About consciousness – Revisited


Last year's New Year's resolution was to find an explanation of consciousness that I could live with -- and so a year later this is where I have come to. Embedded in the wall of the gut is the enteric nervous system (ENS) which besides controlling digestion is a widely distributed network spreading throughout the gut tissue. It is estimated to have 500 million neurons and stretches from your mouth to your anus and produces a wide range of hormones and neurotransmitters that are found in the brain. Astonishingly 95 % of the serotonin (the 'feel good' molecule) present in the body at any time is in the ENS. The connection to the brain is via the brain stem and accounts for the everyday concept of 'gut instinct or 'gut reaction'. When it comes to conscious, logical reasoning -- religion, poetry, philosophy, politics -- this is supposedly the business of the brain in the head but one is left with a lingering doubt that decisions made by the brain are justifications for a whole body reaction.

So where does this leave us (or rather me)? Consciousness clearly is rooted in the brain stem, in the red area of the brain stem. The signals from the body are the reference point for the 'Me' or the 'I" when you awake from a dreamless sleep or anesthesia. Damage to this part of the brain stem results in a coma. What happens after we wake-up is not clear since we have a number of overlapping systems that kick in -- the memory of who we are -- the mirror neurons, wired to experience another’s plight as if we are experiencing it ourselves -- the neurotransmitters produced by the gut (the gut in turn being influenced by the billions of microbial inhabitants) -- information from the media and the internet extending our awareness to include the whole human race, including the Biosphere. We swim in this physiological and social milieu like a fish in water seeing the world through our culturally programmed lens. Do we have 'free will'? I believe we do, but we rarely exercise it, if at all. We mainly bob along with our empathetic neurons and neurotransmitters. What is consciousness? -- it is no big deal.