We are incredibly complex creatures. We are made up of trillions of cells that work cohesively, yet somehow independently from our everyday thoughts. As incredibly intricate as our anatomy can seem, it pales in comparison with the depths of our mind.
Our complexity is so great that we have long abandoned the idea of describing ourselves as a single being. Instead, we imagine ourselves as multiple entities in order to explain why we think and feel the way we do. We commonly use words like mind, body, heart, or soul to describe a fraction of ourselves and we accept that we can have internal debates between those parts.
There have probably been times in your life when you ignored your “better judgement” to “follow your heart” or decided to “go with your gut.” In these cases, you were presented with a choice and it felt like you had multiple people in your head trying to get you to choose one way or another. Eventually, one of those voices made the most compelling argument and you made that choice.
While effective to illustrate our complexity, these words are fairly poorly defined and there tends to be a lot of crossover. For example, you might have difficulty trying to explain the difference between your “heart” and your “soul” and your explanation might be very different than your friend’s.
The mission of science is to find a common language to describe and explain the world around us. Some scientists have decided to create their own terms to describe the duality of the human experience. Sigmund Freud, a neurologist who created a new science called psychoanalysis in the 1930s, coined the terms “ego” and “id” and “superego.” Paul D. MacLean, a neuroscientist and physician, came up with the term “lizard brain” in the 1960s to explain our internal dichotomy.
While neither of these thinkers is necessarily wrong in their method of categorization, I would like to present you with another view on the subject. Similar to many others, I prefer to view the human mind as two parts. However, there is a lot of overlap between these two parts since one was born from the other. I use the terms consciousness and the Organism.
The biggest difference between my dichotomy and the categories of the scientists and thinkers who came before me is the fluidity of my model. Instead of creating rigid definitions of which brain processes fit into specific categories, the consciousness can be interpreted as a bubble of energy that flows throughout the framework of the Organism. In other words, the Organism existed first and the consciousness moves throughout the brain like you would move throughout your house. You aren’t tied to any room or piece of furniture, but you have the ability to move between rooms and rearrange the furniture if you choose.
Let’s stick with the house metaphor for a moment. You are only one person and you don’t have the ability to be in every room in your house at the same time. You are therefore limited to be in one room at a time, or perhaps in the doorway between two rooms. You could even set up a few cameras and somewhat exist in multiple rooms, though you couldn’t interact with what you see until you physically move into that room. Similarly, the consciousness is limited as it bounces throughout the nervous system of the Organism.
The consciousness is a product of the internal communication system of the Organism. We aren’t exactly sure how it came to exist and it’s even possible that its existence was totally unintended. However, any computer programmer will tell you that a bug in the code that does something helpful isn’t a bug at all, it’s a feature!
Since the Organism existed first, we’ll come back to consciousness in a little bit. Reading the words “internal communication system of the Organism” probably felt a bit strange to you. You probably don’t think about your brain as a computer with wires spreading throughout your body. As I said before, your anatomy is very complex and is made up of many, many, MANY independent parts. The best way to think about your Organism is like a city.
Take a moment and look at your fingernails. Do you see those little lines? Each line is a hair and the nail is many hairs fused together thanks to a sturdy protein in the cells that make up those hairs. As you can see, it takes many hairs to make a single nail.
Now take a look at one of your hairs. Maybe pull one out or just look at it if it’s long enough to pull in front of your eyes. Although a single hair seems very thin, I want you to imagine it in a super zoomed in view. Consider a medieval tower that always seems to be holding a princess as prisoner in fairy tales. If a single one of your hairs is the entire tower, each brick in the tower would be a cell. As you can probably guess, there are a lot of cells that make up a single one of your hairs and there are a lot of hairs that cover your head.
Now look closely at the back of your hand. You should be able to see lines in all different directions making various triangular shapes. If you can imagine your hairs as towers with many bricks, you can easily imagine your skin as a massive wall all around your body. This wall is multiple layers deep to make sure everything on the outside stays out and everything on the inside stays in. The lines you see are cracks in the outside layers of the wall that help the wall to be flexible enough to cover your constantly moving body.
Underneath the walls are solid “sticks” that hold you up and give you structure. These are also made up of many, many cells that maintain the rigid structure of your bones.
Your bones are able to move around because of string-like cells that bundle and bundle and bundle again. These “strings” pull on the bones in order to move them around. The reason they bundle is because bones are filled with calcium which makes them strong but heavy. Think about playing a game of tug-o-war: the more people you have pulling, the less energy each person has to exert. Even the simplest movement of your finger requires the combined effort of a massive team of muscle cells pulling in unison.
