Consciousness (Not) Explained

For most of us, our emotions are stirred, powerful feelings arise, and that is what we are likely to remember.

"Bill Noonan hasn't suffered any obvious physical damage to his brain. Yet for more than two decades after his return from Vietnam, he has re-experienced the most terrifying event of his life several times a week as a waking dream. 'It was a night ambush,' he remembers. 'The first seven guys to my right were machine-gunned down. My gas mask was shot right off my hip. That was my first fire fight.' Bill knew his flashbacks weren't real-but they seemed so real that it made no difference. 'I didn't know what was happening,' he says. 'The biggest fear I had was that I was crazy. ' "

Not so, all of us. Far from traumatic experiences, Marcel Proust sought a kind of metaphysics in memory. He found his most meaningful events in the taste of a cookie, or the angle of his feet while he gazed at a building. "The past," he wrote, "still lives in us . . . has made us what we are and is remaking us every moment!" He says, "it is a vase filled with perfumes, sounds, places and climates! . . . So we hold within us a treasure of impressions . . . that become certain moments of our past." (Formerly Remembrance of Things Past, now In Search of Lost Time.)

In either case, Proust's or Noonan's, the mind is the mystery. It is the source of our sense of self, our sense of being in the world, our sense of choice. Some say it is merely a function of consciousness, which in turn arises from the brain, an emergent phenomenon, physical at its root. Others argue that to insist on only the physicality is to deny a spiritual aspect to our lives.

Long before Descartes came up with his "I think, therefore I am," Buddha had said, in effect, "I am, therefore I think." Consciousness itself remains a mystery, arising as Eastern sages say, out of the great I AM.

In the West, science hopes to explain much of it. Nonetheless, as they study it, they understand that the victims of mental disease or brain damage provide "stark demonstrations of how fragile reality can be. Most people agree, within limits, on the objective character of the world around them. Yet while the victims of mental disorders are certainly conscious and aware, their worlds are profoundly different from those of most of us." More

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