One of neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s pioneering drawing of how the brain works
“Without consciousness there is nothing… Consciousness is the central fact of your life.”
BY MARIA POPOVA
“I wish you could know what it means to be me,” Nina Simone sang in her 1967 civil rights anthem “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” — an invitation to empathy at the heart of which is the animating question of consciousness: What does the experience of being feel like from the inside and can that subjective experience ever be fully understood from the outside?
“Everything begins with consciousness and nothing is worth anything except through it,” 28-year-old Albert Camus proclaimed in his meditation on the nature of consciousness just as modern science was beginning to wrest the question from the reposable thumbs of philosophers. Well before Santiago Ramón y Cajal fathered modern neuroscience and set it loose on addressing these questions over the course of the following century, the poet Emily Dickinson captured this elemental paradox of existence in a verse that remains the ultimate ode to — or is it a lamentation of? — consciousness:
How have I peace
Except by subjugating
And since We’re mutual Monarch
How this be
Except by Abdication —
Me — of Me?
A century and a half later, neuroscientist Christof Koch sets out to map this “mutual monarchy” of self and consciousness — or, rather, of the mind’s phenomenal experience and the brain’s neurophysiology — in his excellent book Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (public library).
Koch describes himself as a “romantic reductionist” — a reductionist because he seeks “quantitative explanations for consciousness in the ceaseless and ever-varied activity of billions of tiny nerve cells, each with their tens of thousands of synapses,” and romantic on account of his conviction that “the universe has contrails of meaning that can be deciphered in the sky above us and deep within us” — meaning illuminated not within the blink of an individual existence but across the vast cosmic scales of space and time. (Physicist Sean Carroll would later call such an orientation to the quest for meaning “poetic naturalism.”)
Two millennia after Plato’s famous allegory of the cave, Koch writes with an eye to the central inquiry of his life’s work:
Without consciousness there is nothing. The only way you experience your body and the world of mountains and people, trees and dogs, stars and music is through your subjective experiences, thoughts, and memories. You act and move, see and hear, love and hate, remember the past and imagine the future. But ultimately, you only encounter the world in all of its manifestations via consciousness. And when consciousness ceases, this world ceases as well.
Consciousness is the central fact of your life.
In addition to the paradox consciousness presents to the experiencing self, Koch points out that it presents a second paradox to science — on the one hand, it challenges the scientific model of the world by raising the same questions that mystics have been asking for millennia; on the other, it lends itself to being investigated empirically with the very tools of the scientific method and, as Koch puts it, “with both feet firmly planted on the ground.”
Having devoted much of his life to uncovering “how a highly organized piece of matter can possess an interior perspective,” Koch considers one of the most interesting questions of consciousness — that of qualia, the subjective interiority of experiences. (Nina Simone’s moving lyric line brings into sharp relief the grandest quale of all — that of selfhood.) Koch writes:
What it feels like to have a particular experience is the quale of that experience: The quale of the color red is what is common to such disparate percepts as seeing a red sunset, the red flag of China, arterial blood, a ruby gemstone, and Homer’s wine-dark sea. The common denominator of all these subjective states is “redness.” Qualia are the raw feelings, the elements that make up any one conscious experience.
Some qualia are elemental — the color yellow, the abrupt and overpowering pain of a muscle spam in the lower back, or the feeling of familiarity in déjà vu. Others are composites — the smell and feel of my dogs snuggling up against me, the “Aha!” of sudden understanding, or the distinct memory of being utterly transfixed when I first heard the immortal lines: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.” To have an experience means to have qualia, and the qualia of an experience are what specifies that experience and makes it different from other experiences…