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Written by Dr. Nash Popovic

What awareness is not

As in the previous case, to clarify what awareness is, we first have to make a distinction between awareness and other phenomena that are easily confused with it, such as consciousness.

Awareness is different from mental processes such as thoughts, images, sensations, emotional reactions, etc. The Ancient Greeks had separate terms for awareness (psyche) and mental activity (pneuma), but this difference is obscured nowadays. Some philosophers and neuroscientists (e.g. G. E. Moore, Baars) have recognised, though, that they cannot be treated as the same thing. Grossman, for example, writes: ‘We can introspectively discriminate between the contents of consciousness and the quality of being conscious’ (in Bogen, 1998, p.237). Libet makes the same point:

The content of an awareness can be anything. But being aware is a unique phenomenon in itself, independent of the nature of the particular content in awareness (2004, p.188).

To preserve this distinction, the term consciousness is used throughout the text for all the mind activities (of which some comprise the materials of awareness). Awareness, on the other hand, does not refer to any specific mental processes, but to that which enables cognising them. An analogy can be made with a movie projection: everything that is on the screen can be considered consciousness, while awareness would be the equivalent of the projector light that is not a part of the movie, but enables whatever is on the screen to be visible. Another parallel can be made with a torch that casts light on various objects. If what is lit by the torch comprises consciousness, awareness is the light from the torch (and like a torch, it cannot illuminate all the objects at the same time).

Awareness cannot be identified with sensory perception either. Rather, it refers to the effects that perception has on that which is aware, establishing the relation between the subject and the perceptual representations. In fact, we do not need to perceive to be aware (as, for example, in dreams)[1]. Awareness of our thoughts, feelings and many other mental states is also not mediated by the senses. By the same token, some perceptual sensations can escape awareness (e.g. we may not be aware of all the details in a picture we are looking at, although our brain receives them).

[1] This was recognised a long time ago. For example, the following rhetorical question can be found in Vedanta: ‘Impressions arise from light, but during a dream no light from outside enters the body. So, what is that light that creates images that we see in dreams?’

What awareness is

Awareness is the crucial concept for a proper understanding of reality, because the only certainty is that one is aware (it does not matter of what: sensations, thoughts, external reality, feelings, or anything else)[2]. The usual translation of Descartes’ famous dictum ‘Cogito ergo sum’, as ‘I think, therefore I am’ is somewhat off the mark. Being aware (of my mental processes among other things) rather than thinking, is the irrefutable evidence that I exist. It seems that Descartes himself recognised the importance of awareness, given his definition in the Principles of Philosophy: ‘By the term “thought” I understand everything which we are aware of as happening within us, in so far as we have awareness of it’ (in Güzeldere, 1995, p.45). So, the claim ‘I am aware, therefore I am’ may be more appropriate. This puts awareness in its proper place, as being one of the two fundamental properties (the other being intent) of the focused energy. As the gravitational field is considered to be a property of matter, awareness can be seen as a property of life. Being a fundamental property, awareness cannot be defined by using other, more basic terms. For all practical purposes, however, awareness can be described as an ability to illuminate some of the mental events that comprise consciousness[3].

[2] The state of deep sleep or unconsciousness does not count in this case, because one cannot make any judgements when in these states. True, they can be confirmed by somebody else, but the person involved can legitimately doubt that the other person really exists (‘perhaps I am only dreaming her’), while she cannot reasonably doubt that she is aware, when she is aware.
[3] The above refers to the usual use of this ability. It is possible in some instances to become aware of reality directly, but these are rather exceptional cases.

The purpose of awareness

Awareness is necessary for life. The soul feeds on information and experience, which is what we are aware of. The function of awareness is to enable this process of subjectivisation (or appropriation). In other words, the energy is absorbed through the acquisitions of information and experience. Furthermore, agency, or voluntary action, would not be possible without awareness, every action would only be a reflex re-action (which would make humans and other life forms automata). The soul can affect only what it is (or has been) aware of. So, as awareness grows, the amount of energy that is under the influence and control of the self grows too.

The functioning of awareness (the domains of awareness)

Electro-chemical processes in the brain create waves or oscillations on a particular frequency. These carrier waves provide most of the content of awareness. There are strong indications that synchronisation of neuronal activity at the frequency range of 35–70 Hz can be associated with awareness[4]. When in a deep sleep, for example, these waves are not present. The body can react to changes in the surroundings (e.g. temperature variations), without any awareness. However, when the brain starts producing these waves, the self becomes aware – with a sensory input (when awake) or without (in dreams[5]). So, awareness depends, first of all, on the frequency, although, of course, other factors, such as the recurrence of a particular neural activity, also play a role. The focus is maintained within a certain range by the intensity of physical stimuli and habituation (in other words, it is largely biologically and to some extent socially conditioned). This is not to say that awareness can function only within the above range, but that the perception of reality is fixed because the range of frequencies within which awareness operates is fixed by these factors.

