AWARENESS

What awareness is not

To clarify what awareness is, first a distinction has to be made between awareness and other phenomena that are easily confused with it.

Awareness is different from mental processes such as thoughts, images, sensations, emotional reactions etc. The Ancient Greeks had separate terms for awareness (psyche) and mental activity (pneuma), yet this difference is obscured nowadays. Some philosophers and neuro-scientists (e.g. G. E. Moore, Baars) have recognised though, that they cannot be treated as the same thing. Grossman, for example, writes: ‘We can introspectively discriminate between the contents of consciousness and the quality of being conscious' (in Bogen, 1998, p.237). Libet makes the same point: ‘The content of an awareness can be anything. But being aware is a unique phenomenon in itself, independent of the nature of the particular content in awareness' (2004, p.188). To preserve this distinction, the term consciousness is used throughout the text for all the mind activities (of which some comprise the materials of awareness). Awareness, on the other hand, does not refer to any specific mental processes, but to that which enables the self to relate to them. An analogy can be made with a movie projection: everything that is on the screen can be considered consciousness, while awareness would be the equivalent of the projector light that is not a part of the movie, but enables whatever is on the screen to be visible. Another parallel can be made with a torch that casts light on various objects. If what is lit by the torch comprises consciousness, awareness is the light from the torch (and like a torch, it cannot illuminate all the objects at the same time).

Awareness cannot be identified with sensory perception either. Rather, it refers to the effects that perception has on that which is aware, establishing the relation between the subject and the perceptual representations. In fact, we do not need to perceive to be aware (as, for example, in dreams)[1]. Awareness of our thoughts, emotions, feelings and other mental states is also a direct experience not mediated by the senses. By the same token, some perceptual sensations can escape awareness (e.g. we may not be aware of all the details in a picture we are looking at, although our brain receives them).

  • [1]. This was recognised a long time ago. For example, the following rhetorical question can be found in Vedanta: ‘Impressions arise from light, but during a dream no light from outside enters the body. So, what is that light that creates images that we see in dreams?'

What awareness is

Awareness is the crucial concept for a proper understanding of reality, because the only certainty is that one is aware (it does not matter of what: sensations, thoughts, external reality, feelings, or anything else). The usual translation of Descartes' famous dictum ‘Cogito ergo sum', as ‘I think, therefore I am' is somewhat off the mark. Being aware (of my mental processes among other things) rather than thinking, is the evidence that I exist. It seems that Descartes' himself recognised the importance of awareness, given his definition in the Principles of Philosophy: ‘By the term "thought" I understand everything which we are aware of as happening within us, in so far as we have awareness of it' (in Güzeldere, 1995, p.45). So, the claim ‘I am aware, therefore I am' may be more appropriate[2]. This puts awareness in its proper place, as being one of the two fundamental properties (the other being intent) of the focused energy. As the gravitational field is a property of matter, awareness can be considered a property of life. Being a fundamental property, awareness cannot be defined by using other, more basic terms. For all practical purposes, however, awareness can be described as an ability to illuminate to the self some of the materials that comprise consciousness[3].

 

The purpose of awareness

Awareness is necessary for life. The soul feeds on information and experience, which is what we are aware of, and the function of awareness is to enable this process of subjectivisation (or appropriation). In other words, the energy is assimilated through the process of transforming it into information and experience. Moreover, agency, or voluntary action, would not be possible without awareness, every action would only be a reflex re-action (which would make human beings and other life forms automata). The self can affect only what it is (or has been) aware of. So, as awareness grows, the amount of energy that is under the influence and control of the self grows too.

 

The functioning of awareness

Direct awareness of reality may be possible, but it is impractical (for the reasons described below) and short lived. Normally, the materials of awareness are first mediated by the senses, nervous system and the brain, and then by mental constructs. Electro-chemical processes in the brain create waves or oscillations on a particular frequency. These carrier waves provide most of the content of awareness. There are strong indications that synchronisation of neuronal activity at the frequency range of 35-70 Hz can be associated with awareness[4]. When in a deep sleep, for example, these waves are not present. The body can react to changes in the surroundings (e.g. temperature variations), without any awareness. However, when the brain starts producing these waves the self becomes aware - with a sensory input (when awake) or without (in dreams[5]). So, awareness depends, first of all, on the frequency, although, of course, other factors, such as the recurrence of a particular neural activity, also play a role.

