By Bruce Barbour
Version 1 - April 2016
Part 1 - What is Consciousness
The Consciousness Model
The model of Consciousness that
I propose consists of interrelated parts: awareness;
emotion, thought; and memory. The relationship between
those parts is shown in the Drawing No. 1 below.
Drawing No. 1, Diagrammatic
Representation of Consciousness
(and its relationship to the body)
I will now look at each of theses aspects and how they
relate to each other.
At the most basic awareness incorporates awareness of
information from the body's senses. This is sense
Sense awareness is our observation of information
received from the senses about our self and our universe.
The first stage is simply receiving of this data from our
senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch (or skin
The second stage of sense awareness is pre-thought
interpretation of this sense information prior to putting
words / thoughts to the perception.
By pre-thought interpretation I mean putting the data
from the sense information into an ordered form. For
example, if we see something our mind receives signals
from the optic nerve. We then interpret those signals into
colours and three-dimensional shapes. At this stage the
interpretation is not named, as naming is a function of
Similarly for the other senses, the information received
is interpreted. If something is in our mouth we will
receive a taste sensation. Our thought processes will
naturally try to name the taste and failing that to
compare it to similar sensations. However imagine that we
have never had that taste sensation previously and do not
have a name for it or even a decent comparison. However
despite not having a name for it the taste sensation would
still be just as real. So thought is not necessary for
sense awareness and if thought to name the sensation
occurs, it occurs post sense awareness.
One of the aspects of sense awareness that is important
is that it all occurs in the present moment. You cannot
have direct sense awareness of the future or of a past
moment. If a past or future moment comes into your head
then it is thought and memory that is operating and not
Sense awareness is the first development of
consciousness. In evolutionary terms sense awareness was
initially necessary for a discrete organism to be aware of
the environment to find food and to be able to move
around. sense awareness of dangerous situations in the
environment assisted the organism to avoid the situation
and live longer.
The next part of consciousness is emotion. Take the
example of taste discussed earlier. We may have something
in our mouth that is providing a taste sensation that we
cannot name. As well as these physical sensations it may
also elicit feelings that are pleasurable or not. This is
emotional interpretation of sense awareness.
The emotional interpretation of sense awareness
information can range from nil to extreme. If we see an
object that is say roundish and gray lying on the ground -
a rock though not named at this stage by thought as such.
We know from experience (memory) that this object is not
going to harm us. Neither is it going to provide us with
any benefit. Consequently the emotional response is
neither fear nor pleasure. The object is just there, as
part of our environment.
However if the object is a snake, though not named as
such, this object may cause the emotional response of
fear. This is nothing to do with our subsequent ability to
name that object as a snake. We fear it because of our
experience, stored in memory of this type of object in the
Once this emotion is experienced it can give rise to
physical changes in the body and also action. The most
well known of these is the so-called "fight or flight" (3)
response. This response can occur if the person is in a
situation that causes the emotional response of fear (for
example - confronting a lion) they will probably respond
in one of two ways - they will either stand and fight or
runaway. This response is automatic and requires no
thought (in language). Animals react in the same way,
indicating that this response does not require language.
However when the person has language skills and thought
then these skills become involved in the process,
sometimes with good result, sometimes not.
We can also have an emotional interpretation response to
our thoughts. We can think of something and it may make us
happy or sad, even though there may be no sense awareness
input. This is important as it can create a negative
feedback loop that can reinforce an emotional state.
Emotion and emotional response develops over life. As an
example of an emotional response that develops over time
we will take a brief look at the appreciation of beauty.
Firstly why is the appreciation of beauty considered to
be an emotional response? Consider something that you find
beautiful, such as a flower. Can you explain in words why
you find it beautiful? You could describe the colours, the
shape, the smell - by comparison - and the touch, but this
would not really be a satisfactory description of the
beauty of the object. This is because appreciation of
beauty is an emotional response, not a thought process.
Even if you attempt to describe your emotional response
(by poetry or comparison) it is not as satisfactory as
experiencing the emotional response itself.
Children, in general, have less appreciation of beauty.
As the child develops into adulthood the appreciation of
beauty grows. There are exceptions to this such as child
prodigies and they too may develop further into adulthood.
Examples of this are bountiful. People in childhood who
may dislike or not be interested in classical music, in
later life begin to appreciate the music. People's love of
the country scenery and environment may develop with age.
Artistic ability, the ability to create beauty, may also
develop with time.
Another example of an emotional response that develops
with time is love. It is an emotional response beyond
words and thought.
Thought is usually in the form of words but can also be
in the form of images and sounds that are in the head.
Thought can be concerned with what we are doing at the
present but is often involved in thinking about the future
and reviewing the past.
There are a number of different types of thought
processes that have developed over time.
The first thought process to develop is being able to
recognise and name the interpretation of the sensory
information from sense awareness. This involves memory as
well. Thought would take the shapes and colours from
pre-thought interpretation of sense awareness and would
think, "tree" or whatever it may be.