We can sometimes become directly aware of certain processes in non-material reality. Awareness of our inner world (dreams, thoughts, mental images) is still fairly direct as it is only mediated by our mental constructs – no senses are involved. However, we can be aware of the physical environment only indirectly – mediated by our senses and the nervous system as well as our mental contracts. The self can be aware of information from all these domains, but the signals coming through the senses (the physical domain) are on the whole the strongest. The intensity of the information from this domain screens out, to some extent, potential information from the other domains. Furthermore, the mental processes (e.g. thoughts, images) are also more intense than the processes in the soul, so the latter are often concealed by both, sensory perception and mental activity. Hence, even though they are more direct, sensations from the non-physical domain are normally recognised only if those mediated by the brain and mind are not prominent, because they are not as strong and clear as the other ones. Nevertheless, despite being usually clogged up by the stronger stimuli, some materials from this domain are attainable.

Limiting awareness

Awareness of all the potential information would not be practical. Too many stimuli may, in fact, decrease awareness. Organising, containing, and making sense out of disparate pieces of information would be harder without some restrictions. So, to minimise confusion and overload, there are mechanisms that limit the quality and quantity of experience and information accessible to awareness. In other words, potential information passes through several filters before it becomes actual information. This narrowing of potential materials accessible to awareness enables us to pay attention to details and organisation, and has some other advantages. These limits can be grouped in three categories:

Limits of perception – potential information about physical reality and the body are restricted by the limitations of the sensory apparatus and nervous system. Henri Bergson may not be much off the mark when he suggested that our senses are intended to keep things out, rather than to let them in. Indeed, they do not register at all many signals (for instance, those on the frequency of infra-red light). Also, some signals are not intense enough, and some are overrun by stronger stimuli.

Limits of the mind – the mind is not only narrower than the brain (there are brain processes that never become a part of consciousness), but it also imposes its own limitations. The main purpose of the mind is to construct reality out of experiences and available information, which implies selectivity. Eccles writes (in Popper and Eccles, 1977, p.475):

The self-conscious mind has to select. We’d be overloaded by information if at any moment we had to take notice of everything that was poured into all our senses. This is perhaps one of the very important reasons for the operation of the self-conscious mind and its evolution… It gives a selection or a preference from the total operative performance of the neural machinery.

This selection is achieved by amplifying some signals at the expense of others, possibly through the process of positive feedback (see, for example, Harth, 1993). This selectivity applies not only to our immediate experience but also to the awareness of our past experiences. Most memories quickly fade or are no longer accessible because an associative path is lost.

Limits of the soul – only a part of the soul is related to a physical or mental life. We are normally aware of experiences connected just to this part. Furthermore, awareness of processes in the soul depends on their intensity and their level within the energy filed. The deeper the processes are, the harder it is to become aware of them, which may be why becoming aware of them often feels like bringing something to the surface (depth and surface in this context relate to energy frequencies rather than spatial characteristics).

[4] Relating these synchronous oscillations in the brain to conscious experience (the temporal binding of various sensory features) is attributed to Koch and Crick. More than a hundred years earlier though, Payton Spence came to the same conclusion based on purely theoretical work. A neurophysiologist from that period, M. M. Graver, followed it up experimentally and found that mental activity is sub-served by a cerebral oscillatory mechanism with the frequency of 36-60Hz. Their work passed almost unnoticed. It seems typical that Crick is accredited for the work already initiated by somebody else (the other case is only recently acknowledged contribution of Rosalind Franklin to the discovery of the DNA structure).
[5] It is interesting that these episodes of awareness during sleep occur several times in regular time intervals, as if it is not desirable to suspend awareness for prolonged periods.

The states of awareness

Three distinct states (but with fuzzy boundaries between them) can be distinguished: being unaware of what is received; being aware only superficially (floating awareness that scans incoming stimuli without ascribing meaning to them); and being fully aware (focused), which enables constructing and memorising the available materials.

Unawareness: we are not aware of everything we receive or is accessible, simply because a great bulk of it is ignored. One simple example has already been mentioned. If you are sitting right now, you are most likely oblivious to the sensations that are the result of your body being in contact with the chair until you turn attention to them, yet they are always present. Similarly, you are usually aware of only a few elements that are in your visual field at any time. Filtering or ignoring some potential information is necessary, so that awareness can be freed to focus on what is new, important or interesting. For this selection procedure, the existing constructs (based on previous experiences and other forms of knowledge) are normally used as a template with which the immediate experience is compared. Information congruent with what is expected can be ignored. These corresponding constructs are brought up automatically (on the basis of expectation and recognition). Structured activities such as writing or driving, for example, are usually automatic and ignored by awareness (unless a novel element is introduced). Awareness is, therefore, narrower than both perception and consciousness. By the same token, certain processes in the soul may also be ignored (we may not feel them).