Even the awareness of processes in one's own soul is normally linked to the same band of frequencies that are produced in the brain. Hence, such awareness is usually limited to phenomena that are associated with experiences in physical life, rather than to the rest of the soul or non-material reality. The focus is maintained within a certain range by the intensity of physical stimuli and habituation (in other words, it is largely biologically and to some extent socially conditioned). This is not to say that awareness can function only within the above range, but that the perception of reality is fixed because the range of frequencies within which awareness operates is fixed by these factors. Therefore, transpersonal experiences that require expanding awareness beyond usual perception, can be facilitated by reducing the input from the senses and the brain (without losing awareness). So, sensory deprivation, the hypnagogic state (between being awake and falling asleep), or meditation, can all be conducive in this respect.

  • [2]. The state of deep sleep or unconsciousness does not count in this case, because one cannot make any judgements when in these states. True, they can be confirmed by somebody else, but the person involved can legitimately doubt that the other person really exists (‘perhaps I am only dreaming shim'), while s/he cannot reasonably doubt that s/he is aware, when s/he is aware.
  • [3]. The above refers to the usual use of this ability. It is possible in some instances to become aware of reality directly rather then mediated by mental constructs (such as images and thoughts), but these can be considered as exceptional cases.
  • [4]. Relating these synchronous oscillations in the brain to conscious experience (the temporal binding of various sensory features) is attributed to Koch and Crick. More than a hundred years earlier though, Payton Spence came to the same conclusion based on purely theoretical work. A neurophysiologist from that period, M. M. Graver, followed it up experimentally and found that mental activity is sub-served by a cerebral oscillatory mechanism with the frequency of 36-60Hz. Their work passed almost unnoticed. It seems typical that Crick is accredited for the work already initiated by somebody else (the other case is the largely unacknowledged contribution of Rosalind Franklin to the discovery of the DNA structure).
  • [5]. It is interesting that these episodes of awareness occur, as a rule, several times during sleep, as if it is not desirable to suspend awareness for prolonged periods. Why they seem to happen in regular time intervals is not clear.

The direction of awareness

Broadly speaking, there are three common domains of awareness[6]:

The physical domain: awareness of the physical phenomena, including one's own body.

The mental domain: awareness of mental states and processes (e.g. thoughts, images and other constructs, related to oneself and external reality).

The non-physical domain: awareness of some processes in one's own soul (e.g. being open, being in one's depth) or in the souls of others that are usually experienced as a feeling, but can also be perceived as a shape, colour, or movement.

 

The self can be aware of information from all these domains, but the signals coming through the brain (the physical domain) are on the whole the strongest. The intensity of the information from this domain screens out, to some extent, potential information from the other domains. Furthermore, the mental processes (e.g. thoughts, images) are also more intense than the processes in the soul, so the latter are often concealed by both, sensory perception and mental activity. Hence, even though they are more direct, sensations from the non-physical domain are normally recognised only if those mediated by the brain and mind are not prominent, because they are not as strong and clear as the other ones. Nevertheless, despite being usually clogged up by the stronger stimuli, some materials from this domain are attainable. Intending to become aware of them and bracketing information coming from the other domains,  maximise the chance of this happening. These two (intending and bracketing) are also sufficient, no special techniques are required.

In addition, awareness can be directed towards external reality or internal reality. The latter can be called self-awareness, which is awareness of the system with which the self identifies, commonly referred to as ‘I'. It includes awareness of some processes in one's body, mind and soul (the effects of experiences on its dynamics). Self-awareness is sometimes taken to be a uniquely human ability, but this claim is dubious. Animals can also be aware of themselves (that they are in pain or hungry, for instance). They, however, are not capable of reflection and self-reflection, which requires not only self-awareness, but also mental distance. What enables this distancing and why it is uniquely human, will be discussed later in the text (see Constructs).

  • [6]. The transpersonal domain (awareness via non-material reality including so called mystical experiences or shamanic journeys) is not included because it is rather exceptional.

