What is consciousness?

C. George Boeree

“What is consciousness” is not a single question, but a whole set of questions.  Here are just a few:

Why do we experience certain sensations not as information, but as qualities?  Why, for example, do we experience a wavelength of light as blue, rather than as a colorless piece of data?

How do we manage to experience things in the absence of sensations, such as in imagination and dreams?

Why do our experience of things cohere as things, rather than as a distribution of points?  Why, for example, do we see the world as we do, rather than as something like a pointillist painting? 

And why do our experiences seem connected over time, rather than as discrete events?  Why do we hear a melody, and not a series of notes?

How do things develop meaning?  Why do they develop a coherence in the sense that we respond to them in a purposive fashion?

Why do we experience ourselves as selves?  How do we find a coherence that separates us from other aspects of our experiencing?

Where do we get the sense of self as subject or ego? Why doesn’t the information simply pass through us, as we assume it does in machines or very primitive creatures?

The list could go on, and each question analyzed into more detailed questions, but this is more than enough to start with.  The purpose of this paper is to develop a coherent set of general answers to these questions from a naturalistic perspective.

Qualities and Quantities

Although the question of how or why we experience qualities is sometimes referred to as the “hard problem” of consciousness studies (Chalmers, 1995), it is only difficult if one insists on taking a strong materialistic approach.  Philosophers have pointed out for centuries that the materialist approach is far more difficult to defend than various idealistic or phenomenalistic perspectives.  Although materialism is usually associated with an empirical epistemology, matter is in fact not empirically demonstrable.  As Bishop Berkeley (1710) and later Hume (1748) and others argued so well, we never “see” matter; we only experience various forms and qualities which, due to consistency, we choose to label matter.  We then jump to the idea that this matter is fundamental to everything else, which is quite a leap.

Science, in order to go beyond the subjective, is forced to deal with reality via measurement.  If I have a meter stick and you have a meter stick, our judgements of some event are more likely to be “objective.”  And so we have measured everything in sight and claimed understanding.  What is “blue?”  It is a wavelength of light, specifically somewhere around 475 nm.

The error we make is to believe that the measurement explains the quality.  Instead, the wavelength is actually no more than a measurement of the quality.  Blue is first, then we describe the blue as having a characteristic:  If approached in a certain way (the measurement), it appears to involve light waves that measure 475 nm.  475 nm is an abstraction from the quality of blue and does not exhaust the phenomenon.

To adapt one of J. J. Gibson’s (1979) phrases, the experiential quality we call blue is “in the light.”  There is no need to wonder how the brain  “creates” blue.  And, again following Gibson, there is no need to wonder how we “bind” the “dots” of sensory information together in time and space:  We are only perceiving what is, in fact, already there for us, in the light, the sound, the touch, and so on.  Perceptual consciousness is external to us, and a better way to approach it is to say that we are "open" to certain real qualities (and, of course, closed to many more).

It is a mistake, of course, to view consciousness as a thing inhabiting a place.  Consciousness is a process, a verb, if you like, and an active and transitive one at that.  It is better to say something like “I ‘touch’ the world,” rather than “the world is in my consciousness.”  So let us take touch as the archetypal sense, and take shape as the archetypal quality.  Then let us define form as a set of structural relationships extended over time and space - i.e. a Gestalt.

Feeling (and seeing) shapes is the most “primary” (in Galileo's sense) of experiences.  Curvature, angularity, circularity, rectilinearly....  Why do we have fewer epistemological problems with these than with other qualities?  Because they can be measured, recorded, and reconstructed...  and then experienced by someone else.  The Gestalt or form is maintained, even if the form has to be “deconstructed” and “reconstructed.”  Forms are communicable. I would like to suggest that "secondary" qualities, even flavors and colors, can be understood in the same fashion - they are just less communicable.

Look at taste and smell:  These primitive senses allow us to experience the shapes of certain molecules.  Could we say that sweet is round?  Bitter jagged?  Are pungent odors hairy?  Florals soft?  These are just similes, but they suggest a very useful way of conceiving of flavors and scents.