Divergent awareness (sometimes called peripheral awareness): is another way that awareness relates to accessible materials – awareness often ‘floats’ loosely, which is why we can become aware of unexpected information. Those materials that are insignificant or match what is already structured or expected are filtered, so we are only superficially aware of them (meaning that we do not pay attention, do not focus on them). As above, this comparing and filtering is mostly an automatic process, the parameters, ‘commands’ are pre-defined. However, it is important to bear in mind that the template (to take the case of visual perception) does not consist of the exact images of objects or movements, but of the ideas of objects and movements. For example, if we walk down a familiar street we normally ignore most of the information. This is possible not because we have ever seen exactly the same scene before; cars and pedestrians change all the time. Nevertheless, we can ignore most of them because we are familiar with that scene on the basis of a heuristically formed idea of what to expect. Only orientation pointers (necessary to direct an activity such as walking) are briefly in focus, while the rest remain on the periphery.

Convergent awareness involves attention (an ability to focus awareness) and concentration (an ability to maintain that focus). These are the main factors that influence attention:

  • Intensity: its influence is determined by a variable threshold that depends on a general degree of sensitivity, tension or competing stimuli.
  • Novelty (e.g. the appearance of an unusual colour, movement, shape, sound, smell, or something familiar is missing): information or experience that does not match expectations tends to attract our attention.
  • Interestingness is another (subjectively determined) attractor. The element involved may not be necessarily novel, as in the case of when something is perceived from a different perspective.
  • Importance ascribed in advance to a potential piece of information. One familiar situation in which this factor plays a role is so-called ‘cocktail party’ phenomenon: you are attending to a conversation at a party, but suddenly become aware that your name is mentioned somewhere else in what was just background noise a moment earlier.

Attention, of course, can also be intentional, and concentration always involves an intent, but it often has to compete with the above factors.

Expanding awareness

The expansion of awareness means an increase of either the variety (quality) or the amount of information and experience, and the ability of the self to hold them together. This is achieved by grouping (organising, structuring) existing materials, which enables adding new ones. The main function of consciousness is connecting various pieces of information and by doing so creating a network of energy configurations. The brain and mental constructs play an important role in this respect. So, the expansion of awareness depends on the ability of the mind to receive, organise and store information, and on the amount of neural connections established and maintained.

The development of awareness

Awareness was very restricted by the physical component of the first living organisms, so that the associated energy can be organised and managed. It only slowly expanded through biological evolution, and later on through social and individual development. Thus, at the beginning awareness is narrow, then it gradually increases. As a rule of thumb, animals are generally more aware than plants, and humans are more aware than animals. The flip side, however, is that with more complex and structured mental constructs, awareness of the non-material domain normally decreases. The better constructed reality is, the more difficult it is to perceive beyond the constructs. So, animals and plants may be more ‘in touch’ with this domain than humans, as some experiments indicate (see Sheldrake, 2000).

Some possible questions

What is the difference between focusing waves with the pupil of the eye for example (which does not produce awareness), and with the self?
The eye is a part of the material world, while the self is not, so it is not surprising that they function differently. Awareness is a property of focused energy that enables the formation of loops with which new pieces of information interact, leading sometimes to their integration. On the other hand, rather than focusing energy in one point, an eye pupil is a mechanical instrument that is more akin to a window that enables some light waves to pass through.

Is that what enables awareness the same as that what is aware (these two may be different – the eyes enable us to see, but they do not see)?
The soul and self can be only in theory considered as separate entities. In reality they are not. So, what enables awareness and what is aware is the soul-self system.

If awareness is linked to a particular frequency, how are its materials differentiated?
As the individual instruments of an orchestra are differentiated in a radio transmission, although they all arrive in a ‘parcel’ of the same frequency (a carrier wave).

What happens to awareness when we are unconscious?
Deep sleep involves a shift of the dominant frequency of the brain below the threshold of awareness. As long as a soul is connected to the body, awareness responds to the brain waves and depends on the brain for its content. In a similar vein, as long as we look at the screen, we depend on the film in the projector for the content. We are only aware of what is brought to us by waves of a particular frequency that are produced by neuronal activity. Otherwise, we are aware of nothing which ordinarily cannot be distinguished from not being aware, although it seems that even in deep sleep, mental activity does not cease completely.

… the impression of absolute nothingness between falling asleep and waking up is more apparent than real, facilitated by an impairment of episodic memory and by some degree of confusion upon awakening… careful studies of mental activity reported immediately after awakening have shown that some degree of consciousness is maintained during much of sleep. (Giulio, 2004, p.17)

We usually either don’t remember this or are left with an elusive sense that we were aware of something but don’t know what, because there is no ‘bridge’ (associative chain) to enable the transfer to our conscious mind.