On Being A Conscious Human

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What is it about being human that separates us from all the other species on the planet? Why is it that our fellow creatures on Earth don’t enjoy the same level of cognitive talent as we do? What separates us from even those creatures with virtually the same parts and similar brain structures as ours? What makes us so special?

A recent comment posted in my “About” section posed several questions related to the unique nature of human consciousness—how it affects our basic nature, how it affects our ability to survive and thrive, as well as how it identifies us as the only known terrestrial species making use of our cognitive talents in exactly the way we do. Since these questions are central to the understanding of human consciousness, I decided to respond by posting my thoughts about these issues here this week. These are important questions to ask, and understanding how possessing such unique talents has enabled us to achieve so much more than any other species has been able to do, can not only broaden our appreciation of our own place in the world, but that of our fellow creatures as well.

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“If all the animals have some degree of consciousness, do they also share our sense of being special, our instinctive drive to survive, a sense of purpose? Why do WE feel these things?”

It’s difficult for us to imagine what it might be like to be any of the other animal species on our planet, not because we are so much different from any of them physically or because we are so much more advanced biologically or mentally, but because as remarkably similar as we are in so many ways, our unique combination of physical attributes in our brains, which gives us a discernible edge in the range of our capacities, particularly with grammatical language and symbolic thought, is what makes imagination possible in the first place. Without Broca’s area, which regulates our ability to speak, and Wernicke’s area which regulates language development and our ability to comprehend speech, as well as our unique version of the cerebral cortex, being able to express the results of our imagination would not be possible. There is a growing indication through neuroscientific research that Broca’s area is also involved in music, working memory, movement, and even calculation. Even Kanzi, the bonobo, who has learned to communicate in a variety of ways, is very limited by comparison, and although this amazing animal may not be on a par with humans functionally, it demonstrates just how significant a relatively small difference can be.

brocas area

While we also have some of the same instinctive drives that all animals have, discerning what might constitute a purpose to our existence, being aware of such a purpose, and contemplating, planning, and then acting to fulfill a deliberately chosen purpose, requires a capacity like the one provided by our “upgraded” human cognitive apparatus. We see a broad range in the degree of consciousness in all the species on Earth, but over the millennia, humans have expanded and built upon this capacity to a degree that simply is not evident in any other creature.

I believe that our love for animals and all living entities is a reflection of our sense of unity with all life in the universe, and recognizing that the very same “stream” of consciousness that manifests within US is also present in everything that lives, gives us good cause to suppose that all life forms are a manifestation of a much deeper, profound, and intangible energy at the heart of existence.

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“So then why do humans commit suicide if they are programmed to survive, like all other life? Are we the only species that commits suicide? Is our consciousness the missing factor in animals that allows us to commit suicide?”

Human beings have a unique capacity for contemplation, imagination, producing and expressing complex ideas, and as a result of the complexity of our cognitive apparatus, are prone to all sorts of mental illnesses, brain injuries, disease, and defects which can affect us in numerous ways. We are not born into this world as a completely “blank” slate. We are constructed out of the inherited genetic material of our species generally, and that of our familial inheritance specifically. Our genes, chromosomes, DNA, and all the aspects of our human biology, construct our bodies and our brains in the womb, and from the moment of conception through whatever growth and aging that we are able to accomplish, we can experience any number of successes or failures of that inheritance. This represents a formidable force in determining how well or how poorly we will fare in our lives, and depending on the environment in which it all takes place, a whole other set of problems and opportunities might hold sway as we live from day to day.

We are not “programmed” to survive in the sense that it is not a hard and fast or unbreakable instruction encoded in our genes. Survival is a natural inclination of all living entities, and evolution has demonstrated that the will to survive is an advantageous adaptation for living species which ensures the continuation of life. It is instinctive—we don’t have to learn to want to survive—but it is far from being a directive. Species with the ability to survive—characteristics and talents which promote survival—will generally prevail if they have the right stuff—if they can adapt to the changing environments—but our cognitive capacities as humans allows us to deliberately choose whether we want to survive or not.

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Most often, even this choice may not be a completely conscious choice. According to Thomas E. Joiner, a psychologist and author who wrote, “Why People Die by Suicide,” “Virtually everyone who dies by suicide has a mental disorder at the time of death.” Depression, mental illness, and any number of psychological difficulties can initiate such thoughts, but there are a number of contributing factors that rule out being “programmed” to either survive or give up on living. Most people DO want to survive, and the degree of consciousness that humans possess generally is adequate to acknowledge our instinctive drives when they come into play, and potent enough to overcome those instincts when there is sufficient motivation to do so.

In my view, human consciousness represents a temporal connection to a much more complex and intangible aspect to our existence. It seems likely to me that consciousness is ubiquitous in the universe and both permeates and transcends the temporal world. Our unique position as a consciously aware and cognitively talented species, far from being simply a temporal advantage, gives us a responsibility to discern our connection to all life, and to act to preserve it, protect it, and appreciate it while we have the opportunity.

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One comment

  1. Brent

    wow, this article was very well put together–and all your research over the years definitely shines through. The brain structure and the information cited from Thomas E. Joiner were especially appreciated. Thank you for addressing these questions, your answers sufficiently satisfy my current hunger for thought on these topics.

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