Being a social animal further language skills developed
to assist the social group to stay together and work
co-operatively through communication. This increased
survival chances of the group and consequently the
The next type of thought process is the development of
Self Thought (4). I class a thought as a Self Thought
whenever the thought is related to the self, the "I", what
the I is doing, has done, or should have done, in the
past, or will or may do in the future. It may also be a
thought about the relationship of "I" to another, or
others, or to another group. Self Thought is the result of
recognition that the individual while part of the group
can also be separate from the group. Self Thought contains
the self-image, in conjunction with memory, and includes
thoughts for the protection of the self, including both
the self-image and the physical self, through danger
Our self-image includes our perception of who we are:
our strengths and weaknesses, our likes and dislikes. The
self-image of a person is built up over time with inputs
from family, other relatives and friends, teachers and
increasingly often from the media. The thing to remember
about self-image is that, as it is part of our thought
process, it is just words and pictures in our head. It is,
as the words suggest, an image rather than necessarily
Self Thought often manifests itself as a stream of near
continuous chatter of thoughts. Largely the chatter is
innocuous, the daily ephemera of life - words associated
with the analysis of sense information, for example
whether you are hungry, hot or cold, and also minor
decisions - will you ring a friend or not, go to a film
etc. There may also be thoughts about past actions and
interactions with other people. These may be merely
recounting of events rather than being negative or
positive. I call this neutral Self Thought.
There are also positive and negative Self Thoughts. A
positive Self Thought may be "Gee, I did that well".
However there are also negative Self Thoughts. For example
-. "Gee I stuffed that up, idiot" and similar. Negative
Self Thoughts often arise out of thoughts for the
protection of the self, including the self-image and the
physical self. I will spend a bit of time going through
this aspect of Self Thought.
The human race evolved in family and tribal groups as a
survival mechanism for the individual - the individual had
a greater probability of survival if he or she stayed with
the group - safety in numbers. Language and consequently
thinking in language developed to assist the group to stay
together better and survive. One of the consequences of
this is that the individual had a desire to fit in to the
group - expulsion from the group could mean death -
expulsion was danger.
Various strategies were adopted so that the person would
be accepted by the group. The individual would endeavour
to fit in with the group norms. As a consequence of this
the individual would continually critically self assess to
ensure continued conformity with the group norms. Any
deviation from the perceived norm would result in anxiety
and the associated negative Self Thoughts.
In addition to this desire to conform to the group
norms, there evolved a desire to stay with the known.
Change was seen as dangerous, or more dangerous than the
known. The landscape and layout of an area would be known,
dangers, such as there were, could be guarded against and
controlled. Beyond the known area risks were higher so
there was usually no incentive to move to the area of
higher risk, unless where they were currently living for
some reason became more dangerous or less liveable. Again
change invoked anxiety and negative Self Thoughts.
These days the life and death dangers of our ancestors
are a lot less common. The main "dangers" we face are
"social dangers", the fear of making a fool of ourselves
and the fear of rejection from or status downgrade by the
group. Often these fears are unfounded. We could make a
mistake or think we have made a fool of ourselves however
we are usually not rejected from our group. Members of the
group are often more forgiving than we give them credit
for. It is in fact to their advantage to forgive because
they know very well that it could have been themselves
that made the error and they equally do not want to be
rejected from the group. However these days even if we are
rejected by the group this is survivable - we can get
another group, unlike many of our ancestors.
Family is a special form of group. Usually the ties that
bind a family are stronger than those that bind another
type of group. As such, family is usually a great support
to a person as they move about in the world.
In many ways despite the lack of physical danger we
still experience the emotional response that in the past
would have given rise to the fight or flight response.
However the fight response is now constrained, usually to
a verbal response if anything, and even the flight
response can be difficult. Consequently the emotional
response can be bottled up, resulting in the experience of
stress and anxiety.
Positive Self Thoughts also occur. A detailed discussion
of this will occur in Part 2, Happiness.
Many books on the subject tend to indicate that negative
Self Thoughts are more prevalent than positive Self
Thoughts. I think that neutral Self Thoughts are the most
prevalent form of Self Thought. Whether negative Self
Thoughts out-numbers positive Self Thoughts varies from
individual to individual, though it safe to say that most
people have a significant number of negative Self
Thoughts. I will leave the reader to examine their thought
processes and determine the prevalence of negative Self
Thought in their consciousness.
Intellect is our reasoning, planning and learning
ability and is the thought side of our skill set.
Intellect is not solely language based but can also
include images and symbols. The basics of intellect
developed prior to our language skills and were necessary
for the development of language skills. For example a dog
can have a degree of Intellect, it can learn skills and a
limited degree of problem solving without having a highly
developed language skill. However that said, Intellect
does make extensive use of language skills to develop and
express the ideas generated from Intellect.
As with language and Self Thought, intellect developed
as a survival skill, enabling humanity to foresee problems
and dangers before they occur and to plan and devise
methods to avoid them. However it has developed past
solely this function to a more general ability to study
our environment, to learn and develop theories about it
and apply the theories. Intellect in this context does not
necessarily mean university type intellect, it also means
the intelligence associated with, and necessary for, work
and other everyday skills. Everyone has intellect.
