Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind

Author: Annaka Harris. 
Publishing year: 2019. 

Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind attempts to make a modern, revised and broader definition of consciousness. The goal is to invite us to take a new look at this fundamental notion especially in the light of the latest developments in artificial intelligence.

Conscious Mind

Annaka Harris starts her short book with an attempt to expand on the existing definitions of consciousness. 

Philosophers have been trying to formulate a framework for the conscious mind since antiquity. Recently, scientists are also taking a look at this, bringing notions of neuropsychology into their explorations.

One of the reasons we need a revised version of the conscious mind is due to our rapid advancements in artificial intelligence. In order to make ethical guidelines of how to treat artificial minds, we need to understand what they are, and aren’t.

The Dilemma 

The problem of spotting consciousness is two fold. 

First, consciousness might not have external manifestations. For example, we can consider the locked in syndrome. In this condition the patient is completely conscious but unable to communicate with the outside world. 

The second difficulty comes from the fact that behavior might not be representative for conscious state:

“The problem is that both conscious and non-conscious state seem to be compatible with any behavior, even those associated with emotion, so a behavior itself doesn’t necessarily signal the presence of consciousness.”

None of our normal behaviors require consciousness in the restrictive definition. We can eat, sleep, fight, love, without being conscious.

Girl with blue dress and yellow balloons running on a flower meadow.
Having an experience or not is the core of consciousness. 


According to new research, scientists can now say that consciousness is created as a past experience. First, our senses perceive reality: sound, light, color, heat and other input. Next, our minds build a reality using this information. As a result we experience events after they have happened. Our consciousness does not create reality, but rather helps us translated it:

“It seems much more accurate to say that consciousness is along for the ride watching the show, rather than creating it or controlling it.”

Basically, consciousness is created “after the fact”. The self as we experience it is created by our brain binding together different inputs from the outside world. For example: noise, color, light and smell.

“Without the binding process, you might not even feel yourself to be a self at all. Your consciousness would be more like a flow of experiences in a particular location in space – which would be much closer to the truth.”

Conscious Matter

In order to expand our understanding of a new definition of conscious minds, Annaka Harris highlights the theory that consciousness is everywhere:

“Perhaps consciousness is another property of matter, of the universe itself, that we have yet to discover.”

Flower under the magnifying glass suggesting conscious matter.
“Perhaps consciousness is another property of matter”

We know this theory as panpsychism. Even if this theory is not currently widely supported or even researched, we need to keep an open mind. 

According to the author, this idea is not weirder than the nature of quantum physics, parallel dimensions and alternative universes.

This is a short and eye-opening book. Without introducing any new revolutionary ideas, it does bring together a series of already familiar notions, highlighting the necessity to refocus our research on advancing our understanding of consciousness.

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