Just like you can’t do your job unless you get paid enough to afford healthy food, your muscles need energy to do their job of moving you around. The muscles throughout your body need resources from the food you eat and the air you breathe. However, your muscles can’t go home at night and stop by the grocery store to pick up their nutrients. Instead, your body has an internal transport system to deliver nutrients throughout the whole “city.” You have about 60,000 miles (100,000 km) of “roads” throughout your body that your many blood cells drive along to drop off resources and pick up waste.
Instead of assigning each blood cell a mission like a pizza delivery driver, nutrients are just tossed into the transport system and body cells take what they need based on what is available. This is the reason your whole body can feel weak if you don’t eat enough or only eat junk food.
Some nutrients can only be picked up by certain body cells as a method of simple communication throughout the “city.” Molecules like hormones are addressed to specific parts of the body and make their way through the transport system with other nutrients like a mail truck.
As you can imagine, a city that is only connected by letters through the mail runs pretty slowly and some information might not make it to the right department in time to do anything about it. Luckily, our modern cities have developed a way to send information much quicker with the use of electricity. We can now send a message to any part of our cities, or our planet, within seconds thanks to telephones and the Internet. However, we aren’t the first to use electricity in this way.
Over millions of years of evolution, our “internal cities” developed a way to quickly transmit information to the proper departments in order to better survive. A fast-paced internal communication system is bound to develop in the cutthroat world of nature. If you are walking along and something lunges out of the bushes to bite your leg, it would be much more helpful to quickly tell your leg muscles to get out of the way rather than wait for S.O.S. letters from the dying cells. It is especially important since a bad enough bite can cause your messenger cells to leak out of the city entirely. Those without quick reactions would surely die, so the organisms that developed lightning-fast internal communication survived and thrived.
Similar to telephone wires spanning throughout our modern cities, our bodies developed their own form of wires called neurons that spanned throughout the body. These neurons adapted to detect specific types of stimulus and then send signals to a centralized hub of neurons. The centralized hub would then send a signal elsewhere, usually to the movement cells to react to whatever was being detected.
For example, stepping on something sharp would send a signal of pain to the centralized hub which would then send a signal to the muscles to lift the foot off of the sharp object. While this speedy communication system is great for helping the organism avoid damage, it had much more to offer.
If the hearing neurons detected a rustle in the bushes, the centralized hub would cause the muscles of the neck to turn in order to make that area of sound available to the sight neurons. This gave a huge advantage to our ancestors who could now prepare themselves to find food or avoid becoming food before the danger was too close.
The internal communication system connected to the digestive system to instruct those cells to prepare for incoming food when the smelling neurons told the centralized hub that there was food nearby. The system also connected to the heart to cause blood to be pumped faster throughout the body so that muscles could gain more nutrients in a quicker time. This is especially helpful if the muscles need to be used to fight or flee from danger. Running and fighting take much more energy than simply walking which means the muscles need more resources.
The “centralized hub” of the internal communication system is also called the brain, although there is significant evidence to say that the brain is merely an extension of the spinal cord. For this reason, the brain as it’s usually pictured, the wrinkled pink thing in your skull, should be thought of as only a portion of our centralized communication hub. While the brain in your head is certainly the most concentrated portion of neurons in the body, it is not the only part of the Organism that can hold the consciousness. Yes, we’re finally getting back to the consciousness!
The consciousness is you. You are born as an organism but the consciousness is the part of you that is really you. This is a bit confusing at first glance but I’ll clarify with an adorable example. On the Internet, you can find many adorable pictures and videos of dogs and cats. We love these animals because they’re “like people” but not exactly.
Our pets, like us, are products of their biology and their upbringing. Because of this, you can easily find examples of dogs who act like cats because they were raised with cats or cats who act like dogs because they were raised with dogs. There is even a cat that walks like a horse because it was learned from watching its “brothers and sisters.”
In these cases, the animal acting like a different animal doesn’t know what kind of animal it is. It is simply trying to discover the world around it and how to behave; the animal is merely learning from those around it. It isn’t the Organism that has dictated how the animal will act, it’s the consciousness.
The internal communication system of an Organism is able to quickly detect and react to stimulus because it uses electricity to send signals. This means that when a signal is being sent, that portion of the communication system is “engaged.” The consciousness is the term I use to describe the parts of the communication system that is currently engaged.