Intellect is quite different to Self Thought, though the
two can be woven together in our thought stream. As a
child I would learn my ABCs. This is a vital fact set
necessary for functioning in our society. As part of a
fact set it stands separate to anything to do with the
self, the "I".
Similarly with spelling. The spelling of C A T is a
fact. In later schooling is used to learn less tangible
ideas, theories and processes. We learn the basic
mathematics skill set of adding and subtracting. Self
Thought may use these skills - "If I have one orange and I
take another orange I will have two oranges." However one
orange plus one orange equals two oranges is a fact
regardless of who owns them.
Later this extends into more complex mathematical
theories. Remember trigonometry, quadratic equations and
differential calculus? These involve mathematical concepts
that require Intellect thought processes to learn and
Intellect is used in developing our physical skill set.
A builder develops a large amount of knowledge about house
building and a set of physical skills. This is not
necessarily a language based process though language is
used to gain, develop and communicate the skill set.
Assembling a timber frame is not a Self Thought process,
but uses Intellect knowledge to inform a set of physical
Self Thought often identifies with the Intellect.
Consequently as part of a person's Self Thought processes,
as part of their self-image, they may think, "I am an
intelligent person because I understand these difficult
concepts". However this is different to actual thought
related to Intellect. Einstein developing through
intellectual thought processes that "E=mc2"
cannot be considered as a Self Thought as it is not
related to the self-image and has universal applicability
- it is not just related to Einstein. Thinking, "I am an
intelligent person" is an example of a positive Self
Two important aspect of intellect deserves mention.
Firstly intellect can examine Self Thought. Provided the
person wants to, and is aware enough, the person can with
the use of Intellect observe and analyse Self Thought.
This gives the ability to recognise harmful aspects of
Self Thought (and therefore be able to do something about
them and perhaps vary subsequent Self Thought).
Consequently it can sometimes appear that there are two
separate "I"s in the head, the chatterbox Self Thought and
the analysing Intellect.
The second important aspect of Intellect is that it
gives the ability to formulate or adopt personal theories
about how society and the world operates and also the
values that are adopted by a person. Values are the
principles that are seen by the person as important and as
good and will be discussed at greater length later.
Creative imagination is our ability to create in our
mind stories and pictures of things that are new. Creative
iImagination can give rise to creativity, the physical act
of creating. The survival payoff from Creative Imagination
is less clear than other thought processes. It is probably
a spin off from our planning ability - if you can foresee
a situation that may occur, it is not that much of a leap
to be able to foresee a situation that may not occur or is
in fact impossible. A form of imagination is often used in
negative Self Thought to imagine disastrous situations
that could but probably wouldn't occur if we deviate from
the norm or seek change. This is not creative imagination.
Creative imagination assists in various intellectual
pursuits. Imaginative leaps may assist in the development
of intellect theories.
Again Self Thought often identifies with the Imagination
for similar reasons to those listed in the section on
Intellect. The reasons why it is not Self Thought are also
Relationship of Emotion and Thought
It is important to recognise that emotions and thought
are quite different to each other. An emotion is not a
thought and vice versa. However emotions can be
interpreted by thought (5). If you are feeling sad
then it is quite likely that your thought process will put
words to this feeling - "I am sad" or "I am feeling blue".
In this case the thought interpretation of the emotion is
This process can also work in reverse. A thought can
invoke an emotional response. Often the Thought can be
from a memory of a happy or sad event that will invoke
more than just a memory of the emotion but a
re-experiencing of the emotion, though probably at a less
Each aspect of consciousness draws on memory as a tool.
In relation to thought, memory is in the form of words,
including naming. Memory is involved in the recognition of
faces and other things. It also includes the memory of
concepts and ideas associated with the intellect.
In relation to awareness it is the memory of sense
information - sights, sounds, touch etc and the pre-thought
In relation to emotion it is the memory of past emotions
that arose from the interpretation of sense information. We
will remember how something made us feel so when we
encounter that object again or another similar object the
emotional response will be remembered making a different
emotional response difficult.
The subconscious or more correctly the emotional
subconscious also sits as part of Memory, and probably the
largest part. However unlike other memory the subconscious
is not readily accessible by the rest of consciousness. The
contents of the emotional subconscious bubbles up into
emotional awareness at which stage thought can become
involved interpreting the emotion into words. Conversely it
is very difficult for thought processes to affect the
content of the emotional subconscious.
Next Page - The
3. Also refer to Wikipedia entry
on the Fight
or Flight Response
4. Self Thought can be thought
of as "Ego" or "Egoic Thought" however these terms
have been used extensively in psychology (refer
Wikipedia Entry on Id,
Ego and Super Ego) and have particular meaning
from that discipline which is different from my usage.
Also in popular literature the term "Ego" can be
loaded with negative connotations. While Self Thought
has negative aspects it also has positive and neutral
5. It is possible that the
interpretation of emotion by thought is not direct. It
is possible that the emotion needs to be first caught
by awareness and that awareness is what is interpreted
by thought. This is a technical point and it is
actually not that useful to our understanding of the
interaction of thought and emotion. Whether we say the
interpretation is via awareness or direct the
important thing is that emotions are interpreted. For
the sake of convenience I will use the direct