Week 7 Blog _ What Makes One Conscious? _ Sarah Van Cleve

While we spent most of our time in class this past week discussing consciousness, I still cannot come up with a solid definition for the idea. Of course, as we discussed the reason for this ambiguous definition or perhaps lack of definition of consciousness is our lack of understanding of the idea of consciousness itself. Still, we must try to define the idea if we are to discuss it. As I attempted to define consciousness I found several similar definitions by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary: “the quality or state of being aware especially of something within oneself; awareness; the state of being characterized by sensation, emotion, volition, and thought.” Though slightly different each of these definitions has the same idea of “awareness.” It is in the definition of awareness that the idea of consciousness can be interpreted in different ways.

To me, if one is aware then he/she/it must have a brain which can go through thought processes. For this reason I don’t think that plants and microorganisms like bacteria have consciousness or can make conscious decisions. Still, some like Siddharth Ramakrishnan define awareness in a different way. He believes that awareness is about the ability to react and does not always imply understanding of what the organism is reacting to. With this he implies that organisms even as simple as bacteria have consciousness because they react to stimuli in order to seek out food and shelter that will help them survive. My reaction to this train of thought is that bacteria are not seeking out food on purpose—it is what they are meant to do, programmed to do, and they could never choose to not do so therefore they are not conscious of their decision. Plants and microorganisms like bacteria perform the functions they are supposed to, no more and no less, just as a machine, like a clock that will always tick and keep the time because that is its purpose. Another way to question Siddharth Ramakrishnan’s definition of consciousness is to look at how the medical world defines “unconsciousness.” When a human is unconscious he or she can still react to certain stimuli like when one’s knee is tapped with a hammer causing a natural reflex of muscle contractions. According to Ramakrishnan’s definition this person who is medically known to be unconscious is conscious according to his definition only because his or her body can react to its surroundings.

With all of this discussion about living organisms without consciousness, I want to say that I firmly believe that all animals are conscious beings. Of course animals such as dogs are conscious beings with personalities (god knows my dog is pretty much a human in my eyes), but I believe that animals even as small and seemingly perfunctory as fish have consciousness and can understand the world around them to a certain degree. There is a common myth that fish have only a three second memory, but scientists believe that fish can remember specific occurrences for up to several months. Researchers have taught schools of fish that a certain sound implies feeding time so they are able to release fish into the wild and get these seemingly brainless animals to return at their command. I believe it is this ability to learn new actions, actions that are not merely instinctual to an organism that defines an animal as having consciousness.

Though I am very uneducated on the subject I’ve tried to make sense of what I’ve recently learned on consciousness and the mind. Hopefully I haven’t sounded too uneducated in my blog but I am taking some comfort in the fact that no one has the single true answer to the incessant question of what is and what has consciousness.


It’s just too bad fish don’t have personalities like Nemo and Dory.

By: Sarah Van Cleve

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