When you put on a shirt in the morning, the neurons in your skin feel the shirt touching you. After a few moments, those neurons stop signaling and your thoughts move to other things, likely your other morning rituals. If you are riding to school or work and have to go to the bathroom, it might be constantly on your mind. If you get into an interesting conversation on the way, you might forget about having to go to the bathroom entirely. This is proof that your consciousness is limited.
Our earlier example of you in your house serves as a way to show that you are limited to only being in one place at a time. The consciousness is the engaged neurons and there is only so much it can hold onto at a time. If you’ve ever tried to multitask before, you know that you do a better job when you are focused than when you are distracted. This is because your limited consciousness can only split itself so much.
The consciousness is born within the Organism as a way to take better care of the Organism. While some functions, like your breathing or heartbeat, happen automatically, other activities are best when planned out. If you make yourself a big meal, it is better to consciously choose to save half of it for a later time instead of eat it all now. Similarly, it might be good to go to bed early one night if you know you have to get up early the next morning. The consciousness can act as the “adult” in the relationship between it and the Organism.
Humans are unique among other animals because of the “size” of our consciousness. Consciousness is merely the energy of currently active neurons so more energy means “bigger” consciousness. There is only so much information that you can detect and perceive through your senses, so the extra energy of your consciousness is able to freely move throughout the framework of the brain to access memory banks and create ideas.
The Organism has adapted to store incoming information into memory neurons but the consciousness has access to all that memory and the ability to combine information from memory to create new information. For example, you can probably picture the image of a bicycle as well as the color green. Maybe you’ve seen a green bicycle before but even if you haven’t, you can combine the ideas already stored in your memory to create a new image.
Psychologists call this portion of your consciousness the “working memory” and represent it like a workbench where you can lay out all your ideas to piece together in any way you choose. The most creative people are ones who have the ability to see a limited amount of information in a different way than other people. Instead of using the workbench analogy, I like to imagine consciousness as a bubble of energy that can flow throughout the brain.
Think about your toes. Wiggle the big toe of your right foot. Your consciousness just flowed through your body all the way to the muscles that control your right big toe. Now think about your eyebrows. Your consciousness moved to your eyebrows; maybe you raised them slightly. In the process, your consciousness moved away from your toes. If you’ve ever tried to pat your head and rub your belly, you know that it can take a lot of concentration to switch what you’re doing.
It can be fun to play with the limitations of your consciousness, but it can also be frustrating. If you get too busy in your day to remember to eat lunch or drink water, you might kick yourself at the end of the day when you find yourself weak or irritable from hunger or thirst. Sometimes we can plan too much in our day to remember to take care of ourselves. We are only one person, after all.
On the other hand, our consciousness can sometimes be too great for the simple tasks we have at hand, especially if they are repetitive tasks. When we repeat a task, or thought, the neurons that are used are wrapped in an insulating sheath. This insulation helps to repair from any damage done to the neuron; you have lightning shooting through your cells.
As a happy accident, a neuron that has been insulated takes less energy to activate again. Eventually, the consciousness doesn’t even need to be present to perform an action. You probably don’t think “right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot…” when you walk. I call this concept automation, and it basically means that the Organism can perform that function independently of the consciousness.
Automation can be an incredibly useful ability since it frees up the consciousness to think about other things. Perhaps your job requires you to do something over and over again. Once you repeat the task a few times, you can have conversations with your coworkers while you work; maybe you can even innovate a way to do your job more efficiently.
The dark side of automation comes when many aspects of our lives become too trivial for our consciousness to get involved and it feels like we are sleepwalking through our days. Without stimulation, our consciousness can zone out or wander off into our imaginations. We can take our lives for granted or we can become complacent with the good we have. Even worse, we can spend time thinking about the things we don’t have.
The powerful consciousness of a human is what has allowed our species to create the society that exists today. Our ancestors have used this power to innovate new ways to change the world around us in order to benefit themselves and the people who would come after them. However, that same power can be used against us. In the same way that we can imagine new inventions and ways to improve our lives, we can overanalyze our own lives and compare ourselves to unrealistic expectations.
A common saying is “ignorance is bliss” and it’s the reason so many of our pets are perpetually happy when spending time with us. They focus on what exists in that moment: a chance to hang out with their best friend in the world. The human consciousness is more powerful and has the power to pull up memories of past events or imagine future scenarios. This can be helpful to learn from our mistakes or plan out goals we hope to achieve, but only when we observe the past and future with no expectations or judgement. There is no such thing as “supposed to” or “should have.”
