I feel therefore I am … In this fascinating study, a neuropsychologist argues that the mystery of consciousness centres on emotions
In a crowded field, consciousness has a strong claim to being the strangest thing in the universe. The feeling of being aware is the most fundamental and familiar aspect of anyone’s existence: you can know, with rock-solid certainty, that you’re conscious right now, even if literally all else might be a hallucination brought on by mind-altering drugs. Yet it’s widely held that science has no clue how the spongy physical stuff of your brain could produce something as radically non-physical as your mind. Attempting to solve this puzzle leads respectable scholars to surprising places – for example, to the baffling claim that consciousness is an illusion (even though consciousness is the very thing that experiences illusions); or that everything in the world – sofas and table lamps included – might in some rudimentary sense be conscious.
Entangled with the mystery of how consciousness happens is another: why is it there at all? It’s unclear why evolution bothered to make it feel like something to be you, given that, to paraphrase the philosopher David Chalmers, it seems feasible to imagine a “zombie” version of yourself who could complete your daily to-do list just as successfully, but with no inner experience, only darkness inside. When I accidentally plunge my hand into boiling water, what matters is that my brain and limbs are wired up so as to get my hand out as fast as possible, a straightforward engineering challenge. The fact that I also have an experience of hotness seems like an extravagant metaphysical extra, a flourish of nature that would be inexplicable even if we knew how it worked. Which, as mentioned, we don’t.