What is Consciousness?

JoAnna Bennett

JoAnna Bennett, O’Brien Communications Group

June 13, 2024

A neuroscientist, an ethologist, a gardener, and a philosopher, walk into a bar. The bartender lets them know there are only two choices this evening: a Mind Eraser shot, or a Brain Hemorrhage shot. The neuroscientist ordered a Mind Eraser as she was hoping to become unconscious this evening. The ethologist also chooses a Mind Eraser as he had been tired of being aware of his surroundings. The gardener opted for a Brain Hemorrhage simply because he loved Peach Schnapps. And the philosopher asked for a glass of water with lemon, as she was hoping to finally get to the bottom of their ongoing debate. What is consciousness? And why hasn’t a non-subjective definition been identified yet?

The Neuroscientist

Tarama Jones had been interested in brains since her father bought her a plushie anatomy set at age two. She was immediately drawn to the blue brain plushie and slept with it each night. As she aged, she requested all kinds of brain books and watched as many YouTube videos as her parents would allow on the topic. It was no surprise she became a neuroscientist. Brains were her thing. What was her stance on consciousness? Well, she knew it was made up from activities in the brain. It was an intimate dance between the brain’s arousal and the overall response from external stimuli. Consciousness is a function of the brain, how well it works, and what it accomplishes. Tarama is as sure of this definition as she is sure of the location of your amygdala.

The Ethologist

James Karmal loved animals. As a child, he never captured or caged a living creature. But he would sit in his back yard for hours watching the ants, bees, squirrels, birds, and his beloved dog, Bennie. He loved watching their behavior and if he laid still for long enough, most of the creatures forgot he was there and he could observe their very essence. When he grew up, he thought he’d be a veterinarian, until he discovered ethology. For him, consciousness wasn’t so easy to define. He knew that Tarama could speak to her beloved brain-operating humans and so for her she could test her theories more easily. However, James couldn’t simply ask his beloved animals the questions he needed answered. He had to infer their answers based on his observations. But he knew that even his lab rats were aware of their existence in the world. Their metacognition could not be denied.

The Gardener

Jesse Romano was a master gardener. He loved plants. When he was a child, his Nonno would take him out back into the garden and teach him all about the trees and crops. They would grow their food in the Spring and Summer each year and even can the excess to be used throughout the Winter. The plants in the garden were a part of Nonno’s life. He had brought some of the trees over from Italy when he emigrated to the United States. And Jesse knew when his Nonno would touch the bark of the trees or the tomatoes on the vine, he was viscerally connected with the living creatures. This was a bond Jesse was able to replicate as he followed in his Nonno’s footsteps. And while Jesse agreed with Tarama, plants did not have brains. He did not agree with Tarama that because of that plants weren’t conscious. Jesse knew that the plants were able to learn and make decisions on how they would grow and where. They knew what their surroundings were, and they made specific choices to ensure their survival.  Jesse knew that plants were conscious.

The Philosopher

Iris Insegnante had no idea what to do next. Tarama, James, and Jesse had begun arguing once more about consciousness while ironically on the brink of unconsciousness. She had hoped by remaining sober, she’d be able to iron out the true meaning of consciousness, but it didn’t seem they were any closer to a consensus. Tarama was positive that plants couldn’t be conscious, but she was beginning to believe that some specific animals were able to qualify for her definition of consciousness. James knew it took more than mere metacognition to be conscious. He had observed many bugs and reptiles that he would stamp with his consciousness approval. And Jesse didn’t want to argue anymore. He knew the peace he felt surrounded by his plants. And he knew their worth and intelligence. He was certain they were conscious.

And Iris just sat there and pondered. Perhaps the beauty of consciousness was its subjective nature after all. Just as we all have different experiences of the world, we also have different experiences of consciousness. She thinks of what Albert Camus – a French philosopher – wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, “For everything begins with consciousness and nothing is worth anything except through it.”

Perhaps finding the non-subjective definition wasn’t important. Perhaps merely coming together as a group of intelligent friends debating our ideas was more valuable than the definition. To Iris, consciousness was her awareness of being here, in the bar, with the people she cared most about. It was about listening to their experiences and appreciating them. It was about Tarama’s beloved brains, James’s fabulous fauna, and Jesse’s perceptive plants. It was about the beauty in the debate.

Leaving the bar, the group laughed as they got into the Uber. Iris had remained temperant as well as grateful for the night she shared with her friends. And she knew while she may have remained the only one utterly conscious of the night, she knew the laughter and camaraderie made her more alive, both in her mind and in the world.