What is consciousness? It is defined as a subjective experience, an awareness of self or one’s surroundings and the ability to react to it. Right now, as you are reading this, there is someone inside your head. I’m not referring to you – the one comprehending these words, I am referring to the other one in there. The one who can read these words and draw its own opinions and desires, but cannot use your mouth to speak or your body to act, and is riding in the proverbial passenger seat of your mind.
Since the 1950’s, neuroscientists have been researching the phenomenon of split-brain. The human brain, and that of all vertebrates, has a left and right hemisphere above the brain stem, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Your left hemisphere connects with the right side of your body through the central nervous system and your right hemisphere the left side of your body. Your left hemisphere is responsible for your ability to learn and speak verbal language and perform complex movements. The right hemisphere is better at perceiving emotions and expressions on faces, geometry and spacial relationships, and is more finely tuned to music.
The person comprehending the words you are reading right now, is formed in the left hemisphere, you are the property of your left hemisphere. There are nerve fibers in between your left and right hemispheres, these are called commissures and the largest collection of them in your brain is an area called the corpus callosum. For the average person these fibers remain connected throughout your life, however, in some instances of medical necessity these nerve fibers are cut in a procedure known as callosotomy. Such a procedure is done for patients with severe epilepsy to reduce the onset of seizures.
When this procedure first started to be performed, patients began noticing problems with their left side of the body doing things they weren’t in control of. An example would be wanting to place an object with their left hand on a table, but their left hand wouldn’t place it where they wanted it to be placed. Sometimes if both hands were holding an object, they would get into a tug of war with themselves, their left hand seemingly seeking its own purpose.
As clinical tests were performed neuroscientists learned that not only did snipping the nerve fibers between the hemispheres prevent communication between the two sides of the patient’s brain, but that the two hemispheres opposed one another in more than just function. We already knew that our left hemisphere retains memories, likes, and desires, but they learned that our right hemisphere has its own collection of memories, likes, and desires that can be all together different than the left’s. We are the consciousness in the left hemisphere, but it became apparent that when the brain was split, there was another consciousness in the right hemisphere we didn’t even know could exist.
How can we know both exist within the same brain? They performed tests where they separated what the left eye saw and what the right eye saw. When the word “egg” was flashed on a screen in front of the left eye and the patient was asked what word they saw, the patient stated aloud that they saw nothing. When the patient was asked to reach behind a blinder with their left hand and feel around in a collection of objects until they found the one that best represented the word that was flashed on the screen in front of their left eye, they picked up an egg.
How is that possible? Because the left eye and left hand are controlled by the right hemisphere, which is the side of the brain that does not formulate control over speech, but does have strong spacial and geometric perception. The patient’s right hemisphere saw the word egg and knew what an egg felt like so when it was asked to find it by touch it could easily do so, but because the nerve fibers in the brain were surgically cut in the patient, the right hemisphere could not tell the left hemisphere to say the word it saw on the screen, and therefore the left hemisphere (the patient’s sense of self) had no knowledge of the word or why the object was being picked up.
These same types of tests can be run using auditory equipment, where the audio can be played in one ear and cut-off from the other. As the left hemisphere is connected to the right ear and the right hemisphere connected to the left, a question asked in one ear may result in a different answer than the same question asked in the other ear.
In a clinical test, a young man who had undergone the same surgical brain procedure was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. When they asked him in his right ear, the boy answered aloud that he wanted to be a “draftsman.” When the boy was asked the same question in his left ear and was told to write down his answer, the boy wrote these words with his left hand, “race-car driver.” Therefore, the dual consciousness in the boy’s brain had two separate life ambitions.
Through these experiments the theory that human beings have more than one consciousness arose. For those of us who have the nerve fibers still connected between our right and left hemisphere, our consciousness is left hemisphere dominant in functional terms. Our left hemisphere has power over both the left and right side of our body, telling it what to do and when to do it. Even though the right hemisphere is in the passenger seat and not in control of the vehicle, it still has its own consciousness.
Right now, while you’re reading this, your right hemisphere is thinking its own thoughts, drawing its own opinions, storing its own memories, completely unable (allegedly) to force them upon you while your left hemisphere is dominant and because your left hemisphere is dominant it can reach into the memories of the right hemisphere and you as a person perceive them no differently than those stored in the left hemisphere.
Have you ever felt a desire to do something or say something and you honestly couldn’t figure out where the idea came from? Ever feel like a voice inside your head is telling you something? That nagging sub-conscious mind as we call it, may actually be the consciousness in your right hemisphere, desperately attempting to influence the choices you make and the environment in which you exist.
While your favorite color may be blue, your right hemisphere’s favorite color might actually be red and it may very well be sick and tired of you buying blue things all the time. Perhaps you have experienced a moment when you were drawn to something at the store that was not something you are typically drawn to, and yet you felt this unusual desire to purchase it. That unusual feeling, may very well be your right hemisphere desiring something it sees and attempting to assert that desire over you by ever so slightly nagging at you to buy it. The right hemisphere is after all, more in-tuned to emotional states and expression than your left. People who are artists, are strongly influenced by their right hemisphere.