The consciousness was born within the Organism where many functions were already automated. Functions like hunger and sexual drive existed long before the consciousness which is why a person listening to that impulse might act irrationally or rudely to other people.
We can feel stressed or fearful of events that have nothing to do with our physical safety but since the Organism existed first, it will prepare itself to fight off or flee from any danger. This can become a problem when you’re stressing about an upcoming project for weeks on end since the stress function is only meant to last a few minutes before it starts causing problems throughout the body.
The consciousness is limited but any neurons that activate within the Organism have the ability to be accessed by the consciousness. When you are trying to make a decision, it can feel like you are torn and there is a vigorous debate occurring in your mind between two or more voices. These are simply thoughts that are “entering” your consciousness in order to help you make the best choice. If these thoughts come at you in the form of words, then your consciousness is accessing the language center first; although you probably know that your thoughts don’t always come to you in complete sentences with proper grammar.
It’s common to think of thoughts that enter your consciousness as messages from some outside source instead of our own ideas. It can also be common to think of your brain as split between two sides like your “left brain” and “right brain.” However, the fluid consciousness model proves that there can be an infinite amount of “voices” in your mind that seem to come from everywhere. The consciousness perceives these ideas as it is pulled throughout the brain based on which neurons are activating.
The consciousness is a perceiver, though it can send signals to the Organism to perform actions to affect the outside world. Communicating with other people by speaking or writing is a translation of your ideas through the Organism and it is translated again when another person sees or hears what you do or say. It is the Organism that has the ability to interact with the world we live in; the consciousness is just along for the ride.
While the consciousness cannot affect its surroundings, it is not limited to the Organism from which it came. If you’ve ever watched a movie or read a book, you know that you can consciously be in a place completely different than your body. When you empathize with someone, you choose to separate your consciousness from its usual place in your life and adopt a new life for a few moments.
The Organism is a selfish creature; it’s a necessary trait when it comes to survival. Because of that selfishness, the most fundamental part of the consciousness is the idea of self. We are constantly learning from the world around us and our experiences in that world. We relate new information back to memories we have already made. Maybe a stranger reminds you of your dad or a building reminds you of a picture you saw a few weeks ago. We always relate incoming information to our own experiences in order to make sense of the world. The combination of all your experiences is called your perspective and it is the lens that our consciousness uses to view the world.
If you were born in a city and drove out to the countryside, you might be excited to see cows and open fields. If you were born in the country, those cows might seem mundane to you compared with the huge concrete buildings in the city. Truth is that a cow is a cow and an open field is an open field; the only difference between the view of a city slicker and a farmhand is their perspective.
The reason we see babies as innocent creatures is because they have not developed a perspective yet. They are organisms with a “blank” consciousness that is ready and yearning to discover the world around them. The curiosity of children allows them to shape their perspectives rapidly and eventually we see a unique personality arise. However, before anything has acted on a child to shape their perspective, their consciousness is identical.
The dogs who act like cats and cats who act like dogs are perfect examples of how the consciousness starts off as a blank slate. We are born into the bodies of a human and we are bound to abide by the limitations of the Organism when it comes to functions like hunger or fear. The Organism that our consciousness inhabits is shaped by nature; the rest of who we are is up to our individual experience in this world.
It is important to learn about your Organism so you can imagine a plan for your life and go about achieving it. Think of your Organism as a vehicle that you need to drive around this world. Sometimes the car has a bad clutch and you learn how to push it just right to make the car run like a dream. If you didn’t take the time to get used to working with your specific vehicle, you could lose control and crash. You are stuck with your Organism for your entire life; you exist because of it and you have to take care of it to keep on existing.
Learning the basics is a great start, but you’ll have to spend time with your own Organism to understand why you do the things you do and why you think the way you think. The Organism is more than just a shell you pilot around, you start programming it the moment you come into this world and your early programming greatly affects your later programming. Be patient with yourself and listen to the Organism when it tries to talk to you; it will speak if you are willing to listen.
While we are all the same species, we are all very different in terms of perspective. However, the consciousness of each person started out identically. When we take the time to peel away what makes us different, our similarities are glaringly obvious. Once we realize how similar we all are, we can help each other become the best version of ourselves. The person you become is in your hands.