A HIERARCHY OF CONSCIOUSNESS from Atom to Cosmos
Heartfulness eMagazine|February 2020
MARILYN MONK, Emeritus Professor of Molecular Embryology, University College London, shares some fascinating insights into the nature of consciousness from the perspective of science.
MARILYN MONK

Before I begin, let me confess that the study of consciousness is not my field. I am a molecular biologist. In over 60 years of my research of life at the subcellular and cellular level, I have been concerned with DNA replication and repair, cell signaling, epigenetics and regulation of gene expression in development, Lamarckian inheritance, regenerative medicine, early diagnosis of genetic disease and embryo/cancer genes. So why now consciousness?

Over the last year I have found presentations of consciousness studies very confusing. Is consciousness in the brain (as Francis Crick expounded), or not just in the brain but pervading all existence (as in panpsychism)? Does consciousness use material mechanisms in its operation, or is it non-material? Is consciousness a human phenomenon or is all life, and perhaps nonlife too, conscious? So, first of all, I asked myself where is consciousness for me? Experientially, I know in everyday activities I have consciousness. But then, in times of meditative experiences of wonder and beauty, when I am aware of being aware, I feel strongly that consciousness has me. As one who has always happily embraced paradox I think both are true. But is the mechanism of consciousness in either sense material? I decided to start with the definition of consciousness from the Oxford Living Dictionary, which is “The state of being aware of, and responsive to, one's surroundings.”

People who talk about consciousness studies are mainly concerned with human consciousness and may use definitions that are human-centered – indeed, the Cambridge Dictionary definition of consciousness is “The state of understanding and realizing something.” Certainly that has been the main focus since Descartes, who confined consciousness and mind to humans. More recently, there has been much debate about consciousness in animals – even in plants – and I have observed in my research, and in my love for all creatures on this earth, that all life is aware and responsive to surroundings. The term “aware” is certainly more of a human concept, and may be taken to include a huge range of consequences of awareness – sensations, feelings, self reflection, memory, imagination, and so on. But, as a biologist, when I consider the simple definition – aware and responsive to surroundings – I see consciousness extends outside of the human realm, though in lower life forms, or even non-life forms, we see awareness more simply as detecting and sensing surrounding environment.

Consistent with my usual approach to scientific exploration, I began without investigation of the vast literature on the topic of consciousness. In this way I hoped to avoid being overwhelmed by the myriad of ways of thinking about the topic. During my early studies I was mentored by a wise scientist (Professor Bob Pritchard), and then later by my spiritual teacher (Bhagwan Rajneesh or Osho), to approach my work of exploration with an open mind. Bob said to me don't read the literature before you begin – you will be indoctrinated and think it has all been done already. Rajneesh said to me that there should be no a priori hypotheses, no preconceived ideas guiding my research. So I decided to start thinking about consciousness at the level of the atoms, molecules, cells and tissues of my laboratory research, and found myself working my way up from the micro- to the macro-cosmos, looking for the mechanisms of consciousness (sensing environment and responding to change) at each level of increasing complexity.

My starting rules for this analysis were views I had already – specifically, that everything is interconnected and everything is in service to its own higher order structure. These principles came from influences in Edinburgh University in the early 70s: Henry Kacser taught the concept of interconnectedness as metabolic flux in the metabolome – the intricate interconnected biochemical pathways within a cell; and Conrad Waddington taught the concept of service as epigenetic programming of different cells in the body to serve their higher order structure – the different tissues and organs. My scientific approach was to look for material mechanisms of consciousness at each level. And, indeed, I found that material mechanisms were known at all levels, with a few exceptions that might require a greater knowledge of quantum theory and entanglement. Surprisingly, with such a materialist approach throughout, I ended up with a model encompassing a sense of belonging, meaning and purpose throughout evolution.

Just starting with consciousness as a state of being aware (detecting or sensitive) and responsive to surroundings, it is clear to me that my experience that I have consciousness relies on my senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. I also get messages from my body to my brain if I am hungry or tired or in pain, and messages from my brain to my body for different emotions I experience. And indeed messages from within the environment of my self as I am conscious of my mental functions of memory, imagination and the machinations of mind (the latter more confined to human life). These are functions of human brain/body communication. A lot (but not all) is known about material mechanisms involving the wiring of millions of neurons in the brain, and transmission of signals between brain and body via informational molecules binding to special cell receptors. However, it is evident to me that all forms of life have consciousness but at different levels of sophistication of the consequences of their consciousness.

A worm is conscious – it detects and responds to changes in its environment. A bacterium can detect a gradient of sugar involving special receptors on its surface and responds by transferring the information to its means of movement, its flagellae, to swim towards a food source.

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