The Intimate Surprise of Consciousness

Lemurien_maki_queueMy post Honeybees, Harmony, and Humanity included these words: “we look in another’s eyes and know that the consciousness with which we gaze in is the same as that which shines out.”

This is the sort of thing one hears from those who say they have ‘awakened.’ It is true my inner weather has calmed, and I feel connected to Life in unprecedented ways, but the word awakened summons (in some minds) notions of total liberation from suffering. It seems woefully premature to suggest, even slightly, that I have transcended the human condition. Still, the sentence quoted is no exaggeration. Since it speaks of eyes, it was in fact written with special attention to accuracy. After all, I am a former ophthalmologist.

So what do I experience when looking at another who is looking at me? It’s more than airy mystical sensibility. In fact, my experience is grounded in fairly detailed knowledge of the visual system. The question of shared consciousness is important, so I’ll break down how I open to it.

First, let me be clear that when at a checkout counter for a quick purchase I rarely have time to settle fully into the experience to be described. Later, I may revisit my interaction with the clerk, to remind myself of its profundity. But in the moment, I stay on task and run my credit card through the scanner.

But let’s say I’m in a tea house with a friend. There is space to let the gaze linger for a few moments. I see her human face and those bright, intelligent eyes. As I watch, I know my image gets refracted, by cornea and lens, into a sharp projection on her retinal surface. In this way photons bouncing off my face shine all the way through the eyeball’s transparent media and even pass through the neural nets that comprise the front surface of her retina. In sharp focus, they strike the photo-sensitive cells near the back of her eye and interact with proteins that contain a derivative of vitamin A. Electrical polarization across the photoreceptor cell membrane increases in response to illumination. This change gets communicated to ‘bipolar’ cells, which feed the signal through a surprisingly complex network. The result is a high degree of signal processing, even before the changes evoked by my facial contours propagate out of the eyeball via the optic nerve.

Once in the nerve, myriad patterned impulses travel to the thalamus, deep in the brain, where signals from the two eyes get lined up as information from the left side of my face runs through the left side of my friend’s central nervous system. From the thalamus, visual fibers extend to the cerebral cortex at the back of her head. There, her brain tissue analyzes the patterns of signals and parses out edges, motion, color spectra, parallex (depth) information, etc., at each locus in the visual field.

From this ‘primary’ visual cortex, the data–now processed to a first pass but lacking what we call meaning–flows into higher centers that begin to make sense of it. The so-called fusiform gyrus seems to handle facial recognition, for instance. Deeper limbic (emotional) structures interpret my expressions. When we see another person’s face, it’s a lush and coherent sensory experience, and different tissues of the brain work together to elaborate the effect.

The end result is that the subjective, inner world of my companion lights up with my face and all its nuances. My visage may even summons feelings of happiness.

The science I’ve introduced is accurate, but even though every step in the process is at least partially understood, the end result–one person’s cognizance of another–remains stunning, awesome.

As I’ve written elsewhere, I am skeptical that neuroscience will ever succeed in its goal of explaining inner experience as an emergent property arising from complex arrangements of insensate particles. I believe  it more likely that rudimentary sentience is active even within the smallest material entities, and that brains only increase its capacities. In this view, which I share with William James and Alfred North Whitehead, as intricacy and interconnectedness increase, from atom, to crystal, to bacterium, to earthworm, to lemur, to human, so too does the richness of interiority.

But suppose the materialist hypothesis is someday proven correct, with consciousness demonstrated to arise from particles as psychically inert as we ordinarily imagine sand to be. Would that diminish the amazement of light rays reflecting off my face leading to a three-dimensional, dynamic, emotionally laden image in the mind of another human being? Not a bit.

What’s more, as my friend sees me in her consciousness, I see her in mine. The means by which this occurs (whatever the final explanation) are the same. In other words, the consciousness that shines out is of the same nature as that which looks in.

All well and good, but to be of the same nature is different from being the same. Or is it? This is where things get a little mystical. We could interpret our situation as we are trained to: because my companion knows things I don’t, and vice versa, we obviously don’t share a single mind. But mystics have long recognized that although islands of consciousness operate with different content (much like islands in an archipelago may harbor different species), they arise from a single basis (just as all land masses arise from the same planetary sphere).

Only this last step–from sharing a similar nature to sharing consciousness–is non-scientific. Granted, there are those who will argue that the island analogy sounds reassuring but can’t be empirically tested. My sense that we resonate together in a unitary sphere of consciousness depends on a worldview that grows out of personal life experience and values. But those who conclude we are–in essence–separated neurological computers are also working from background and preference. Neither perspective can be proven (or falsified) by experiment. And whatever we believe, Life keeps growing before our eyes.

The simple truth is this: the stunning material complexity underpinning our experience of sight increases my awe. How remarkable that Life, as a consequence of inherent capacities of matter, evolved over billions of years until a form arose that enjoys such a vibrant inner world it can reason, speculate, and write about what is seen and felt. Doesn’t this seem miraculous, despite (or because of) our scientific explanations?

We don’t share the content of awareness. What we do share–without doubt–is the startling experience of it. That is sufficient for me to feel, in the deepest way, that when I look in another’s eyes…the consciousness with which I gaze in is the same as that which shines out.