Or hearing:  Hair cells “touch” the physical vibrations conducted through air, bone, membranes, and fluids, vibrations which maintain their forms through all these changes.  Rhythm is very "primary" - a form over time.  Is a high C really that different from a rhythm?  Is a C major chord?  I recall as a kid making rulers vibrate on the edge of my school desk:  I liked hearing the rhythmical tapping of wood on wood and the "overtones" at various pitches!  We only need to remember that forms can be temporal as well as spatial to admit hearing into the class of primary senses.

And colors:  The cones in our retinas “touch” the light waves.  Try some "synesthetic" analogies on for size:  The sound of blue as electromagnetic vibrations; Or the taste of blue, the light waves experienced like the shapes of molecules are experienced in taste and smell; Or the shape of blue in analogy to the shapes of things we touch - blue's "roundness" or "angularity"....

Again, it is the communicability of shapes that leads us to view them as somehow more "primary" than tastes, scents, sounds, and colors.  And, although some of these qualities remain difficult to communicate, we can indeed communicate a high C or a C major chord (deconstructing and reconstructing the Gestalts) quite easily, with our voices or our instruments.  The difficulty is a practical one, not a philosophical one.

Images and Ideas

What about the images we form in our minds?  Surely they prove that qualities are mental!  I am a person with a good imagination.  My dreams are in vivid technicolor.  And yet, when I try to imagine something exceedingly simple (for example, one of those yellow "smiley face" buttons), I cannot find it:  A fleeting sense of the smile or the eyes, the "feeling" of yellow, but never the full perception.  In fact, I have come to believe that the only reason my dreams are so vivid is because I am in no position as I am dreaming to compare them with reality.

The same argument holds for the famous studies involving electrical stimulation of sensory areas of the brain:  I suggest that those volunteers do not experience a flash of light, they experience a state of mind that is merely similar to the state they would be in if they had indeed experienced a flash of light.

Instead, a mental image is a blend of anticipation and a kind of scanning for the information that makes images more a matter of "drawing" the image than passively receiving it.  The same thing with imagining a song:  I feel the muscles in my throat loosening and tightening as if I were singing or humming the tune.  I am not suggesting that the image is reducible to motor movements.  Rather, the presence of motor movements suggests that images are anticipatory, not echoic or iconic.

It follows that images are more a matter of unrealized looking than internalized seeing. When we imagine the unicorn, we "draw" the horse's head with a goat’s beard and single horn with our anticipations. In the same way, we listen for the song, rather than hear it "in our heads", and explore with restrained movement an imaginary surface rather than experience faint sensations of touch. 

However, people also experience some rather striking mental images.  Some things do seem to pop into my awareness with amazing clarity.  And, at the opposite extreme, we quite often anticipate in a more "generic" fashion, as when we anticipate a human being - any human being - and not some specific one.  That is to say, sometimes we anticipate with an idea more than with an image.  The sudden complete image and the generic idea require a somewhat richer conception of anticipation.

Imagine that the signals coming from our sensory neurons are met by neurons that have been "primed" by anticipation.  That is, based on the events of the prior moments of interaction between the neural structures that are the result of our lifetime of learning, neurons or neural nets are activated, and when the sensory circumstances that they predict are confirmed by incoming sensory signals, these neurons or neural nets pass that information deeper into (let us assume) association cortex, where they lead to the next set of anticipations.  If the anticipations are not confirmed by incoming sensory information (say within a certain time span), signals indicating that non-confirmation are sent on to trigger new anticipations that attempt to correct the mistaken anticipations (along with actions and emotional experiences as well, one presumes). This latter effect could be considered the basis of learning.

Now imagine a situation where we detach ourselves from incoming sensory information:  We are asleep and dreaming, perhaps, or have closed our eyes or are staring at a blank page.  We can nevertheless generate anticipations, and set neurons or neural nets into that anticipatory mode.  But, instead of having them send signals only when confirmed by sensory information, our new state allows these anticipatory neurons to pass on their signals deeper into association cortex without confirmation.  They may even have further repercussions by triggering new anticipations, actions, emotions, and even learning.

