Sunday, December 28, 2014

Further Thoughts on Consciousness and Mental Health

Some very rough, rambling thoughts.

As I reflect on on all I've discovered regarding various mental states and why they become undesirable, two things keep standing out – energy and levels of consciousness.

Energy is essential to life and to higher mental states. Low energy leads to lower mental states. Higher energy leads to, or is at least necessary for, higher mental states.

Let's look at higher levels of consciousness. First the concept that there are levels of consciousness.

Not all people are on the same level of consciousness. I am going to leave for now how many levels there are and what exactly they might look like.

Consciousness at its basic level is how we experience the world as I was outlining in my series “Consciousness Explained”. In that sense most higher orders of animals would have a conscious experience. I cannot say how far down the order of animals consciousness would be experienced but it would depend, I'd think, on the level of development of their brains.

Consciousness as humans experience it then would be a product of our more advanced evolutionary development. I think it could also be argued that it is tied to, or perhaps is the very essence of, intelligence (in the bowels of my mind I have a piece tying together higher levels of conscious experience and higher intelligence).

It is hard to say at what point of human evolutionary progress that consciousness as we now know it, as we are now capable of experiencing it, began to develop. I would say that it would have begun to take place as homo sapiens started forming stronger social bonds (and indeed if you look at the animal world, what are considered the more intelligent species all have stronger social systems; consider all our closest evolutionary cousins in the primate world, dolphins and porpoises, elephants or, outside mammals, crows. (I know, by the way, that dog lovers will tend to first think of dogs but I am only including species that live naturally in the wild)).

I believe higher conscious states – that is states in which we are more than merely experiencing elementary sensory awareness of what's going on around us – started to evolve as shared human experiences began to evolve. I believe for this to have happened first modern forms of human language would have had to evolve for it was shared language that first began to truly bond humans together in the sense we now know bonding.

Higher states of consciousness might be described as a sort of elation, a higher state of well being, a sort of “seeing” (in the understanding sense) on a higher level, a sense of self-empowerment. Nirvana is one word that has been coined and used to describe these states.

These states can be achieved two ways – individually and collectively. The former may be easier, for reasons we'll look at, the latter more difficult but perhaps which creates a stronger, longer lasting state of higher consciousness.

There is something known as collective consciousness. I think this may best be thought of as a collective or “group” mental state. The deeper roots of this could be, I'd posit, traced back to very basic herding instincts and mass behaviour. These states occur, or can occur, without any explicit communication between members of the group. We sense or pick up visual and auditory cues from those around us and act as one. A stampede would be a very obvious example of this. If you have ever observed a large flock of birds fly as one (in which they literally appear as a cloud; starlings and dunlin are two species that provide excellent examples of this), this too would be a form of collective consciousness (and humans are still perfectly capable of stampede or flocking behaviour). We could think of this as a very low or rudimentary level of collective consciousness or even individual consciousness for that matter.

At some point groups would have begun to harness this power – and it certainly is a form of power (and one that can easily be manipulated but we'll leave that for today) – in more meaningful ways, likely around the time humans began to develop dance and music. It is easy to look back in human history at various cultural pasts and find examples of group dancing rituals accompanied by simple rhythms that achieved a collective state of higher elation, of higher “seeing”, a higher state of consciousness.

Today we have many examples we can look at, some are arrived at spontaneously, some with established ritual. For latter examples one could look at various religious rituals that are performed as groups. Certain revivalist churches can provide excellent examples (and it is in these induced higher states that people experience “seeing God” or “feeling God's power”). For spontaneous examples, we might look at musical concerts in which the performance is particularly moving and the audience all attuned to the genre and style of music. Without anyone communicating, the entire audience will experience something very similar and even fall into highly coordinated behaviour (listen at the end of some live recordings and often you'll hear the audience's clapping become more and more rhythmic until everyone is all clapping on the same beat).

Sports performances of all kinds can achieve a similar experience of higher collective consciousness where participants and observers alike will comment that the athletes were all “on the same page” (though not in a scripted sense). It can be seen in musical performances as well though again, not in the scripted sense. A musical collective conscious experience would arise out of jam sessions or ad lib sessions that don't follow any known or written musical score.

