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OU on the BBC: Background Brief - Consciousness: The Story So Far

Updated Tuesday, 8th August 2006

An exploration of consciousness, what it is, whether it's necessary, and how personal it is to each of us

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The Brain

WHAT IS CONSCIOUSNESS?

Man doing yoga It’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, to borrow Winston Churchill’s famous phrase.

And it’s a hotbed of academic debate. In fact it’s hard to find two people who completely agree with each other. Only one thing can be said with confidence: consciousness is currently one of the trendiest after-dinner topics around scholarly tables.

Want to get in touch with your own consciousness? Take a moment to become aware of every noise, smell, or sight you’re noticing… any bodily feelings you have, any thoughts, ideas or memories passing through your mind...

Do you feel alert? Or hungover? At one with the world? Are you physically comfortable? What’s it like being you? Before your brain explodes with all this introspection, let’s just say: the ability to experience and be aware of all those types of internal events = CONSCIOUSNESS

Idaho MY OWN PRIVATE INNER WORLD
The key point about consciousness is that it’s a personal, private thing. No-one else can directly experience another person’s consciousness. You can’t experience another person’s physical pain, for example. And you can’t experience their dreams, memories or ideas directly either.

MY NEIGHBOUR IS AN ANDROID
Cartoon
Well, they could be. Anyone else could be… and this is a great discussion point for philosophers. There’s no way to be 100% sure that other people have a mental inner world like you do. They could all be cleverly programmed robots able to act in a "human" way - and able to give convincing answers to all your existential questions, including: ’How are you feeling?’ and ’Are you sure you’re not an android?’

ALTERED STATES
Our waking state could be said to be our ’normal’ state of consciousness - but there are others. Sleeping, being hypnotised, anaesthetised, blind drunk, ecstatic or delirious are all altered states of consciousness - or ASCs to give them their trendy name.

ALL IN THE MIND
Consciousness is far from necessary for everything we do – in fact, our brains can take care of many things very well without us ever needing to be aware of what’s going on. For one thing, conscious thoughts take a whole half-second, which is really not that fast...

Some examples?

  • You accidentally touch a hotplate, and pull your hand away – you did that without thinking, and quicker than you could have if you’d thought about it.
  • Piano player A skilled musician or sportsperson doesn’t have time to think consciously about the next movement – but practice means they can do it perfectly.
  • You can drive through a town, immersed in an engrossing conversation – and never give a single conscious thought to the gears or brakes all that time.

"THE COCKTAIL PARTY SITUATION"
This is a classic psychological scenario, which you may have experienced yourself. Imagine you’re in a situation like a busy party. You’re involved in one particular conversation, and aren’t following any other discussions going on. But – if anyone in the room mentions your name, you’ll instantly prick up your ears…. So your unconscious mind MUST have been screening all those other conversations, or you’d never have noticed, right?

First broadcast: Friday 15 Oct 1999 on BBC TWO

 

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