Consciousness in Philosophy and Neuroscience

Embodied within many ancient philosophical texts and continuing within contemporary brain research, the debate of the existence of consciousness has plagued many for centuries. Essentially, consciousness encompasses awareness of the self and the perception of the thoughts, feelings, and experiences we face every day.

I always think it is interesting to think about the philosophical theories about concepts, as often these are what ground psychological research (but how the general philosophical-psychological link interacts is for another day). The concept of consciousness has evolved significantly throughout history and begins in Ancient Greek philosophy, in which Plato and Aristotle considered consciousness to arise from the soul. They thought that our souls were our essence, that which makes you who you are, deemed as synonymous with the mind and the self. Plato believed that the soul is a non-corporeal substance i.e. it exists separate from our bodies. On the other hand, Aristotle argued that although the soul is still not a material object, it is works and interacts in conjunction with our body and therefore is inseparable to it.

Later views of the soul and consciousness stem from Descartes’ Cartesian model. Descartes termed the soul/mind res cogitans and he famously set out to conduct a ‘method of doubt’. He put forward a mind and body distinction in which he could imagine his mind without a body as the body is merely a machine. (however, I shall point to Rebecca Schuman’s blog post ‘‘I Think, Therefore I Am Getting the Goddamned Epidural’ which interestingly and hilariously debunks this!). Descartes argued that everything could be doubted, and concluded that all he knows is that he knows nothing. At the crux of his works is his famous postulate of cogito ergo sum – ‘I think therefore I am’ which led to the justification that he could not deny his mind. However, Descartes’ theories have been subject to many criticisms, so we can’t delve too far into them.

Such materialistic and dualist theories as the ones discussed have fallen subject to an explanatory gap between mind and matter. This has been dubbed as ‘the hard problem of consciousness’ which is the problem of explaining the interaction between physical brain processes and mental events or ‘qualia’ (the subjective phenomenal experience of something). Neuroscience has since attempted to address this and the general view is that consciousness arises from functions of the brain and is found at the neuronal level. Our neural networks are configured as a result from genetics and external stimuli (the environment), of which we have no control over. Koch (2004) specifies that the neural networks relating to our conscious percept lie within the cerebral cortex as a coalition of pyramidal neurons. Consciousness arises from firings of certain patterns of neurons which express certain conscious phenomena. He calls for a qualitative approach of looking at consciousness – in that we need to look at the informational complexity that these neurons represent. Susan Greenfield (2000) on the other hand claims that Koch is guilty of phrenology and appropriates specific brain regions to different functions. She instead argues for a holistic view of the neural activity of consciousness, and that the degree of consciousness depends on the size of the neural networks. This could therefore explain the discrepancies found in the consciousness of animals and infants, for example.

It is also worth looking at abnormal psychology to gauge an understanding of what consciousness is. For instance, Blakemore, Oakley, and Frith (2003) looked at hypnosis and the power of suggestion in relation to delusions of alien control (the feeling that an external source is generating your actions – often associated with schizophrenia). What emerged from their findings was that whilst under hypnosis, when subjects actively lifted their own arm, the cerebellum and parietal cortex were equally highly activated as when they were told that a pulley was lifting up their arm. Even though these participants had lifted their arm up themselves, they had attributed this to the external source of the pulley. This has serious implications for consciousness as it highlights how our perception of things can be profoundly altered by suggestion.

This leads us to issue of free will that arises when discussing consciousness, among many others. I will discuss more of these in next week’s blog post. For the time being, we must be conscious of the overarching contention that underpins consciousness. Does consciousness exist as physical processes in the brain, made up of tiny particles which somehow give rise to our awareness and perception? Or does it rather exist as an immaterial, mental entity – as a ‘soul’? Or even as an illusion? Jon Rappoport speaks about the illusion of consciousness a bit more which is a very interesting read – click here for the link.

Thanks for reading!


Today in the History of Psychology (Nov 29, 1993)

Time Magazine published an article discussing Freudian thought. Often associated as the father of psychoanalysis, Freud marked the beginning of the psychoanalytic approach and put emphasis on our unconscious (how relevant!) and how our experiences in early childhood affect us as adults.

‘Is Freud Dead?’ Time Magazine 1993 cover (Matt Mahurin)

Psychology Pun of the Week 

What works even after it is fired?

A neuron!


Blakemore, S.J., Oakley, D.A., Frith, C.D. (2003) Delusions of alien control in the normal brain. Neuropsychologia, 43, (8), pp. 1058-1067.

Greenfield, S. (2000) The Private Life of the Brain. John Wiley and Sons.

Koch, C. (2004) The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach. Roberts and Company Publishers.

8 thoughts on “Consciousness in Philosophy and Neuroscience

  1. […] The notion of consciousness reopens that age-old contest between philosophy, psychology, and biology. Does consciousness arise from mere physical processes from the brain (Koch and Greenfield seem to think so) or is it more of a spiritual entity, closely related to views of the soul (advocated by the likes of Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes – I talk more about these views here). […]


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