October 10, 2018
Here is my disclaimer:
I am a former practicing teacher.
I am a former coach.
I am a former college athlete, powerlifter, meathead.
I am a personal trainer who teaches.
I am someone who is searching for answers to a fix a personal mess I woke up in which was my life as an uninspired, angry, determined to prove others wrong, with a rap sheet of injuries I ignored that held me back from truly enjoying life.
I am not a neuroscientist.
I am not a neurobiologist.
I am not a psychologist.
I have no formal training in consciousness.
I have no formal practice of meditation.
Our idea of what it is like to be human is highly subjective in nature, but so too is the idea that to be conscious of what it is like to be human…we have to experience things humans feel. What are those things? To reference back to Nagel, “fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism - something it is like for the organism.”
What is it like?
That is something that is hard to explain and truly what it is like will be different for every human based on their own experience. One thing to think about again if I take Nagel philosophical outlook is the idea that “If the subjective character of experience is fully comprehensible only from one point of view, then any shift to greater objectivity -that is, less attachment to a specific viewpoint-does not take us nearer to the real nature of the phenomenon: it takes us farther away from it.” To me, this takes the idea of trying to solve the puzzle of consciousness as an objective measure the very opposite of what it means to truly understand and be conscious. Objectivity doesn’t matter if that objectivity is used to describe another human, let alone another mammal, let alone another organism, let alone anything that isn’t coming from our own brain.
One final that comes to mind, before I try to piece together a string of thought pertaining to attaining this “consciousness,” what are some defining aspects needed to be conscious? The one explanation that I felt compelled to take notice was Dr. Dan Siegel idea of tapping into your awareness by means of understanding and taking control of what he called the regulatory process. He describes this process as “Engag[ing] in the business of determining how energy and information flow into our lives. A process is a verb like unfolding, and so the mind in this way is more like a verb than a noun.” This idea that the mind is the verb is fairly powerful in my search for answers because we always think of the brain as an unconscious controller...a noun. When I think of it as a verb I start to think that there is action, an action that I can have some control over, an action that I want control over.
He outlines two aspects to this regulator process that make sense to my understanding and they are:
Monitoring: Watching, feeling, and listening essentially to how you soak in various forms of energy within perception.
Modifying: Changing or altering the energy flow.
There is a much deeper understanding here that goes down deep on how to start to build the skills that are required to start the process of being aware or conscious, but the purpose here is that we understand that there is a process which we do have the opportunity to co-pilot as a verb...not just a noun where we are a passenger.
What is the road to consciousness?
Now, realize that the pathway in which I assuming here is that our human experience or consciousness is subjectively our own and thus and objective measures derived are futile in terms of describing something outside of ourselves.
I do however want to make light of the fact that as a species we have enough general information about behavior and evolution to describe a theoretical pathway to consciousness.
The one lens that I always try to put at the forefront of my mind is this idea of what exactly did our species evolve for. Then it comes down to trying to piece together the puzzle of what does it really feel like to be human? I would argue we evolved to survive and continue our DNA, so where does consciousness fit into this equation...especially considering that overgeneralized statement describes most living organism most of which we would say are not able to be conscious.
Here is the beautiful thing and the reason why I think we are even able to have this conversation, we became the apex predator which allowed us the freedom to then evolve our brains. As a human species, we are not the biggest or the strongest, but we were able to increase our mass via relationships. As we climbed the evolutionary ladder, those with the talent to create allies effectively doubled their biomass without doubling their biomass: Social relationships.
As we grew our biomass we also increased our ability to stop stressing so much about safety, essentially we became the predator that no one wants to mess with. This allowed us the opportunity to nurture this social brain which leads to another theory: Theory of Mind. Simply described as the innate ability to understand the rewards and punishments systems inside someone else’s head, while understanding that these same systems inside your head are not the same as another’s. Which leads back to the same quote by Nagel “fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism - something it is like for the organism.”
Now, if you are still following me, what I am trying to get at is that without your physiological needs or your safety needs met, there doesn’t seem to be a reason to have the luxury of being conscious and aware. As an organism, you are designed for survival. Once basic needs are met we start to see the shift towards belongingness, community, esteem needs, then self-actualization, which to me characterize a shift from survival to purpose.
As I try to put my thoughts in order my opinion is that while we are struggling to survive, we simply don’t have the resource to think critically about existence. Once those needs are taken care of we can look back and start to dissect how we got to where we are; this is the stepping stones to understanding which would in some form or fashion inform your ability to be conscious.
Where are we now?
All this talk about consciousness and it seems as though I am assuming we aren’t yet conscious. To that, I would say largely we have lost sight of our ability to be conscious because we have set up an environment in modern society that takes away the very nature of being human.
Now stay with me. We must have our physiological needs met:
How long can you go without food? Longer than 2 weeks ish.
How long can you go without water? 3-8 days on Average.
How long can you go without air? 5-10 minutes.
Thankfully our bodies have evolved to run a long distance to hunt, track, and tire out our pray. Our mobility gives us the ability to search for and move towards bodies of water. We have an immaculately designed respiratory system. In essence, the very foundations of being human are:
Movement. Hunting for food (doubling our biomass through social relationships to become the apex predator that has yet to be dethroned). Breathe.
Ask yourself do we do these things?
My thought is that it is not as simple as do I fulfill these needs but do I fulfill these needs via the process in which I was designed to fulfill these needs. I would argue that it is this process in which we go through attaining these needs that are the precursor to being human.
Now let's move onto safety and security:
Am I safe? am I secure?
This is where things get dicey. If I am using this survival lens again to inform my thought process...simply: Am I safe from other forms of life trying to kill me. Am I safe from elements that could kill me? Am in a realistic proximity to mobilize me to attain fundamental resources to fulfill physiological needs that if not met, will kill me. There may be more, but that is a pretty short list.
Our brain has created a system to warn us. An autonomic system that functions based on incoming threats. These threats we easily defined....things that could kill you. When our basic human needs for safety and security are not met our prefrontal cortex (PFC) is inhibited. When this inhibition happens our limbic system (rewards system) and hindbrain begin to have far more power to directly influence the types of behaviors we present on a day to day basis. Both of these systems are actually evolutionarily older parts of our brain and have a large role to play with our emotions and our subconscious processes related to the survival and maintenance of homeostasis. (Thank Justin Moore for that thought process.)
To me, these two processes seem to be a very commonly overlooked component to the human experience and could explain a missing link into why we as a society have seemed to become more unconscious as we have become smarter...weird right!?
We have literally designed a world that has sped past our current state of evolution in terms of our ability to logically and consciously navigate it without being overwhelmed...initially. This modernized world creates confusion for our human system...let me explain; Safety and security are merely states of being in which we believe we aren’t in danger, simply put. The problem with that is this idea danger can take many forms and the more inputs we put into a system evolved in a time with far fewer inputs, the more we run into problems with our ability to process danger...logically.
Sirens, vehicles honking their horns, loud sudden noises, fast-moving objects, these are all things that in another time would logically being things that would signal possible situations where death could occur; now they are part of our everyday life. We have an amazing system evolved to be the best at staying alive and it is running processes in the background that assess threats. Although a fast-moving vehicle is likely not going to kill you, in another time a fast-moving saber tooth tiger might; you have an alarm for that. Truthfully when I put things through this exact filter I start to get overwhelmed by the fact my alarm system has no reason to really turn off...this is stressful.
Where are we really now?
We have become desensitized to our own awareness or consciousness because we are in an environment we weren’t designed for with an incredible amount of alarms going off, further perpetuated by the fact we don’t actually go through the process to fulfill our foundational physiological needs. We are in consciousness loop that neither allows us to feel truly human, but also not progress to actual self-actualization. We have so many inputs going into the system that we have literally turned off our ability to feel what it’s like to be human. In this case being unconsciousness is a protective mechanism to not have to feel the inevitable un-human environment (speaking from a perspective of survival at this point in our evolution) we would have to wake up in. To be conscious you would have to understand that in order to truly feel human you would have to almost do the opposite of everything modern society wants us to do: take the easy route.
It is hard to say no ease of access to food...we were designed to eat food on sight to survive.
It is hard to say no to easily attainable experiences that make you feel a dopamine rush without mobilizing yourself...we were designed to conserve energy so we could have a reserve on call to find food and water.
It is hard to not take modern forms of transportation to reach your destination...we were designed to mobilize ourselves bipedal organisms.
It is hard not to sit at a computer, lay on the couch to watch tv...we were designed to stand and allow our diaphragms the ability to move fully concentrically and eccentrically to breathe and regulate our autonomic systems.
We would essentially have to make things harder for ourselves to feel the processes in which we could truly understand what makes us human.
Now one last fleeting thought?
I’m walking myself through this thought process of being unconsciousness as a defense mechanism and I have to ask myself what would I understand consciousnesses role in our human experience? My intuitive thought is that it is a mechanism that is pushing you towards doing the HARD processes that allow you to move up the ladder to your purpose, or in terms of needs, self-actualization.
Is this intuition, this voice inside of your head, is it right? Does it ultimately shift you towards purpose? Or is it clouded by the fact it has been trained to be lazy due to the environment we see ourselves in?
That is another rabbit hole for another day.
Reflections of a meathead who is trying questions everything.
What I tried to reference!
Nagel - What is it Like to be a Bat?