For these states to happen we have to be together (hence collective). This is because it it necessary for our brains to pick up on the visual and auditory cues of others. It is also necessary for there to be a group “agreement” on what is being experienced. We couldn't achieve a higher state of collective consciousness at a classical musical performance, for example, if none of the audience liked or understood classical music.

Mental states are thought to be achieved through brain wave activity though not exclusively so. Certainly certain neurochemical and hormone levels would be affected and involved. I couldn't say for sure, but in the whether the chicken or the egg comes first question, I'd hazard to say that brain wave activity coordinates or stimulates neurobiological activity, at least in the case of levels of consciousness (and there's some good evidence, if I'm not mistaken, to bear this out).

I'll put forth then that what happens in collective consciousness is that the brain wave activity in each member of the group begins to oscillate on the same waves and thus the actions of each member become coordinated. This would be why the rhythms of music and dance are so powerful in achieving collective states of consciousness.

To tie this back to low mental states, or low or “depressed” conscious experiences as I like to put it, this is why isolation is such a powerful and cruel perpetuating factor in depressed states and perhaps in highly disturbed mental states as well (I'd argue the likelihood of this is very high, actually, but I'll leave that for another time). For a wide variety of reasons, one's brain can't “connect” to that of others or if it does it's in negative and disrupting ways thus it is not only just difficult, but perhaps physically impossible to experience higher mental states.

Briefly for now, this ties back to energy. For reasons I'll have to outline at another time, energy is necessary to create consciousness and thus to achieve higher mental states. Certain energy levels are also necessary to connect to others. Higher mental states, and connections with others, can stimulate higher energy levels for sure but for those higher levels to be achieved there has to be the ability to create the energy at the cellular level in the first place.

Energy itself is a collective state. The energy we experience is created by each individual cell in our body (which number in the trillions, including hundreds of billions of cells in the brain). Each cell works away at creating its own energy. The energy engines of each cell are called mitochondria and these number in the thousands in each cell. Given the trillions of cells in our bodies and brains this means our “energy engines” number in the thousands of trillions (a number too vast to imagine for most of us) and somehow we experience all these trillions and trillions of individual efforts as a collective “one” of energy. It is a process not dissimilar to the energy of the universe (which is why theories of quantum mechanics are often sought to explain it).

Back to consciousness and higher states thereof, one can of course take an individual path to a higher state of consciousness. I think some are naturally inclined to this path but for others it becomes perhaps necessary. If one cannot “plug into” a collective consciousness and achieve higher states in that way, then there is no choice but to seek them individually. This in a sense may be an easier - or perhaps simpler is a better way to put it - path to higher states of consciousness as it is not necessary to find or be with others to “plug into”. One can explore ways to achieve higher states of consciousness without interference from others (and in a reading of spiritualism in cultural histories from around the globe one would encounter numerous examples of individuals achieving higher states of consciousness, the most widely known of which would probably be that of Buddha). But this too requires at least certain levels of energy in both the physical and mental sense (though mental and physical energy are both produced in the same way we experience them differently although both are modulated by the same brain nodules).

All of this leaves me convinced that energy is at the core of depressed states (and perhaps many other “maladaptive” states as well but again, another time). In another piece I'll lay out the “energy economy” of the brain, what effects it, what damages it and how this affects our mental states. As a hint though, various kinds of stress would be involved and how the stress response system reacts to those. As well, not all bodies and brains (or to be more precise, the collective trillions and trillions of cells that “we” are comprised of) create energy equally nor do we all react to acute or chronic low levels of energy the same.

Energy, it all comes down to energy. Energy is life, life is energy. Human life is human consciousness, consciousness requires energy. Higher consciousness means (or requires) high vitality, vitality requires the ability to manufacture energy.

No energy, no life.

Which leaves me with the question, without fundamental energy, without its fundamental life force, at what point does one “pull the plug”?

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