progress in explaining many kinds of thinking such as problem solving, learning, and language use. But many people still have the intuition that, no matter how far cognitive science progresses, it will still be unable to deal with the mystery of consciousness. On this view, we all have a basic understanding of conscious experience from our own episodes of perception, sensation, emotion, and reflection. But there is an unbridgeable explanatory gap that prevents science from drawing consciousness within its scope.

Science would indeed be incapable of explaining consciousness if mental experiences were the properties of non-material souls, whose operations would have to remain totally mysterious from the perspective of the mechanisms that physicists, chemists, biologists, and psychologists use to explain what happens. But there is scant evidence for the view that minds are anything more than brains, so non-materialism does not seem to generate a barrier for explaining consciousness. Another possibility is that consciousness is just too complicated to be understood by human minds that evolved to find food, water, shelter, and mates in simple environments. But these minds have been able to create marvelous cultural tools such as written language, mathematics, and scientific instruments from telescopes to brain scanning machines. So it would be premature by centuries to give up on the attempt to find scientific explanations of mental processes including consciousness.

In fact, major progress is being made both experimentally and theoretically in unraveling the mysteries of consciousness. Skeptics should check out the web sites of some of the major researchers on consciousness, including:

Antonio Damasio, Los Angeles
Stanislas Dehaene, Paris
Christof Koch, Pasadena
Guilio Tononi, Madison

Through work by them and others, we are starting to get a glimpse of how consciousness could be a mental property that emerges from complex processing in billions of neurons in dozens of interacting brain areas.

In my book, The Brain and the Meaning of Life, I sketch an account of how one kind of consciousness - emotional experience - can arise through the interactions of multiple brain areas that deal simultaneously with perceptual representations of external situations, cognitive appraisals of the significance of these situations for one's personal goals, and internal perceptions of bodily states. On this view, consciousness is not a special function of mind, but rather the result of interactive processes that bind together perceptions and appraisals. How such bindings and interactions work is a topic of ongoing investigation in psychology and neuroscience.

Hence I see reasons for enthusiasm about the prospects for a scientific theory of consciousness. It may take decades or even centuries before we have good explanations of  all the different kinds of experience that arise in perception, sensation, emotion, and reflection. But parts of the puzzle are starting to emerge, and it will be very exciting when scientists manage to put them all together. Then we will be able to say with confidence that consciousness is a brain process.