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Am I Conscious Now?


Posted October 19, 2010 by Nathan Allen Munn, MD

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"Human Consciousness and Machine Consciousness in Juxtaposition"


curriculum on consciousness is needed. Introductory psychology textbooks don’t address it, actually. Most have a chapter on “states of consciousness.” These include dreaming, drugs, hypnosis, even meditation, but not consciousness itself. Odd, really, when you think about it. Chapters on learning do not discuss how attention, consciousness focused, is required for most learning.

As far as using introspection, I currently teach an “Introduction to Consciousness Studies” course at University of Montana – Helena. I use “subjectivity labs” as part of the pedagogy. If this were a biology course, we would have labs looking in microscopes and doing dissection. As a course on consciousness, students have direct access to the subject matter – their own subjectivity. They love it.

I am currently using Susan Blackmore’s text Consciousness: an Introduction. She has designed exercises such as asking one’s self “Am I conscious now?” as many times as you can and writing down what you find. At first students go rather nuts, as this isn’t the typical college assignment. They want more instructions. To help explain this “lab” I compare it to having them look in a microscope and drawing what they see, only here the microscope is their own introspection. Their results then are brought back to class and discussed.

Most students end up talking about this class to friends and family, having them ask themselves “Am I conscious now?” I’ve had students dream asking this question. That of courses generates much discussion. Is dreaming a state of consciousness?

I offer this to show using introspection as a teaching assignment/tool can be done. Is it science? I would say yes, sort of. Obviously the topic of study isn’t objectively measured, it is subjectivity itself. However, students make observations and share findings. That is what science is as well. I don’t get into all the philosophical issues with this. I want students to examine their own subjectivity, to learn mindfulness observation.

I’ve given this some thought, actually. I believe a curriculum on consciousness should include:

  • The philosophical background: Mary the color scientist, philosopher’s zombies, how all this salt/protein/sugar/etc can slosh together just so and result in subjectivity, materialism/dualism/panpsychism, all that stuff.
  • Cognitive neuroscience — This field is growing amazingly fast. Maybe Dr. Baars’ textbook could be used?
  • Mystical traditions, meditation, first-person perspectives
  • Less than readily accepted fields such as parapsychology — Granted this is a matter of debate, this area, but there is a significant body of data to examine.
  • Theories of consciousness including quantum mechanics theories
  • A myriad of other topics
Theories combining the non-understood phenomena of quantum mechanics and the non-understood phenomena of consciousness might indeed help the understanding of both. The ramifications of this possibility are profound and far-reaching.

One of the frustrations students have with my course is the fact that we really do not have a good scientific explanation of consciousness. They are used to classes that give them material to learn and assume what they learn are facts. This course provides nice opportunities to develop critical thinking skills. Students have to struggle with unknowns. They have to see how there are various areas of study within a broad field but none of these areas have the final say. They get to explore something absolutely personal, their own subjectivity, in a public format. It helps them realize that the other topics they study – biology, psychology, chemistry, whatever – are based on scientific theory and scientific processes and that this process is never done.

What is taught as fact today, may not be tomorrow as new data arises. New data is arising all the time in consciousness. Perhaps, just perhaps, we are getting to the point in human evolution where we can have a science of consciousness giving us comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon so close to us all yet so completely non-understood: our own subjectivity.

My course is college level, but could be adapted to middle and high school. Developing a curriculum for consciousness studies and science is exciting and is one whose time has apparently come!

Nathan Allen Munn, MD



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