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What is Consciousness?

This entry was written by Margaret Adamek

Don Johnson (2004) outlines the widely understood Western definition of conscousness as a "ready-made reality to be located and explored: its boundaries and contents to be discovered by intellectual means" (p. 41). Another typical Western view of consciousness encompasses a hierarchical taxonomy of sentiency, where humans enjoy the most evolved consciousness, then primates, then other animals (and perhaps bumblebees), then plants (since they communicate via chemical messenger - which isn't really consciousness, but merely a physicalist chemical reaction), then primitive life-forms like fungi, bacteria and cells.

Because Body-Mind Centering emphasizes movement and its relationship to consciousness, its understanding of what constitutes consciousness diverges from this more conventionally accepted view in Western academia. Sheets-Johnstone (1999) defines consciousness as the "range of experiences that one has of itself as an animate form" (p. 77). She invokes an Aristotelian perspective on the nature and role of sensation in knowing, averring the importance of sensation and its importance to mind. Extending her reach even farther back and afield, Sheets-Johnstone explores the evolutionary roots and cross-species manifestations of consciousness, animation, and corporeality. Eschewing the notion of higher order and lower order consciousness, she proposes that as many patterns of corporeal consciousness exist as there are beings and that modifications in consciousness emerge as evolutionary descent unfolds.

This argument - tendered by Sheets-Johnstone and corporeally investigated by Body-Mind Centering - suggests that if the range of animate experiences we have constitutes consciousness, then there exists many states and forms of consciousness (what BMC describes as "mind"). There is bone consciousness, jellyfish consciousness, cellular consciousness, gravity consciousness, pushing consciousness, pulsing consciousness, fluid consciousness, all of which are accessible by the training and attenuation of attention. This means that humans are capable of manifold states of consciousness, any one of which can become the predominant experience in one's lifeworld simply through a skillfully shift in attention and movement.

Comments

Maggi writes:
“There is bone consciousness, jellyfish consciousness, cellular consciousness, gravity consciousness, pushing consciousness, pulsing consciousness, fluid consciousness, all of which are accessible by the training and attenuation of attention. This means that humans are capable of manifold states of consciousness, any one of which can become the predominant experience in one's lifeworld simply through a skillfully shift in attention and movement.”

Amy writes:
"jellyfish consciousness"? Do you mean 'jellyfish is conscious of x'? Or do you mean 'a person can be conscious of jellyfish'? As someone pointed out at M S-J’s lecture, we can’t literally/correctly/actually know what jellyfish experience is unless we really inhabit the cells/dna/physiological states of jellyfish and, I’d add, have survived/lived in jellyfish environments. But we can imagine being -- and doing -- our understanding of a jellyfish. We can convince ourselves and others that we are a jellyfish. Temporarily. Metaphorically. We act as if we were jellyfish. They (and we) have to believe we “have become jellyfish” for it to work.
The point may not even be that we are fully accurate. Thus, if we’re not doing jellyfish in water, we are not jellyfish. We just need to believe we have gotten doing jellyfish right. And convince other people that we are performing jellyfish (bear, lobster, whatever), so they will suspend belief and think we are jellyfish. Temporarily. Costumes help. Setting, and setting the scene matter. It would be odd for someone at one of Obama’s cabinet meeting to perform jellyfish, even if they could do a great job of it. But it would not be odd if they did jellyfish in an appropriate setting.
Is this what you and BMC mean by “jellyfish/bear/amoeba/etc. consciousness”? Using our powers of imagination and understanding to act as if? The idea seems to be that extending our awareness can help us to better understand ourselves in the world, and, perhaps, live a “better” life. Or maybe just enjoy the aesthetic experience of imaginative play and “creative dramatics”.

So, here's what I mean by 'jellyfish consciousness' - there is a movement pattern that jellyfish engage in - a sort of pulsing undulation. In Sheets-Johnstone's terms, this implies that a form of consciousness that a jellyfish is capable of is the potential inherent in its animate form. In other words, a mode of jellyfish consciousness is "pulsing undulation mind" - consciousness is this movement form. Similarly, during the early stages of human embryonic development, the cells embody a movement pattern that is the same pulsing undulation - what Sheets-Johnstone refers to as "cross species, kinesthetic invariants." We thus share this pulsing, undulating form or pattern of consciousness with jellyfish, whose movement patterns and cell structures are very much like those in early embryonic development of humans. Bainbridge Cohen asserts that these 'cellular memories' of movement patterns are retained in humans throughout their lives. In fact, these types of early developmental movement patterns underlie all human cognition. That's the development work in BMC.