Restricting awareness

When not restricted by the body and mind, the soul potentially has a wider awareness, but such a wide awareness is difficult to organise and contain. Awareness of all the potential information in each of the above domains would not be practical. Too many stimuli may, in fact, decrease awareness. Making sense out of disparate pieces of information would be harder without some restrictions. So, to minimise confusion and overload, there are mechanisms that limit the quality and quantity of experience and information accessible to awareness. In other words, potential information passes through several filters before it becomes actual information. This narrowing enables paying attention to details and organisation, which in turn allows gradual development. Awareness can be restricted in the following ways:

 

Limiting potential materials

First of all, materials that are accessible to awareness are limited depending on their source. These limitations can be grouped in three categories:

Limits of perception - potential information about physical reality and the body are restricted by the limitations of the sensory apparatus and nervous system. The 19th century philosopher and psychologist Henri Bergson was not much off the mark when he suggested that ‘perhaps our senses are intended to keep things out, rather than to let them in'. Indeed, they do not register at all many signals (for instance, those on the frequency of infra-red light). Also, some signals are not intense enough, and some are overrun by stronger stimuli.

Limits of the mind - the mind is not only narrower than the brain (there are processes in the brain that never become a part of consciousness), but it imposes its own limitations. The main purpose of the mind is to construct reality out of experiences and available information, which implies selectivity. Also, in time, many pieces of information become inaccessible (because they are blocked or because an associative path is lost).

Limits of the soul - only a part of the soul is related, at any point, to a physical or mental life. We are normally aware of experiences connected just to this part. Furthermore, awareness of the processes in the soul depends on their intensity and their relative position within the energy field. For example, awareness seems to increase with a decrease of density (that allows a greater momentum), which is why becoming aware of something is generally associated with bringing it to the ‘surface'. In other words, the deeper processes are, the harder it is to become aware of them.

 

Limiting awareness itself

Awareness is characterised by selectivity which is demonstrated by the fact that only a few of the myriad of neural events are illuminated, and these few are arranged hierarchically. Eccles writes:

The self-conscious mind has to select. We'd be overloaded by information if at any moment we had to take notice of everything that was poured into all our senses. This is perhaps one of the very important reasons for the operation of the self-conscious mind and its evolution... It gives a selection or a preference from the total operative performance of the neural machinery. (Popper and Eccles, 1977, p.475)

 

This selection is achieved by amplifying some signals at the expense of others, possibly through the process of positive feedback (see, for example, Harth, 1993).

Awareness is a complex phenomenon, closely related to short and long term memory, which makes the matter even more complicated. Three distinct states (but with fuzzy boundaries between them) can be distinguished in relation to the focus of awareness: being unaware of what is received; being aware only superficially (floating awareness that scans incoming stimuli without ascribing meaning to them); and being fully aware (focused), which enables constructing and memorising the available materials.

Non-awareness - we are not aware of everything we receive. One simple example has already been mentioned. If you are sitting right now, you are most likely oblivious to the sensations that are the result of your body being in contact with the chair until you turn attention to them, yet they are always present. Similarly, you are usually aware of only a few elements that are in your visual field at any time. Filtering or ignoring some potential information is necessary, so that awareness can be freed to focus on what is new, important or interesting. For this selection procedure, the existing constructs (based on previous experiences and other forms of knowledge) are normally used as a template with which the immediate experience is compared. Information congruent with what is expected can be ignored. These corresponding constructs are brought up automatically (on the basis of expectation and recognition). On the level of mind, some potential pieces of information are accessible, but awareness is simply not focused on them. Structured activities such as writing or driving, for example, are usually automatic and ignored by awareness (unless a novel element is introduced). Awareness is, therefore, narrower than both, perception and consciousness. By the same token, certain available processes in the soul may be ignored too (we may not feel them).

Divergent awareness (sometimes called peripheral awareness) - awareness often ‘floats' loosely, which is why we can become aware of unexpected information. Those materials that are insignificant or match what is already structured or expected are filtered, so we are only superficially aware of them (meaning that we do not pay attention, do not focus on them). As above, this comparing and filtering is mostly an automatic process, the parameters, ‘commands' are pre-defined. However, it is important to bear in mind that the template (to take the case of visual perception) does not consist of the exact images of objects or movements  but of the ideas of objects and movements. For example, if we walk down a familiar street we normally ignore most of the information. This is possible not because we have ever seen exactly the same scene before; cars and pedestrians change all the time. Nevertheless, we can ignore most of them because we are familiar with that scene on the basis of an heuristically formed idea of what to expect. Only orientation pointers (necessary to direct an activity such as walking) are briefly in focus, while the rest remain on the periphery.

