'Consciousness' - the state of being aware of and responsive to one's surroundings. But what does that actually mean? What does it mean to be conscious or to experience consciousness and how do we use it to complement and enhance our creativity? Consciousness allows us to respond appropriately to the physical; it brings with it emotion and emotion steers the way we react and respond to the world around us.
“We are the cosmos made conscious and life is the means by which the universe understands itself.” - Professor Brian Cox
How does our consciousness arise? It’s a question that has perplexed scientists and philosophers for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Scientists may say that consciousness is a property of physical matter, an idea we might call physicalism or materialism. But even within physicalism there is little agreement about how consciousness emerges from, or otherwise relates to physical stuff.
"Our greatest human adventure is the evolution of consciousness. We are in this life to enlarge the soul, liberate the spirit, and light up the brain." - Tom Robbins
In 1994, Australian philosopher David Chalmers gave a talk to scholars at the University of Arizona on consciousness or the meaning of being inside your head and looking out - your 'soul' for want of another expression. He pondered the way we all learn, store memories or perceive things.
Chalmers posed the question, "why on earth should all those complicated brain processes feel like anything from the inside? Why aren’t we just brilliant robots, capable of retaining information, of responding to noises and smells and hot saucepans, but dark inside, lacking an inner life? And how does the brain manage it? How could the 1.4kg lump of moist, pinkish-beige tissue inside your skull give rise to something as mysterious as the experience of being that pinkish-beige lump, and the body to which it is attached?"
“Everybody has a secret world inside of them. I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world, I mean everybody — no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them they've all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds... Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.” - Neil Gaiman
Do you ever think about your place in the cosmos, what meaning it holds, what is your significance in the grand scheme of things? For some of us, the reality of the infinitesimally small spot we occupy is too difficult to comprehend. Much like thinking "is there anything after death or does all thought simply cease to exist?" or "are we alone in the universe?"
Howard: "Are you familiar with the Drake Equation?"
Sheldon: "The one that estimates the odds of making contact with extraterrestrials by calculating the product of an increasingly restrictive series of fractional values such as those stars with planets, and those planets likely to develop life? N equals R times FP times NE times FL times FI times FC times L?"
Howard: "Yeah, that one." - Sheldon, The Big Bang Theory
Most of us, in our daily lives, think of consciousness (if we think of it at all) as something over and above our physical being – as if our minds are “a chauffeur inside [our] own body” (Alan Watts (1915-1973) - a writer and speaker whose essential message was to "integrate the spiritual with the material"). But to accept this as a scientific principle would mean rewriting the laws of physics and is the reason why consciousness has had the scientific community up in arms for decades.
Physicists have no problem accepting that certain fundamental aspects of reality – such as space, mass, or electrical charge – exist; they just are! What if the same could be said of consciousness? It simply exists in the same way that weather, or a tree, or the ocean exist - a dizzying notion known as panpsychism (the view that all things have a mind or mind-like quality).
Are you still with me? It's enough to render you unconscious!!
“The awakening of consciousness is the next evolutionary step for mankind.” - Eckhart Tolle
There are analogies based on known facts suggesting that atoms are like solar systems; that the large-scale structures of the Universe are like neurons in a human brain, and that the number of stars in a galaxy, galaxies in the Universe, atoms in a cell, and cells in a living being are all approximately the same large number. This idea that the sum total of everything in the Universe is itself a sentient creature is not new, but what we now know about the 'big bang' and the intervening 13.8 billion years at least lends some weight to the theory.
"Are we all just brain cells in a larger creature, on a planetary scale, that has yet to become self-aware? How would we know? How could we test this?" - Mike Paul Hughes, NASA Engineer
Then there is the all-consuming question, "why am I here?" It is one that can never fully be answered, and likewise, we can never fully understand the neurological processes that make us feel differently when we look at our child and feel love; at a sunrise and feel contentment; at the night sky and feel infinitesimal; or at a spider and feel revulsion (or that your neighbour may look at the same things and feel the opposite).
Perhaps our incessant pondering on why we have consciousness prevents us from the peaceful acceptance of it as just being there, inexorably woven into our physical being.
What if we stopped asking why and simply decided to live our experiences in the moment with acceptance?
In 1907 an experiment was conducted by Dr. Duncan McDougall where he tried to weigh the human soul by placing dying patients on a sensitive scale. He concluded that, at the moment of death, there is a loss in weight of 21 grammes. Does this mean that the 'soul' (or our consciousness) is in fact a physical thing and, if so, where does it go?
Perhaps a step too far for us to contemplate but, just as a reminder to ourselves that to be conscious is to be alive, let's embrace the notion and remain open to all of the sensations that the world and our environment has to offer.
How then is consciousness linked with creativity?
Imagination is irrevocably interconnected with consciousness: the way in which we perceive the world around us and use that information is a construction of the mind that relies on the imagination. We need imagination in order to be creative and to make new things or think of new ideas. 'Imagine' if you will that you had no imagination! You would only be able to create what you had already seen or been exposed to and therefore be incapable of innovation and (ergo) creativity. It's such a neat concept; a perpetual cycle of experience, imagination and creation. It happens of its own free will, without conscious effort but relying completely on our consciousness to achieve it. Without it however, we would be perpetually inert - a horrible thought.
Perhaps the most comforting thing about consciousness is that, even if we feel we struggle to make sense of it or understand it, it is there in all of us waiting to be unmasked and set free. If you can remain open to the idea, harness your consciousness and tap into your imagination and creativity, the combination is very powerful.
“Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.” - George Bernard Shaw