With the emergence of AI chatbots that act like humans, it brings up questions of what consciousness is and can AI have a conscious mind. This article explores what we know about consciousness and provides examples of the conscious mind both in humans and the question of AI having an artificial conscious mind.
“Human intelligence is a marvelous, subtle, and poorly understood phenomenon. There is no danger of duplicating it anytime soon.“Mitch Kapor
- What Is Consciousness And What It Is Not?
- Examples Of The Conscious, Aware Mind And What It “Consumes” When It Is Awake.
- Consciousness As A Narrative Or Stream Of Consciousness.
- Examples Of Our Conscious, Thinking Mind Interacting With Our Attention.
- So How Does Our Conscious, Thinking Mind Operate?
- Conscious Machines: Is AI Conscious And Is It Relevant To Ask?
What Is Consciousness And What It Is Not?
The concept of consciousness has fascinated philosophers, scientists, and artists alike for centuries. But what exactly is consciousness? At its most basic level, consciousness refers to the state of being aware of one’s surroundings, thoughts, and feelings. It is what enables us to experience the world around us and to make sense of our experiences. However, consciousness is not the same thing as intelligence or cognitive ability. Many animals, from dogs to dolphins, display some level of consciousness, but they do not possess the same kind of reasoning skills as humans.
Surprisingly, there are a wide variety of definitions for the word “conscious”. This is because consciousness is not a topic that is settled in the scientific community, the general public, and the emerging AI fields. For the purpose of this article, I’ll use the following definition:
“the state of being awake, aware of what is around you, and able to think:”Cambridge Dictionary
A Deeper Dive Into What Is Conscious And What Is Not.
To get a better understanding of what consciousness is and what it is not, below are some explanations of types of consciousness and comparison of related terms such as self-consciousness and conscience..
1. Other States Of Consciousness.
Besides being “awake”, your brain can be sleeping, dreaming, hallucinating, hypnotized, meditating, and have transcendent spiritual experiences to name a few. So in this article we will not focus on these other types of consciousness. Our focus will be on consciousness that is awake and aware.
2. Degrees Of Consciousness.
Similar to states of consciousness, your brain can have levels of consciousness. Specifically, your brain can be in a coma, vegetative state, minimal conscious, and alert wakefulness. To explain, minimal consciousness is where you can provide simple responses to stimuli like “lift your right hand”, however in this state you are not fully awake, aware of your surroundings, or able to think. Again, the focus of this article is on an “awake” consciousness.
3. Conscious Vs Self-Conscious.
To be self-conscious, you first have to be conscious. Specifically, self-consciousness is how you feel about yourself, how you feel about your body, and your first-person experience (what it is like to be you). Surprisingly, being self-conscious elicits peculiar emotions like shame, pride, guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment. See Unvarnished Facts, Your Weird Self-Conscious Emotions: Shame, Pride, Guilt, Humiliation, And Embarrassment for a more detailed explanation of these self-conscious emotions. Again, our focus in this article will be just on consciousness.
4. Conscious Vs Conscience.
It is easy to confuse these terms, but they are quite different. Conscious is a state of being awake, being aware of your surroundings, and being able to think. On the other hand, when we are referring to a conscience it is the ability to distinguish between right and what is wrong. Now, as part of your conscious “thinking” you will access other resources such as memory and your conscience to analyze and make decisions.
For more information on what consciousness is and what it is not, see Berkeley WellBeing Institute’s Consciousness: Definition, Examples, & Theory and VeryWellMind’s Conscience vs. Conscious: What’s the Difference?. Also, there is an interesting article from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on self-conscience. This includes a study, “Which Primates Recognize Themselves in Mirrors?”, that provides excellent empirical evidence that there are other animals besides humans who have some level of self-consciousness.
“All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.”Immanuel kant
Examples Of The Conscious, Aware Mind And What It “Consumes” When It Is Awake.
There are many examples of the conscious mind being awake and aware. For instance, when you wake up in the morning and become aware of your surroundings, you are experiencing consciousness. When you feel the warmth of the sun on your skin, hear the sound of birds chirping in the distance, or taste the sweetness of a ripe peach, you are experiencing consciousness.
Besides sensing things, your conscious mind can focus on other things. For example, you can recall a memory of high school graduation or feel the emotion of anger when someone calls you a name. So our conscience can “consume” a lot of different types of information and experiences. Specifically, these things and types of information includes:
- Perceptions. Basically, becoming aware of things through your 5 senses.
- Memories. In terms of consciousness, memories are experiences and recollections recalled. Previously, we had collected, processed and stored this information in our memory.
- Fantasies. This is the conscious activity of imagining things, especially things that are impossible or improbable.
- Emotions. A conscious mental reaction (such as anger or fear) subjectively experienced as a strong feeling usually directed toward a specific object and typically accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body.
- Thoughts. These are the ideas or opinions produced by your brain thinking.
For more on what a conscious, aware mind is and what it consumes, see VeryWellMind’s Conscience vs. Conscious: What’s the Difference?.
Consciousness As A Narrative Or Stream Of Consciousness.
“Thinking is conversation with oneself.”Immanuel Kant
Another way to think about consciousness is as a kind of narrative or stream of consciousness. This is the idea that our thoughts and experiences are constantly flowing and changing, creating a kind of ongoing story or narrative that we experience throughout the day. This stream of consciousness can be influenced by external factors like our environment and internal factors like our emotions and desires. Here is an example of a narrative form of writing that parallels the way our consciousness works.
“As I walked down the street, I couldn’t help but notice the vibrant colors of the leaves on the trees. The sun was shining bright and casting a warm glow on everything around me. Suddenly, I heard a loud crash and turned to see a car had collided with a nearby building. People were rushing over to help and I felt my heart racing as I ran towards the scene to see if there was anything I could do.”
Our consciousness works more like a stream of water. Thoughts flow through our conscious mind. It can only hold one thought at a time. It is a non-linear way that our brain works. This conscious narrative includes a lot of free association, looping repetition, and sensory observation.
Examples Of Our Conscious, Thinking Mind Interacting With Our Attention.
“Dare to think!”Immanuel Kant
The conscious, thinking mind is what enables us to reason, create meaning, solve problems, and make decisions. To better understand our consciousness it is key that we understand how it works with our attention. In many aspects, our consciousness controls our attention as we use our consciousness to plan our future, reflect on our past, and make sense of our present. On the other hand, our attention can divert our conscious thoughts just like a stream can take an unexpected turn when it encounters a rock or other object that changes its flow. So basically there are two types of attention that interact with our conscious mind. See below for a description of bottom-up and top-down attention.
Bottom-Up And Top-Down Attention Described.
To best get an understanding of conscious, thinking mind, we need to understand how our attention works. First, below is a basic definition of attention, and second, descriptions of both types of attention.
“the act or state of applying the mind to something”Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Bottom-Up Attention Described.
This type of attention is the quick, unconscious attention we give things without realizing. It is attracted, broadly, by three things: emotional relevance, moving objects and unexpected events. Thus, with bottom-up attention, it will divert our attention until our consciousness can process this new stimulus, and address appropriately. See TheScienceOfPersuasion’s Do I Have Your Attention? Bottom-Up Attention and Neuromarketing for more on bottom-up attention.
Top-Down Attention Described.
This type of attention is more deliberate than bottom-up attention. Rather than being drawn to whatever catches our eye (bottom-up attention), top-down attention is when our mind consciously focuses our attention on something specific.
So in many cases, our conscious mind focuses our attention on things we choose for our own purposes. For example, if you’re at a store looking to buy a black t-shirt, you’ll ignore the brighter colors and shapes around you as you search for your desired black item. See TheScienceOfPersuasion’s Now That I Have Your Attention… Case Study: Top-Down Attention and Package Testing for more on top-down attention.
So How Does Our Conscious, Thinking Mind Operate?
If you are looking for a complete and settled answer on what consciousness is and how it operates, I do not think you will find the answer here or anywhere else. Wikipedia sums up well where we are with understanding consciousness.