Another phenomenon I will be discussing is Dissociative Identity Disorder, what used to be known as multiple personality disorder. Often caused by severe trauma, D.I.D. results in one personality or consciousness breaking into two or more. For an example, a patient named Kevin may only be in control of his body and mind, part of the time. In those other moments a consciousness that calls itself Aaron takes over, and when neither Kevin nor Aaron are controlling the person’s body and mind, there is another consciousness that calls itself Ryan.
Kevin, Aaron, and Ryan are different states of consciousness or personalities attempting to control the same body. Where or how these different personalities form is not known, but through clinical research we’ve learned some rather interesting and astounding things. D.I.D. is not like playing pretend, it is not like an actor performing a role in a film. When these personalities take over the mind and body of the person, that person becomes that personality. Kevin, Aaron, and Ryan can all be very different in their behavior, mannerisms, physical condition, and desires.
Perhaps one of the most astounding discoveries is that allergies do not necessarily have to be shared between the personalities. For example, Kevin may be allergic to peanut butter, and when he is in control of the person, any contact or ingestion of peanut butter causes the body to go into anaphylactic shock, requiring an immediate injection of epinephrine. However, Aaron and Ryan may not be allergic to peanut butter and when either of them are in control of the person, they can eat it without suffering from an allergic reaction. Currently, no one knows how this is possible, but since they share the same body they should all suffer from the same physical illnesses and allergies and yet they don’t.
The nature of D.I.D. is still very much not understood. I believe there is a connection between what happens when you split the left and right hemispheres, and what happens to people who develop D.I.D. Perhaps it is not necessary to cut the nerve fibers between the hemispheres to allow the right hemisphere’s consciousness to overtake the left’s, and that the personalities that develop in patients with D.I.D. are actually representative of more than one consciousness vying for control.
We do know that for most patients, D.I.D. develops after severe trauma or psychological pain. It’s believed that this development of alternate personalities is the brain’s or consciousness’s attempt to save itself from its current harmful environment or thought process. As an example, we could say that Kevin was physically abused as a child and at some point during these experiences his brain in an attempt to save the person or body, had either formed the consciousness of Aaron or the consciousness of Aaron broke itself free from the control of Kevin and had actually always been within Kevin’s mind. The consciousness of Ryan may have followed suit. Either of these possibilities have a drastic consequence for what we normally define a human being to be.
If a human being is not actually just one conscience being, but perhaps multiple, or an infinite number of consciousnesses, or even perhaps a collective consciousness that can develop into any individual within any body, then do we truly know anything about what it means to be a person? Is there even such a thing as a person or a self? In Buddhism, the main goal of spiritual practice is to eliminate the ego, the perception of self, that indeed there is no such thing as the self. Perhaps we really are merely a collection of experiences attempting to define themselves as one thing. Or as some philosophers state, we are the Universe attempting to know itself and our bodies are merely vessels.
For the most part the nature of consciousness is currently divided into two theories. It may very well be that consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe, such as space, time, mass, and electric charge. Others posit that consciousness is more than a property and is actually present within everything to some degree, a theory known as panpsychism. From stars to micro-organisms to even something like a proton, this theory alleges that each have a level of consciousness. Not in the sense that I have stated previously for humans, but that they do have some nature of consciousness, and even for protons some awareness of the electromagnetic force that holds them together with electrons.
Take the plant Mimosa Pudica, it has developed a fascinating response to physical touch over its evolutionary history. If an object or even a strong enough gust of air presses against its leaves, they fold up and curl down. It’s understood to be a defense mechanism to protect the delicate and crucial leaves from being damaged by insects, rainstorms, or strong winds. Leaves are crucial for a plant because they use them for photosynthesis, a process by which photons of light are converted into the energy needed to breakdown the minerals the plants root system absorbs from the soil and are used for other essential functions.
An experiment was performed with this plant where they dropped it from a certain height continuously. As expected the plant reacted to falling by folding its leaves and curling them, as it would against any perceived threat. After a while, the plant stopped performing this act of defense. It’s theorized the plant learned that the action of falling was not detrimental to its physical well-being and stopped wasting energy on the action. From this conclusion and based on the definition of consciousness, the theory can be suggested that the Mimosa Pudica and likely all other plants have a level of consciousness.
Philosophers, neuroscientists, and even physicists seek answers to deep questions about the nature of consciousness, including that of free-will. Does it exist? Are we truly the thinkers of our own thoughts or are we merely the observers of the thoughts as soon as they arise and falsely claim them as our own? If the right and left hemispheres can each have their own consciousness and patients with D.I.D. can have an infinite number of personalities in control of a single body, then can anyone ever truly argue that there is a self within a mind? At the crossroads of neuroscience and physics exists the evidential truth needed to explain the nature of consciousness, and people like David Chalmers, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christof Koch, Roger Penrose, John Wheeler, and Gregory Matloff have brought the necessary questions to the forefront, and perhaps even the right answers.
A conversation between Sam Harris and Anil Seth on the nature of consciousness: