Consciousness is about as ubiquitous a buzz word in the Bay Area as are smartphones in the hands of those who are talking about it. But what remains incomplete when using the word is understanding what people mean by it. Never one to use a word I can’t define (most of the time, except ubiquitous, I have no clue what that means), I’ve been wanting to know what everyone around me claims to be hacking on.
Being among the young horde of recent transplants to the epicenter of technology and moon-shot entrepreneurism, San Francisco, I’d have to hide under a rock to avoid invitations to consciousness hacking, bio-hacking, and/or transformative tech meetups. Either the rock, or just stay off Facebook for a while.
Recently, I was sent an invite to a consciousness-related event billed as: Mapping Consciousness: Understanding States and Flow Through Tech. There, I mused, the elusive definition for consciousness might be revealed. And maybe then, too, I could continue using the word in conversation without feeling like a phony.
You see, as I’ve conversed with my fellow tech-entrenched millennials, the mere mention of consciousness seems to evoke in them a serene excitement, revealing peaceful eyes lit up by an inner calm (or the never-too-distant glow of their electronic devices). “Sure, meditation is useful,” they might share, “and ayahuasca ceremonies are super intense, but how can we get some more data analysis involved in this process?”
Well, now we can.
With the aid of biofeedback tools, and even brain wave training centers, pursuits after consciousness could represent our modern era’s tech-assisted leap into a new evolutionary state; one in which there’s freedom from a brain that insists on functioning from a fight or flight mode of being, and instant access to the accumulated knowledge of every age before us is stored within our own minds.
It was only a matter of time, I suppose, as everything around us is being "hacked" and "disrupted" – education, transportation, accommodation, grocery shopping, parking, etc. – that the most ambitious innovators, scientists, and entrepreneurs would set their sights (or you could read: intention, if you catch my vibe) on something even more relevant to human lives – existence itself. But not just any existence. They are after a quality of existence that is characterized by compassion, peace, and altruism at its core. For a post-religious world, consciousness offers itself as a balanced – technologically, psychologically, and anatomically – path toward becoming one’s best self among a species that could directly influence the progression of its own evolution.
These possibilities both confound and intrigue the zen right out of me, and so I accepted the invite to check out my first consciousness-related event last week.
The event was hosted in an industrial park in Palo Alto at a school that was founded on providing education in transpersonal psychology, Sofia University. After stepping into the building, I joined a group of approximately 40 people gathered to hear from a physicist and a neuroscientist, Dr. Choukri Mekkaoui and Dr. Randal Koene, respectively. These two men, though working from different sets of disciplines, shared news from their research and how it relates to the study of consciousness, Dr. Koene in whole-brain emulation and Dr. Mekkaoui in multimodality imaging and diffusion.
Those in attendance were scientists, developers, techies, mindfulness fanatics, health care professionals, and researchers. More than once did I overhear the words "meditation" and "biofeedback" used in the same sentence, if that helps you understand the crowd any better.
Dr. Koene shared about his work in developing neuroprostheses – specifically, a microchip-based neural prosthesis for the hippocampus, which is the region of the brain primarily responsible for emotion, memory and the autonomic nervous system – that could replicate processes usually carried out by a healthy brain in the event that the hippocampus was damaged, as is common in cases of epilepsy, dementia, and/or stroke.
But remember, this was an event about consciousness, not merely maintaining the average functioning of our existing brains.
Dr. Koene really lit up when he began listing the implications of developing brain prosthetics that could act as “enhancements” for our neural networking. As examples, he suggested our brains could run more efficiently if we could suppress memories that we don’t want to remember (Explicit Forgetting); create a library and archiving systems for accessing memory in the brain; connect our brains to “the cloud” (Mind Uploading); and connect our brains with those around us (Create oscillations between Theta and Gamma brain waves).
As I intently listened, feeling as though I'd crashed a course that was way over my humanities-educated head, I began listing terms and ideas to look into later. It became clear that there exists a taxonomy within this consciousness world that needs to be learned, and I have some studying to do.
But, what about the word consciousness? I wanted to hear our speaker comment on the term that's become a kind of modern substitute for institutionalized spirituality. And eventually he did, kind of.
After his lecture, during the Q&A, someone asked Dr. Koene to define the term that had brought us all together that evening. Unfortunately, if there was a definition in his response, I lost it amidst the digression into talk about global binding, unitary percept, and how consciousness is not epiphenomenal.
I did, however, find what I was searching for in a conversation with someone after the event, a data scientist who had an impossible time convincing her coworkers to attend the event with her. “What are you talking about?” They wondered. While commenting on the somewhat inaccessible nature of discussing consciousness, I requested her working definition.
In profound simplicity, she replied:
Consciousness is one's experience of being.
This made perfect sense because it remained relative and personal enough to avoid placement in boxes that are too small to fit it. The implicit goal of the consciousness movement, after all, is global in both its nature and aspiration, like an all-surrounding force and/or Holy Ghost, depending on your narrative of choice.
If consciousness is simply "one's experience of being," then we are striving for something as profound as it is simple. We are venturing into the depths of what it means to be human. But, unlike in recent history, with the assistance of technology and science, we are now provided with language to speak about those depths, even able to capture images and live feedback from them.
Though I'll forever be skeptical of the inherent value of buzzwords, and the trends that they endorse, I can't help but feel excited about the attention being given to consciousness. If it's becoming trendy to have the boldest and brightest techies, scientists, and innovators turning their attention to developing tools that allow people to be more aware and kind in the world, then it seems we are heading in a positive direction. Rather than engineering the next mind-numbing, instantly-profitable app, multidisciplinary teams are banding together to engineer empathy and cultivate compassion. This is the era we now finds ourselves in.
As indefinite as the term may be, perhaps that’s fitting of the state we’re in right now, a time when tech is enlisted to discern the mysteries of human connection, our own awareness, and our mind’s potential. How can any one word represent a pursuit like that?
Whatever it means, let it be known, we live in the Era of Consciousness.