In the usual perceptual interaction with the world, all the neurons that a primed to receive incoming information from the senses at a particular time could be considered our total anticipation for that moment.  In the restricted mode, retracted from interaction with the senses, all the primed neurons would be an image or an idea.

Now consider the difference between ideas and images.  Images may be understood as the activity of anticipatory neurons nearer the sensory end of our mental structure.  A strong image is the anticipation of a highly specific set of sensations.

Ideas, on the other hand, reflect the activity of anticipatory neurons deeper in the mind's structure.  The idea of "horse" may manifest itself at any moment in the image of some particular horse, but need not.  Ideas should not, therefore, be confused with "fuzzy" perceptions.  Ideas are the "purer" meanings of our anticipations, experienced at a greater distance from sensation.

The I and the me

Whether I am observing reality or pondering mental images, there always seems to be a perspective from which I am experiencing. G. H. Mead (1934) referred to this as the "I." It is not actually a very powerful presence: Most of my experiencing is still outwardly directed, a parade of images and sounds, even when I am imagining or dreaming.

But there are aspects of my perception itself that appear to always be with me.  When I am perceiving visually, there is an occasional awareness that I am looking out through my eyes. I notice the bony structures around my eyes, especially my nose. My view is always framed with the fuzzy outline of my glasses. I notice my body flowing out from underneath my cheekbones.  There is a physical point-of-view.

I mentioned earlier that temporal coherence is given to us by the contents of consciousness themselves:  There is a sense that each moment leads to a future moment, which is in part actually present in each moment. The past, especially the immediate past of seconds or minutes before, is also somewhat present. The now has a certain thickness to it; it is never truly only the present moment, but rather a minute or two thick.

But a part of this temporal coherence seems to be something that I have added to the picture: There are occasions when more distant past events arise to make the present meaningful, and when imagined futures do the same. My past experiences and my plans for the immediate and distant future are actually present to one degree or another, and my experiencing is thereby infused with "me."

It is as if I were looking at the world through myself, through all the sediment that has collected around my idea of who I am over the years. The metaphor that strikes me is the way our rods and cones receive light that must actually pass through the interneurons to which they will send their messages and the capillaries from which they get their sustenance. 

The experiencing is also colored by mood and emotion. I find myself, for example, annoyed at a distracting noise and irritated at the difficulty of finding the right word. It seems that there is always an emotional color to my experiences, even when things are rather peaceful. The moods are clearly an expression of myself: They are perceptions of my relationship to my environment, perceptions of how events are meaningful to me, how they are valued or disvalued.

Ultimately, consciousness happens when an organism is "interested" in its environment.  This "interest" is based on an organism’s neediness (desire, libido).  We open ourselves to qualities in that we have evolved and learned to find certain qualities relevant (meaningful) to us as organisms which must constantly adapt in order to continue in existence.

It is these various things - the physical embodiment, the temporal coherence, the sedimentation of my life’s experiences, the coloring of mood and emotion - that constitute what James called the “me.”  And it is “me” that comes before the perspectival “I.”


As I hope the reader can see, it is not necessary to invoke any of the buzz words of consciousness studies to explain consciousness: no quales, no tubules, no quantum phenomena, no cosmic consciousness.  Nor is there any need to dismiss the problem as illusory or unsolvable.  A simple, non-dualistic, empirical, and naturalistic perspective, a perspective which goes back all the way to the ancient Greeks, is all we need.


Berkeley, George (1710, 1952), A Treatise concerning the Principles of Knowledge (Chicago: University of Chicago).

Chalmers, David J. (1995). Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness.  Journal of Consciousness Studies 2 (3), pp. 200-219.

Gibson, J. J. (1979), The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates)

Hume, David (1748, 1952), Enquiries concerning Human Understanding (Chicago: University of Chicago).

George Herbert Mead (1934), Mind, Self and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago).

© Copyright 2007, C. George Boeree