 

Convergent awareness involves attention and concentration. Attention is an ability to focus on a particular object, while concentration is the ability to maintain awareness on the object of attention. Therefore, attention is essentially a type of intention. An intent directs awareness by creating tension that is resolved by a matching set of information (a corresponding form). Elements that are similar to the pieces of information contained in what is looked for will enter our awareness. For example, if we are trying to find the keys with a yellow key-ring, any small yellow piece will attract our attention. Of course, other factors, besides our intentions, can influence this focusing and directing of awareness. Here are the most important ones:

Intensity: its influence is determined by a variable threshold that depends on a general degree of sensitivity, tension or competing stimuli.

Novelty, unexpectedness (e.g. appearance of an unusual colour, movement, shape, sound, smell etc., or recognition that something familiar is missing): information that does not match expectations and requires re-structuring or expanding of the existing constructs.

Interestingness is another (subjectively determined) attractor. The element involved may not be necessarily novel, as in the case of when something is perceived from a different perspective.

Importance ascribed in advance to a potential piece of information. One familiar situation in which this factor plays a role is so-called ‘cocktail party' phenomenon: you are attending to a conversation at a party, but suddenly become aware that your name is mention somewhere else in what was just a background noise a moment earlier.

Expanding and development

Expanding awareness

The expansion of awareness means an increase of either the variety (quality) or the amount of information and experience, and the ability of the self to hold them together. This is achieved by grouping (organising, structuring) existing materials, which enables adding new ones. The main function of consciousness is connecting various pieces of information and creating such a network of energy configurations. The brain and mental constructs play an important role in this respect. So, the expansion of awareness depends on the ability of the mind to receive, organise and store information, and on the amount of neuro-connections established in the brain, which is enhanced through their use.

 

The development of awareness

Awareness is first restricted by the body to the point at which the energy can be organised and managed. It only slowly expands through biological evolution, and later on social and individual development. Thus, at the beginning awareness is narrow, and then it gradually increases. Animals are generally more aware than plants, and humans are more aware than animals. The flip side, however, is that awareness of the non-material domain normally decreases throughout this process. This is because the  better constructed reality is, the more difficult it is to perceive beyond the constructs.

Some possible questions

What is the difference between focusing waves with the pupil of the eye for example (which does not produce awareness), and with the self?

The eye is a part of the material world, while the self is not, so it is not surprising that they function differently. Awareness is a property of focused energy that enables the formation of loops with which new pieces of information interact, leading sometimes to their integration. On the other hand, an eye pupil is a mechanical instrument, acting like a window that enables some light waves to pass through.

 

Is that what enables awareness the same as that what is aware (these two may be different, the eyes enable us to see, but they do not see)?

The soul and self can be only in theory considered as separate entities. In reality they are not. So, what enables awareness and what is aware is the soul-self system.

 

If awareness is linked to a particular frequency, how are its materials  differentiated?

As the individual instruments of an orchestra are differentiated in a radio transmission, although they all arrive in a ‘parcel' of the same frequency (a carrier wave).

 

What happens when we are unconscious?

As long as a soul is connected to the body, awareness responds to the brain waves and depends on the brain for its content. In a similar vein, as long as we look at the screen we depend on the film in the projector for the content. The self is in a position that focuses waves of a particular frequency, produced by neuronal activity. In other words, a self focuses pieces of information that are on the frequency it is tuned to. If there is no information on that frequency, if the brain is inactive in this respect, but the self remains in the same position (e.g. deep sleep without dreams), it does not have anything to focus on and is aware of nothing which, for all practical purposes, cannot be distinguished from not being aware[7]. If the receiving frequency is changed, it is possible to become aware independently from the brain, but, in most cases, we do not remember such experiences when we wake up, because there is no associative chain.

 

Why do we sleep (why do awareness and intent need to be regularly switched off )?

The brain has a natural tendency to return to an inert state. The neurotransmitter arexin activates arousal, the wake-promoting systems in the brain, otherwise we would always be asleep. On the other hand, awareness and intent are anti-entropic (they are associated with synchronised wave patterns) so they require an effort. This effort (focusing) is difficult to sustain, which is why falling asleep regularly occurs. Deep sleep involves a shift of the dominant frequency of the brain below the threshold of awareness.

  • [7]. Some practitioners of meditation claim that they can maintain ‘pure' awareness - without being aware of anything, but this can be considered an exception and is also debatable. For example, the very knowing that one is aware can be regarded as a material of awareness.