“Consciousness, at its simplest, is sentience and awareness of internal and external existence. However, its nature has led to millennia of analyses, explanations and debates by philosophers, theologians, linguists, and scientists.
Opinions differ about what exactly needs to be studied or even considered consciousness. In some explanations, it is synonymous with the mind, and at other times, an aspect of mind. In the past, it was one’s “inner life”, the world of introspection, of private thought, imagination and volition. Today, it often includes any kind of cognition, experience, feeling or perception. It may be awareness, awareness of awareness, or self-awareness either continuously changing or not. The disparate range of research, notions and speculations raises a curiosity about whether the right questions are being asked.”Wikipedia
Examples Of How Our Conscious Mind Thinks.
Below are some examples of how our conscious mind thinks.
1. The Interaction Between Our Consciousness And Our Attention.
Our attention is like a spotlight, working with our consciousness to highlight what is most important or relevant. For example, if you’re driving on a busy highway, your attention will be focused on the road and surrounding cars, while other sensory input, like the music playing on the radio or the conversation in the car, may fade into the background.
2. Our Real-Time Attention Prevents Information Overload.
In another example, our real-time attention prevents information from overloading our consciousness. If you’re trying to follow a conversation in a noisy environment, your attention will focus on the speaker’s voice and the words they’re saying, filtering out other sounds and conversations happening around you. This allows your consciousness to process the information you’re receiving without becoming overwhelmed.
3. Our Consciousness Collects The Relevant Information, Analyzes It, and Makes Decisions.
For example, think about a time when you had to make a decision between two options. Your consciousness will process the information about each option, weigh the pros and cons, and ultimately make a decision based on the information available.
4. Our Consciousness Uses Its Conscience To Make Decisions.
Our conscience uses a variety of criteria in making decisions to include using some form of moral code (what is right and what is wrong). For example, take the case of stealing. If one of your options in a given decision is to steal, but you have a moral code to not steal, you will probably not select stealing as an option.
“The whole interest of my reason, whether speculative or practical, is concentrated in the three following questions: What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope?”Immanuel Kant
Conscious Machines: Is AI Conscious And Is It Relevant To Ask?
One of the most interesting questions surrounding consciousness is whether or not machines can be conscious. While most experts agree that current AI technology is not capable of true consciousness, there is still some debate over whether or not it could be possible in the future. Some argue that consciousness is something that arises from complex computations and patterns, which means that it could potentially be replicated in a machine. However, others argue that consciousness is a highly subjective experience that is impossible to replicate in a non-biological system.
Regardless of what is the best thing to do, the question of AI consciousness is one that will likely continue to be debated in the coming years. For a detailed discussion about AI Consciousness, see my article, With Emerging AI Consciousness Comes The Peril Of AI Rights: Think It’s Time To Worry?
With Emerging AI Consciousness Comes The Peril Of AI Rights: Think It’s Time To Worry?
The mystery of whether machines can ever be conscious is a hot topic. Although today’s AI technology isn’t conscious, some believe AI consciousness could be possible in the near future. The question arises: Is consciousness born from complex calculations, or is it a purely human experience that cannot be replicated in machines? The debate continues.
Click here where I’ll delve into AI consciousness and its potential impact on ethics. Specifically, we will consider if AI merits special moral considerations or rights. I’ll focus the discussion on four key areas: 1) AI mimicking human behavior, 2) AI consciousness versus human consciousness, 3) Can AI fully mimic human consciousness, and 4) should AI have similar rights to humans.Undoubtedly, this quest to uncover the nature of consciousness is a fascinating one!
For more discussion on conscious machines, see DiscoverMagazine’s How Will We Know When Artificial Intelligence Is Sentient?, Schneiderwebsite’s Artificial Intelligence, Conscience, and Moral Status, and HumanFutureOfWork’s Conscious Artificial Intelligence: is it possible?.
To help you cut through the hype, click here for an explanation of what AI is and what it is not. In addition, find out how recent technology advances have allowed AI to be commercialized, and concise examples of Artificial Intelligence and how it is changing our lives.
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