Are There Two (or More) Consciousnesses?
A February 2008 internet posting1 in the New York Times online included a brief talk by Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist working in the “mind lab” at Harvard University’s Department of Psychiatry. Dr. Taylor recalls in vivid detail what she consciously experienced during a stroke brought about by a hemorrhage in her left brain hemisphere. She had, according to the Times, a “front-row seat on the deterioration of the brain”.2
In the course of several hours, Dr. Taylor experienced the strange cognitive differences that result when functions in the left brain hemisphere begin to fade. This deterioration left the right hemisphere unbridled and free to respond to the stimuli that streams in from all of her kinesthetic sensors, unfiltered and unprocessed. In brief, when the left hemisphere began having trouble, she started feeling a sense of awe at what her senses were picking up, as well as euphoria.
According to Dr. Taylor, the left hemisphere operates in a serial fashion, while the right hemisphere is a parallel processor. The left takes the raw data input from the right side, relates it to past experience (memory), and then projects it to the future via language. It is the “I am” of consciousness. On the right side, the main concern is with the present, the here and now. How things feel, smell, look and sound come in as “energy” and are basically raw data. The data is not “judged” or processed. There is no sense of self or separateness from the environment and others; no boundaries. Dr. Taylor describes the feeling produced by this unbridled consciousness as expansive, beautiful and awesome.
The ’brain chatter’ associated with the left hemisphere is silenced and the independent conscious of the right absorbs the world around it in a still and tranquil manner. There is a feeling of connectedness to everyone and everything. According to Dr. Taylor, it is tantamount to being in Nirvana.
One can only wonder whether there are any practical applications of Dr. Taylor’s findings (assuming that they are valid and not unique). She believes that there are. In fact, she claims that there are two independent centers of consciousness, one in each hemisphere and that with practice, one can choose which predominates at any given time. This is a unique way of looking at how one should lead his or her life. The literature primarily focuses on what it deems a more prevalent issue, that of the physiological distinctions between primitive and more highly developed cerebral cortex.
Interestingly, people who have taken the ’mind-altering‘ drug LSD report having had experiences similar to those of Dr. Taylor. They tell stories of seeing energy fields, having out of body feelings of expansiveness, and experiencing a pervasive sense of calm. Two typical self-reports taken from an LSD experience website demonstrate the similarity of the experiences. The reports are so similar, in fact, that they seem like they could have been scripted by Dr. Taylor.3
I can say that it was a profound life experience that allowed me to go beyond the ego and to see all people as my brothers. I honestly think I learned about love through this lesson in transpersonal psychology. The trip was a great deal of fun and I was struck by how most people are unfortunately obsessed with the mundane; there is so much that is more important. The experience took on a visionary nature late into it, as I watched shapes and colors in the air and in my mind. A person who steps through the door will inevitably be different from one who has not. They may get the opportunity to see, as I did, into a different aspect of existence--one that rings of truth.
U.S. - Sunday, January 12, 2003 at 22:18:20 (GMT)
Music also took a hold on my body and consciousness to an extent I would not have believed possible. Since then there have been incredible moments of beauty, fear, ecstasy, expansion, oneness, magic and so on. Without fear, with maturity and trust in love this is an experience for the cravers of the unknown.
Reading, UK - Saturday, December 14, 2002 at 15:44:34 (GMT)
In his The Brain Has a Mind of Its Own, Dr. Richard Restak confirms that odd things happen to our consciousness when the temporal lobe experiences seizures:
The temporal lobe is responsible for our sense of connectedness, our personal identity, the feeling of belonging we get from familiar surroundings. When it functions normally, we have no apprehension about who we are, our situation, or the nature of things. But when the temporal lobe is diseased, strange things can occur. A seizure originating in the temporal lobe can produce disorientation, feelings of having previously experienced events happening at the moment (déjà vu), or equally troubling feeling that familiar objects and people are new vague threatening (jamais vu).4
Dr. Taylor’s revelations raise many questions about consciousness. Is there a real difference between awareness and consciousness? Dr. Taylor, it seems, had a left hemisphere stroke that seemed to fade in and out (at least for a few hours) and allowed her to recall much of what she was experiencing. Can it then be concluded that there is a ‘consciousness continuum’ with awareness being at one end and understanding and analysis at the other? What would happen if something similar to the stroke that Dr. Taylor had took place in the right hemisphere? What about newborns and infants? Is their ‘right hemisphere consciousness’ the only one that functions until the one on the left side learns? Does their experience mimic that of Dr. Taylor’s and those that take LSD?
If we define consciousness as the activity of the brain, then a brain that is not fully developed or that has suffered from a stroke or other trauma might simply be experiencing a reduced consciousness rather than a dual consciousness. This idea of a reduced consciousness stands in opposition to Dr. Taylor’s notion that further understanding of consciousness can come about from ‘damaged’ or ‘altered’ brains. Michael Gazzaniga at the UCSB Center for the Study of Mind put it much more elegantly with his “pipe organ” analogy for consciousness:
Consciousness is an emergent property and not a process in and of itself. Our cognitive capacities, memories, dreams, etc., reflect distributed processes throughout the brain. The thousand conscious moments we have in a given day reflect one of our networks being “up for duty.” When it finishes, the next one pops up, and the pipe organ-like device plays its tune all day long. What makes emergent human consciousness so vibrant is that the human pipe organ has lots of tunes to play, whereas the rat’s has few. And the more we know, the richer the concert.5
Ultimately, there may never be a definitive answer to what consciousness really is, other than a heightened sense of awareness. Whether we have one, two (as Dr. Taylor claims), or an infinite number that are constantly in flux, may never be known. It is possible that the human mind is incapable of understanding the very nature of consciousness other than as a binary distinction between ‘conscious’ and ‘unconscious’. Such a comprehensive understanding is extremely difficult, perhaps akin to attempting to discern all of the details of a human by looking only at a series of photos of a person’s shadow. Consciousness could pose a paradox similar to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, in that the closer we get to identifying and measuring all the electrical pulses and fields of the brain, the less we are able to precisely assign a meaning or significance to them due to the alterations induced by the measurement itself. This “observer effect” will perhaps always provide a barrier to our true understanding of what consciousness is.
4. “The New Map of the Brain”, Time, February 12, 2007, p. 43.
5. Restak, Richard, The Brain Has a Mind of Its Own – Insights from a Practicing Neurologist, Crown Trade Paperbacks, New York, 1991, p. 10.