What exactly is consciousness?
When did it start?
And how has it come to be what it is today?
Understanding the origins and history of consciousness is a task that proves itself, well, difficult.
The difficulty lies in the uncertainty. With religious, scientific, philosophical, and psychological answers all being provided across a vast medium of disagreement.
It would seem that even with all the greatest minds of this world devoutly seeking some unified understanding, there still exists a very real, and perhaps inexplicable, dissonance.
However, as a collective, we have at the very least been able to come to this agreement:
Consciousness can be defined, simply, as the act of being aware.
- When did this awareness start?
- And how has it come to be what is today?
Although there are perhaps millions of different ways one may attempt to answer these questions, here, we will isolate our vision through the lens of two distinct categories.
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First, we will touch on the psychology of it all. So as to find ourselves better equipped in the answering of these two questions.
Secondly, we will look at the biology. We will use this science to answer our first question.
Having had done so, coupled with our new background in psychology, we will then discuss our second question.
Our reason for isolating these two subcategories is simple. The information can be presented as a scientifically researched fact. Where religious and philosophical inquisitions leave a rather large availability for the introduction of opinion.
Grasping Consciousness Through Psychology
Let us not, however, fall down a path of presuming simplicity.
Although scientific research does indeed provide us with a certain variant of established fact, the issue of the origins and history of consciousness is still very complex.
Thankfully, the field of psychology presents an abundance of highly intellectual minds who have made it their life’s work to attempt to answer such questions.
We will focus on the work of two of these individuals, specifically:
- David Chalmers
- Graham Little
The ‘easy’ and the ‘hard’ of it with David Chalmers
David Chalmers, in his personal pursuit of understanding the origins and history of consciousness, published a groundbreaking paper in 1994. Where he engages in the complexities of human consciousness by rather simply dividing the multitude of confusion into two straight forward groups.
‘Easy’ problems and ‘hard’ problems.
The easy problems
Where the term easy is used to categorize the subjects of interest which are inherently physical, and thus fall within an entirely empirical boundary of understanding.
How neurons physically fire to engage thought and emotion, for example. Or how a certain structure of memory might specifically create a natural inclination to fear in a given specific scenario.
The hard problems
There then exists one hard problem, according to Chalmers. Why does consciousness occur given a specific necessary adaptation, and even, what is that specific necessary adaptation?
Addressing this point is a mission Graham Little embarks upon, among a few others, in his book The Origin of Consciousness.
The Origin of Consciousness with Graham Little
In a review of this book, Andrea E. Cavanna states,
One of the key steps in the origin of consciousness was the development of the neural capacity to record and group events according to their properties, thereby generating ideas… Therefore the potential for generating ideas provided our species with a definite survival advantage (‘survival through knowledge’).
At some point in our distant evolutionary past, it became biologically beneficial to not only retain memory but to be able to access that memory at will.
Thus allowing a hypothetical pre-human entity to create and apply reason in a given moment.
This would then give birth to what we refer to today as free will.
Somewhere along the lines, then, this hypothetical pre-human entity begins to understand that it is a thing who is making choices.
“I” am the one who is applying reason.
As free will and the concept of “I” embed themselves into one another, consciousness is born.
Andrea E. Cavanna would then go on to state, that because of all this,
Consciousness is a function of the content of the brain, not the mechanism of the brain.
Essentially, consciousness does not distinguish humans.
However, being human does naturally coincide with consciousness.
1. When Did Awareness Start? Biologically Coming To Be
What ultimately brings us to this overlying inquisition on the origins and history of consciousness, however, started long before anything even remotely human.
But how long ago exactly?
The Attention Schema Theory (AST) suggests, “…that consciousness arises as a solution to one of the most fundamental problems facing any nervous system: Too much information constantly flows in to be fully processed.”
And so the question continues, at what precise point did a certain creature begin to face an overload of information?
From here, it would seem most realistic to deduce that there was not necessarily any one specific moment or species that singularly faced such an overload.
Rather, that consciousness developed through a gradual process of acquiring and retaining more and more evolutionarily beneficial information.
A process that is certainly still unfolding, and is perhaps catalyzing itself, through the abundance of information that we find accessible in today’s world.
2. Consciousness Today — How Did We Get Here?
Information, and too much of it. The origin of consciousness.
But, we still want to understand the history of consciousness, and how we have ended up where we are today.
To do this, we must take ourselves back some 300 million years.
Between 300 and 350 million years ago, a rather profound happening began to unfold, as it would pertain to the origins and history of consciousness.
The development of the wulst, or cerebral cortex
As birds and mammals split from a common reptilian ancestor, both began to develop what has been coined a wulst.
In mammals, the development would continue significantly, ultimately becoming what we now refer to as the cerebral cortex.
With the development of the cerebral cortex, so coincides the development of covert attention. Where covert attention refers to, simply put — one’s ability to understand and process information pertaining to something that they are not specifically paying direct attention.
As covertly attentive creatures then begin to develop social groups, the complexities of daily life begin to magnify. Individuals begin to study other individuals, not only in an attempt to understand the other but also in an attempt to understand the self.
The Introduction Of Language
As this process continues to unfold a naturally occurring desire to share the gathered information manifests.
That is, it becomes evolutionarily beneficial to ensure that the entirety of the social group is operating under the same basis of information.
Language is born
The relationship between language and consciousness is often debated, but we can be sure of at least this much: once we developed language, we could talk about consciousness and compare notes.
We could say out loud,
I’m conscious of things. So is she. So is he. So is that damn river that just tried to wipe out my village.
— Michael Graziano
Although we have no way of necessarily knowing exactly when language was developed, we can know that it dates back to at least our earliest written recordings. The Sumerians began recording language as early as 3300 BC.
One could further infer, that in order for a group of individuals to get together, and as a group, move to an entirely new location. That they then must have at the very least possessed some form of language-based communication, such that they could weigh their pros and cons and come to an agreement.
This would take us back around 70 thousand years, when ‘people’ first began to spread across the globe.
Even if we are not entirely sure when exactly it is that language became a common practice, we can hold this certainty nonetheless.
Language is precisely how we have arrived where we are today.
The origins and history of consciousness, have brought us all to a place of questioning and openly discussing said consciousness with one another.
Can you remember a time in your life when you explicitly communicated something to someone, without the use of words or language? Moments like these take us back to our ancestral roots, where the language was perhaps already a thing, long before a coherent vocalization of such had been established. Share these stories with us in the comments below!