I’m Curious: Where Is Your Consciousness?

by Jason Tougaw

I’m taking a poll: Where is your consciousness? Can you describe its location? For the sake of the experiment, let’s define consciousness simply, as an awareness of oneself as an entity in the world.

We talk about our inner lives. We wonder would happen if people could see into our minds? Literature professors talk about the ways novelists represent the interiority of characters. In other words, consciousness has something to do with the interior of the self. It’s to be found somewhere inside us. If you plug the word interiority into Google’s Ngram–an ingeniously specialized engine that will show you how often the word has been used in print over a particular number of centuries or decades–you’ll see a steady rise in its use since the 1960s, its use still increasing steadily today.*

But where? What container holds the experience we call consciousness? Recently, I wrote a post called “Touching Brains” in which I blithely suggested that there is no container. It’s not our bodies, I don’t think–though they have something to do with it. I wrote that interiority was a metaphor: “Immaterial phenomena like consciousness or emotion or memory are not things and they are certainly not places. They are placeless. There is nothing to be inside.”

My friend David Clement responded: “I feel cheated because I do feel like my consciousness is located inside me.” Then I realized I might well be imposing my own experience on others, without any evidence that other people feel the way I do. David feels his consciousness inside him. Who am I to argue? And, why haven’t I asked myself where I feel my consciousness?

If I stop to ask myself, where my consciousness is, I have a strong feeling that its center is about an eighth of an inch outside my forehead extending down toward my chest, but becoming more diffuse the further I get from my forehead. Where do I get this feeling? I have no idea.

Now, the poll: The basic question is, again, Where is your consciousness? Does it feel like it has a location to you? You can use the comments feature below to post a description of this location (or lack of one). Let’s compare notes. There’s no need to feel like you have a definitive answer or some profound insight. I’m really asking for gut responses about your experience. (Fair warning: I may ask you if I can quote you in some future piece of writing.)

I’ll leave you with a little Virginia Woolf, because she’s wise. And because she might help us all think about where we feel our consciousness? This is a famous passage from Mrs. Dalloway, in which Clarissa and the shellshocked Septimus Smith–strangers to each other–seem to share a perceptual experience “drumming” through London:

Everything had come to a standstill. The throb of the motor engines sounded like a pulse irregularly drumming through an entire body. The sun became extraordinarily hot because the motor car had stopped outside Mulberry’s shop window; old ladies on the tops of omnibuses spread their black parasols; here a green, here a red parasol opened with a little pop. Mrs. Dalloway, coming to the window with her arms full of sweet peas, looked out with her little pink face pursed in enquiry. Every one looked at the motor car. Septimus looked. Boys on bicycles sprang off. Traffic accumulated. And there the motor car stood, with drawn blinds, and upon them a curious pattern like a tree, Septimus thought, and this gradual drawing together of everything to one centre before his eyes, as if some horror had come almost to the surface and was about to burst into flames, terrified him. The world wavered and quivered and threatened to burst into flames.

Where is Clarissa Dalloway’s consciousness? Where Septimus’s? Inside them? Outside their foreheads? Somewhere out their in the wavering world? Is Septimus’s consciousness an arsonist, threatening to set fire to the world he shares with Clarissa?

 

*Ngram is a branded variation on the term engram, first used by memory researcher Richard Semon in the 1920s, to get at the idea that memory traces are conglomerations of tiny networks of neurons located in various parts of the brain. Each time we remember, a version of this conglomeration is activated–but with slight differences each time, which accounts for memory’s notorious malleability. The term has been revived by contemporary memory theorists (particularly Daniel Schacter) and by Scientology, whose methods promise the elimination of engrams that hamper or destroy people.

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