On Saturday 3 November, Writing NSW hosted Quantum Words, a science writing festival that brought professionals together from many sides of the science writing industry. Speakers included science researchers, publishers, editors, novelists and journalists.
For the opening session, Kate Cole-Adams, Ian Gibbins, Jane McCredie (chair), and Danielle Clode discussed the topic: What Is This Thing Called Consciousness? before a packed house.
Captivated audience members listened as the discussion touched on everything from orcas to dreams and surgery. They were forced to question when they were (or weren’t) conscious, what was their ‘subconscious’, and who or what has consciousness in the first place.
Writing NSW communications intern, Myra Opdyke, shares the key details from the session.
First up in the discussion, Kate Cole-Adams, a specialist in anaesthesia, fascinated her listeners by relating cases where people who were ‘under’ were still able to hear the conversations around them.
In some cases, patients could still feel what was being done to them but were paralysed and presumed to be unconscious. In other cases, they didn’t remember afterwards what had happened, but showed signs that some part of their subconscious memory did remember.
Kate pointed out that when you’re unconscious in surgery, it isn’t that your nerves are numbed, but that your brain isn’t connecting the pain to your consciousness. This, she pointed out to her rapt listeners, exemplifies that there is a difference between being unconscious and losing your sense of pain.
Many of us in the audience cringed a little at this thought, especially when Kate told us that surgeons sometimes find their patients’ bodies react reflexively to being cut. As she put it, you can have experiences without being conscious.
Here, now, and your big toe
Our subconscious notices things all the time without us realising it; it commits them to a part of our memory that we don’t necessarily have conscious access to.
To prove the point, Ian Gibbins instructed the audience: “Think about your big toe”. The audience members chuckled as they began to notice their toe and realised that everyone was having the same shift in awareness.
As Ian explained, your brain didn’t only just notice the sensations being felt by your big toe when you started thinking about it – instead, your consciousness started noticing what your brain already knew.
What are you aware of compared with all of the things which your brain is processing? As Kate said, “All of the interesting things happen in between… we aren’t just switched on or switched off.”
“This feeling of here and now is almost impossible to define,” Ian explained as the discussion moved along.
“[It] takes up to a second to generate this feeling of now… so it’s already in the past.”
He mused that in this case, which organisms have consciousness? Can something be conscious without Ian’s ‘feeling of now’?
If consciousness is defined as being aware of your environment, then most organisms possess it. Ian gave the example of bees, who react to their environment in a dynamic way. They know when they’ve visited a flower and there is nothing there for them, so they consciously recognise this and find another promising perch. When their leg-sacks are full, they decide to head back to the hive. Is this distinct from consciousness? How? It all comes back to how you define the term.
Orcas, lyrebirds and us
The question of consciousness is further complicated when comparing the way humans and other animals interact with members of their own species.
Orcas have been known to recognise individuals in their pod, and to dramatically mourn the death of family members. The more we learn about them, the more complex their form of consciousness seems to be; Danielle Clode explained how this can make it difficult to have a simple definition of consciousness.
Humans, as explained by Danielle, tend to use the thinking and talking part of our brains, while orcas tend to use the feeling and emotional part. Is this the pivotal difference between our forms of consciousness?
Ian gave another example: lyrebirds can mimic chainsaws, trees, and cries, and yet we still don’t know what the processing in their mind looks like in practical terms. Do they hear a noise and reflexively repeat it? Do they hear it and ‘think’ about repeating it? In truth, we don’t know.
A language bias
When deciding which creatures do and don’t experience consciousness, the panellists agreed that humans tend to focus on language and communication. They suggested that this way of viewing consciousness could limit our conception of consciousness.
For example, studies have shown that goats have regional dialects, and some other animals call each other by individual names.
Jane McCredie commented that, with this in mind, if extra-terrestrial life did show up on Earth then humans mightn’t recognise them as conscious beings unless we understood their form of communication.
Throughout this discussion the panellists, with their differing backgrounds, returned often to one point: that we don’t yet have a comprehensive definition for our awareness, or consciousness, and how it differs from the subconscious or from that of other creatures .
By the end of the session, the extent of what we don’t know about consciousness became apparent. One fact is for certain: our minds know more than we consciously recognise.
This nexus between consciousness and awareness is a complex discussion which people will be researching and philosophising for a long time to come.
What a topic to start off the morning!