Consciousness is who we are. It is how we interact with the world. It is life, but how is it created? Where does it come from? Consciousness is one of the most elusive concepts right now, yet scientists are still trying to understand it, and some even profit from it. The article Eight Wonders of the Human Brain in the magazine New Scientist touches on the current understanding of consciousness.
One thing we do know is that when we sleep, consciousness isn’t turned off, but it is turned down. There is an upper consciousness, one that we’re aware of which includes the thinking process and there’s our unconscious or as I prefer to call it, the subconscious, everything that happens below our awareness. For example, how often have you driven along a familiar route or walked along a trail lost in your thoughts to later become aware that you’ve traveled a great distance with no memory of what you’ve passed or how you arrived there? While you were daydreaming or were deep in thought, your subconscious was still taking sensory information and directing you. Your subconscious is the person behind the curtain, always there, always observing, influencing your thoughts and actions without notice.
The brain has a built-in filtering system that only allows certain experiences to rise to our awareness. There’s an entire spectrum of light around us, but we can only see a limited range. Some organisms such as bees can see UV light and snakes can see infrared. Most humans have the basic hardware in their eyes to allow them to see approximately 1 million colors, believe it or not. This hardware consists of what are called cones, and we have three of them, making us trichromatic. Colorblind people only have two functioning cones and can only see approximately 10,000 shades, similar to dogs and some monkeys. There are some people though who have four cones, known as tetrachromats, and may be able to see 99 million more colors than the average human. We’ve known about tetrachromats for years now, but almost all of them only had the vision of a mere trichromat due to a nonfunctional fourth cone. How differently do these people experience the world from the rest of us?
There are several other phenomena that exist around us constantly that we’re not necessarily aware of such as electromagnetic waves. We may sit in a room with a strong smell, but over time we don’t smell it anymore. It won’t be that it dissipated, but that our mind has adapted to it. Another example is when you’re in a noisy room with several conversations happening and can’t distinguish one from the other, but you’re able to hear someone call your name. The information is still reaching your mind, but your brain is filtering it for you subconsciously. Many potential stimuli exist outside of our awareness, but our mind only allows or is capable of allowing some of it to reach our awareness. Our mind filters all of the sounds, smells, sights, and more and our mind stitches all of the incoming data together to create our perception of reality. We experience the world not as it is, but as we “want” to see it.
Researchers are trying to understand consciousness and where it originates within the brain. One of the methods that they’re using to do this is electroencephalography or EEG, to record brain signals. They will put people in different situations, give them different stimuli, and see how these different brain regions respond or do not respond. Then they correlate the brain region responses with certain conscious processes. Furthermore, they are also trying to understand how different brain areas interact with each other to make consciousness. Although it’s tricky and we’re still a long way away from fully understanding consciousness, we have progressed to the point where we can put an EEG cap on someone and be able to basically read their thoughts. Probably not perfectly, but we have some level of accuracy.
Just by reading the brainwaves in a person, we can get an idea of what they’re thinking and one of the primary potential applications of this technology is to treat people with locked-in-syndrome. This would allow them to communicate with the outside world. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, have recently made significant strides to decode the signals for speech, translating them into recognizable sentences. This potential communication technology would be a significant improvement over older and existing technologies in use, such as the kind that has the user selecting letters on a screen and/or predictive text.
It would be interesting to see what other potential applications this technology may have. You can imagine advertisers trying to take advantage of mind-reading technology. We may one day have small electrodes resting behind our ears, no more noticeable than earbuds, constantly detecting our brain waves. Then, when it picks up your random craving for chocolate cake, it’ll send directions to your phone or augmented reality glasses to the nearest location to buy cake. Companies already try to predict what we’re thinking about by tracking our internet browsing activity and maybe even spying on our conversations. That reminds me of the story told in the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg of the dad who noticed that Target sent his teenage daughter coupons for diapers and confronted the store manager about it, only to find out later that his daughter was indeed pregnant and Target predicted this based solely on her online viewing activity. It’s not too far-fetched to imagine this happening with mind-reading devices as well. Hopefully, we can find better uses of this technology. And of course, people always say that the porn industry is often an early adopter and innovator of new technology. So, expect innovations there.