To be or not to be

Zhang dreamt he was a butterfly flying from one lovely flower to the next. When he awoke he asked his teacher about the meaning of this dream. Master Lao in return asked him how he knew for sure that he was awake now and not a butterfly dreaming he was Zhang.

The ancient Chinese were already very well aware of the relativity of consciousness. Our consciousness can be deceiving. Each person’s consciousness is unique and individual, depending on one’s own frame of experiences. It can’t be shared in an exact way, it can only be described.

The state of being conscious constitutes the final taboo in brain research. Even for many people working with the brain, like psychiatrists and psychologists and indeed some neuroscientists, it is very hard to cope with the fact that everything we do and know, all our problems and happy moments, would derive from activated networks in the brain. There should to be something else. The general idea is, this ego, as it is also referred to, has to dwell in some place.

The search for the seat of the soul has been going on for centuries. Painting of the anatomy lesson by Rembrandt.

The search for the seat of the soul has been going on for centuries. Painting of an anatomy lesson by Rembrandt.

Fortunately, a policy change is gradually coming about. Interest in serious scientific research into consciousness is growing. The thing that complicates this kind of investigation the most is precisely this consciousness itself. Our self is only too eager to have us believe it is very important and extraordinary. It is not easy to step outside of yourself, take some distance and think realistically about that person inside your head.

For centuries, philosophers have been looking for the seat of our soul. The stomach and the heart have long been the favourite places for the soul’s residence. Also in the brain, diligent searches have been going on to find the spot that would contain our self. But this research didn’t bring in any results. Of course, since there is no such place inside our brain that holds our ego. Everything we are and think, all our convictions and ideas are products of brain cells making connections.

Consciousness is one of our brain’s functions. Therefore it should be possible to decipher the biological mechanisms within the brain that give rise to consciousness. It is evident a brain activity should persist for some time to pop up into consciousness. It is also clear we only become aware of brain activities that reach our frontal lobes, responsible for our superior thought processes.

Scientists have different ideas about why one activity in the brain does reach consciousness and another activity does not. Most of them do agree on one thing. Conscious experiences are not caused by specific parts of the brain. Consciousness is brought into being foremost by processes, by the exchange of information between brain cells.

For the most part, traffic between the different levels within the brain is one-way. Information enters via the senses, reaches intermediate distribution centres in different parts of the brain, and from there goes up to the frontal lobes. In the frontal lobes, adequate action is formulated, for which subsequently information is sent down the chain, all the way to the corresponding body part. Consciousness might possibly be the result of the fact that certain information is not transferred immediately, but keeps reverberating for a while in the networks. Via a kind of short-term memory we might become aware of this information.


An astrocyte, treated with chemicals to show the different parts of the cell in various colours. (© Neurorocker - Wikipedia)

An astrocyte, treated with chemicals to show the different parts of the cell in various colours. (© Neurorocker – Wikipedia)

A new theory of consciousness concerns astrocytes, the most numerous glial cells in the brain. They may form the biological basis for our consciousness. These astrocytes make up a sort of matrix in the brain. One astrocyte makes contact with as much as fifty to one hundred other astrocytes in its vicinity. All those astrocytes communicate with each other via calcium currents. They also direct neurones via calcium injections.

The chemical element calcium is indispensable for all forms of life on earth. It is not only necessary for the structure of bones, but plays a crucial role in the functioning of cells as well. The fact that astrocytes govern the quantity of calcium in the brain, gives some clue about how important these brain cells are.

It might be the calcium waves that flow through the astrocyte matrix that give rise to our consciousness. This idea isn’t so far-fetched, especially considering the fact that the number of astrocytes per neurone in a brain becomes larger as animals reach higher stages of development. Besides, the astrocyte is the most common brain cell in the human cortex. It seems the number of astrocytes is coupled to brainpower. More astrocytes appear to give rise to a larger capacity of complex cognitive processes.

How the brain generates consciousness and what actually is the biological basis of it, time will tell. It is a fact that the greatest part of what is going on in our brain happens outside of consciousness. Nobody has to consciously think about making sure their heart is beating, their stomach is digesting the food it contains, or their thyroid gland is producing the necessary hormones.

Many of our thought processes even develop unconsciously. Don’t we all have the experience that often at the least expected moment, for instance when in bed or while walking in the supermarket, suddenly the solution to a problem occurs to you and you were absolutely not thinking of the problem at that moment. Often, a decision has already been taken by your unconscious brain long before your consciousness gets hold of what is going on and announces it has come up with a decision.

Ideas may pop up at unexpected moments because the brain unconsciously is working on a problem. (© Brian Jackson -

Ideas may pop up at unexpected moments because the brain unconsciously is working on a problem. (© Brian Jackson –

It is very fortunate many things we do, proceed automatically. If we would have to think about every action we take it would be very time-consuming. It could even be life-threatening. In a dangerous situation, your brain has to be able to immediately prepare your body for fight or flight. Your consciousness would only be in the way in such circumstances.

Why do we possess consciousness? At a certain time in evolution, consciousness may have arisen as some kind of aberration. Many of the useful adaptations of organisms have once come about this way, as a deviation of the standard, the normal. Not all aberrations have the same advantageous influence on reproduction. These useless ones will simply disappear as a matter of course. But the beneficial abnormalities will become normality in the course of evolution.

“Consciousness is a critical biological function that allows us to know sorrow or to know joy, to know suffering or to know pleasure, to sense embarrassment or pride, to grieve for lost love or lost life.”
Antonio Damasio, neuroscientist

This may very well be the case where consciousness is concerned. It appears to be advantageous for an organism to have a brain with two states: unconscious and conscious. In the unconscious state, the brain takes care of fast, often stereotypical reactions. In the conscious state, processes are far slower, but it helps the brain come up with deliberate reactions to complicated situations. Both states can also influence each other. It seems this division has been useful to survival to such an extent that we now have all been equipped with it.

Thanks to our consciousness, we do everything to survive as long as possible. We worship our ego and when the moment of death eventually has arrived, we desperately cling to the idea that our self will live on forever. The indestructible faith in a life after death may even be considered the most successful aberration of evolution. But, as British neuroscientist and winner of a Nobel Prize Francis Crick used to say so metaphorically: you are nothing but a pack of neurones.

Mirror, mirror on the wall

Dogs fail the mirror test, but that may be because they depend more on sound and smell than on vision. (© Africa Studio -

Dogs fail the mirror test, but that may be because they depend more on sound and smell than on vision. (© Africa Studio –

Consciousness is a somewhat elusive concept. We know we are conscious, but what about other animals? An ape or a dog cannot tell us they are endowed with a sense of self. The mirror test gives at least a basic idea. To perform the test, a stain is applied to the animal’s skin. When the animal sees itself in the mirror and touches the stain on its skin or tries to rub it off, it is clear the animal knows the mirror image is his. To make the test watertight, a similar stain, but made from invisible material, is applied to another part of the animal’s skin so as to make sure it is not the sensation of the stain that makes the animal investigate or remove the visible stain.

Children as of one and a half years of age, successfully come through the test. The other members of the hominidae or great apes, namely gorillas, orang-utans, and chimpanzees, don’t have any difficulty at all to recognise themselves in the mirror. Even dolphins, pigeons, elephants, and magpies have passed the mirror test with flying colours.

Children as of 18 months old recognise themselves in the mirror. (© Sabphoto -

Children as of 18 months old recognise themselves in the mirror. (© Sabphoto –

Apparently there are more animals with at least a rudimentary form of consciousness. Up to what grade their consciousness works we don’t know yet. Is a pigeon on some windowsill not only thinking about food, but also contemplating its existence and its place in the world? We will only be able to find that out when we would have encountered the networks in the brain that are activated when our ego comes online. Only then can we find out whether similar networks are being activated in the brains of other animals.


Shakespeare © iofoto –

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