how and when does consciousness start

maybe this belongs in a different forum - ‘stoner discussions’ maybe. a few of us were philosophizing with our very pregnant co-worker about the amazing processes going on inside her and the discussion turned to when consciousness kicks in. you have a sperm - presumably unconscious, and an egg - also unconscious, then a zygote - we suspect also unconscious, then a fetus which undergoes many developments and changes. does consciousness kick in during the fetal stage? if so when?

my theory was that consciousness is a neural connection that doesn’t kick in until sometime after birth - possibly at your earliest memory. until then your body just reacts to its environment without conscious decisions. just a theory on the table. i’d like to hear more.

Define consciousness, and then we’ll talk :wink:


define consciousness

that piece of a person’s existence that appears to make a person more than just the sum of his/her parts. like self awareness or just awareness that one’s surroundings are in fact surroundings. i find it almost as difficult to define as it is to explain. we can hone the definition as the discussion warrants.

Cecil tackles What is consciousness?

I personally suspect that I did not become conscious until I was three years old. I can pinpoint the exact moment it happened, too. All of a sudden, I just “woke up” and was sitting in the living room. Prior to that moment of “waking up”, I have no memories whatsoever. Even at the exact moment that I “woke up”, I had no memories prior to that moment. It’s exactly as if my stream of consciousness didn’t begin until that point in time, as though my mind wasn’t complex enough to support a stream of consciousness until then.

It remains to this day the most singular experience of my life, but unfortunately most of the time when I try to explain it to other people I can’t do it. I get caught up trying to explain how it was like time itself didn’t start until that moment, and that there literally wasn’t anything before that moment because “before” hadn’t been defined yet…and then the person I’m explaining it to looks at me funny and tries to leave without making eye contact :slight_smile:

. . . nor turning his back on you, I’m sure.

from perderabo

well, that article spends a lot of time on the nature of artificial intelligence, but all that’s said about consciousness is:

“Nobody really knows how consciousness arises, but it seems evident there’s more to it than computer programs. Some believe the brain needs to be installed in a body. I venture to say that some breadth of sensory input and the ability to interact with your environment in complex ways–in short, to learn–are also required.”

i’m not sure this constitutes a ‘tackle’.

math geek - it sounds like you and i have a similar theory about this.
have scientists pinpointed any areas of the brain responsible for awareness? maybe through studies of alzheimer’s or something?

Of course, it’s all going to hinge on your definition of consciousness, but a couple things about babies come to mind.

Newborn babies can recognize voices of people in their families. A newborn will turn and look toward any sound, but will turn more quickly and look most intently toward the sound of his mother’s voice and only slightly less quickly and intently toward the voice of his father and siblings. Presumably, he remembers the sound he has been hearing while in utero. I also remember reading somewhere about a man, a conductor, who was looking through a score for a piece of music that was new to him when he realized that he knew what the cello part was going to be before he turned each page. His mother was a cellist and had practiced that piece repeatedly while pregnant. (This sort of research has lead yuppie types to purchase special devices with which to play classical music to their unborn progeny, which seems kind of silly to me.)

On the other hand, newborn infants do not seem to be aware that they are actually separate beings. Evidence indicates that they are unaware of any dividing line where they leave off and mother begins. Then there is the concept of “object permanence.” If you show a 6 month old baby a toy and then hide it under a blanket he will lose interest almost immediately. As far as he is concerned, when it is out of sight it ceases to exist. (This is probably much of the cause of separation anxiety.) At some point (and I forget when, on average, this occurs) he will realize that the object has not, in fact, disappeared, and will look under the blanket. I suppose one might argue that concepts of permanence and separateness might be necessary for full “consciousness.”

I certainly don’t have any clear answers, but it is fun to ponder.

I don’t really have much worthwhile to contribute, but Math Geek, I remember such a moment myself. You’re certainly not alone. In fact, that “moment” had an effect on a few years of my life. At the moment, someone said something about it being October, and until I was taught the order of the months in kindergarten, I was quite convinced that October was the first month of the year…since it was, functionally, the month I first “woke up.” There’s my related anecdote for the day.

Prof. Susan Greenfield has some interesting ideas. Her basic tenet is that consciousness is not a digital on/off state, but rather is analogue. She would argue that as a neuronal system becomes more complex (for example during growth in the womb) consciousness occurs as an emergent property, therefore there is no moment when the lights are suddenly switched on.

This link provides more…