Consciousness: An Outside View

(Originally published at Ribbonfarm.)

How can 'mere' matter, properly configured, manage to be conscious? Are chimpanzees or elephants conscious? Can a computer be conscious?

Today we will answer none of these questions. In fact, we won't even address them. These questions probe what David Chalmers calls, for good reason, the "hard problem" of consciousness. It's a notion so slippery that some have spent their whole careers misunderstanding it, while others flirt with denying its very existence.

But ours is not to get mired in this debate. Instead, we're going to do an end-run around the hard problem of consciousness by taking the "outside view." Rather than asking about consciousness in the context of an individual mind, we're going to step back and take a populations-eye view of it.

Enter here the field of epidemiology. Epi (upon) + demos (the people) + logos (study). The study of what is 'upon' the people.

Traditionally this has meant diseases — immunity, susceptibility, vectors, contagion, etc. But epidemiology can be used to study other things that live 'upon' the people. Dan Sperber, for example, uses the tools of epidemiology to study culture. In the broadest sense, it's the study of the patterns, causes, and effects of certain conditions within a population.

So today we're going to look at consciousness through the lens of epidemiology.

This isn't a rejection of the neuroscientific approach, but rather a complement. We're going to see how far we can get, and what interesting things we might be able to say about consciousness, without "looking under the hood," so to speak.

More precisely, though, our investigation will concern itself with different states of consciousness. We don't care about consciousness in the abstract (i.e., what distinguishes a man from a vegetable), but rather in specific instances. We'll be studying the different ways someone might be conscious. For example:

  • Sleeping or being awake.
  • Being drunk, high, or hopped-up on caffeine.
  • Different moods like happiness, awe, and fear.
  • Being hypnotized, in a battle trance, or mesmerized by a charismatic speaker.
  • Daydreaming.
  • Meditative consciousness.
  • The state of 'flow'.
  • Religious, spiritual, or transcendental experiences.
  • Collective effervescence.

Etc. — but these are just the states of consciousness our culture has identified and given name to. In reality there are hundreds of different states, each a characteristic pattern of attention and control. It's all about what we pay attention to, how we pay attention to it, and what kinds of control it gives us over our behavior.

If you'd asked me, six months ago, what consciousness looks like from the outside, I would have balked at the question. I was so thoroughly accustomed to looking at consciousness from the 'inside' — as something lived, felt, experienced — that I was blind to its external dependencies. But those dependencies are very real and (most importantly) observable, which is why epidemiology is a viable approach. Different state of consciousness have characteristic, observable causes and effects — i.e., triggers and behaviors — which make them ripe for studying from an external perspective.

But enough preambling. Let's begin our investigation.


Here's a provocative claim:

In most cases, consciousness isn't something that arises from within, but is instead modulated from the outside.

Yes, sometimes we enter a particular state of consciousness by act of will — as when we decide to meditate, or focus in the face of distraction — but these are the exceptions rather than the rule. In most cases, states of consciousness are systematically and reliably triggered by external stimuli.

To illustrate the point, here are some of the more important (external) triggers:

  • Drugs. The effects of drugs on consciousness are easy to understand. Take a few shots: get drunk. Drink a cup of coffee: feel focused and energized. Take ecstasy: experience instant love and empathy. Incidentally, drugs' power to trigger specific states of consciousness, intensely and reliably, is why they're such a political issue — but we'll get to that later.
  • Our bodies. I've written about this before — and fairly extensively — because I think it's an underappreciated fact about human behavior. What we do with our bodies changes how we think, feel, and perceive. Influence runs in both directions: the mind takes its cues from the body just as often as the other way around. Because of this, our bodies can induce different states of consciousness. Dance and you'll feel happy. Bow and you'll feel submissive. Stand tall and you'll feel proud.
  • The behavior of other humans. It's not just what you do with your own body that has an effect on your consciousness — it's also what others are doing with their bodies. One way this is achieved is through mirror neurons, empathy, etc. When someone frets anxiously in front of you, you'll often become anxious yourself. But other bodies can also trigger particular states of consciousness through synchrony, i.e., when your body moves together with other bodies. This induces a feeling of group identity, a sense of the collective, and feelings of affinity leading to enhanced trust. See e.g. Synchrony and Cooperation.
  • Our physical environments. Environments have predictable effects on consciousness. Frantic environments induce excitement. Quiet spaces induce focus. Vast spaces (like cathedrals, stadia) induce awe.
  • The tasks we are required to perform. Different tasks are triggers for different types of consciousness — i.e., different patterns of attention and control. The consciousness required for driving is distinct from what is required for programming — or for hunting, playing Tetris, dancing, reading a math book, doing improv, or being a trader on the floor of the NYSE. Each task requires us to attend to particular types of information (in particular ways), and to produce certain types of behavior while suppressing others.
  • Rewards and punishment. We can train ourselves — not unlike the way we train dogs and horses — to experience specific types of consciousness. The best illustration of this is industrial-age, classroom-based education (e.g. American K-12 public schooling). Education of this sort is a systematic exercise in training children to enter and maintain a particular state of consciousness, i.e., sustained, focused attention with control over one's impulses. All else being equal, the more a child is able to achieve this state, the better the child will do in school (with attendant rewards), while deviations from this kind of consciousness will typically result in punishment (through bad grades and/or disciplinary action). It's no coincidence that this is the type of consciousness required for factory work and desk jobs.

That consciousness is modulated from outside is rendered vivid by what happens when all these triggers are removed, as in a sensory deprivation tank. There, sequestered from external stimuli (light, sound, the presence of others, and even, so far as it's possible, our own bodies), our minds are 'free' to do whatever they like. But such freedom is unnatural, and the strange effects (hallucinations, out-of-body experiences) only serve to illustrate how much we rely on external stimuli to produce our 'normal', everyday consciousness.

Constructive and destructive interference

As we just discussed, different triggers induce different states of consciousness. But we rarely experience the effect of a single trigger in isolation. Instead we are subject to a constant barrage of triggers, and their effects must duke it out inside our brains.

It's therefore natural to ask, for a given set of triggers, whether they exhibit destructive or constructive interference. In other words, do the triggers — via the states of consciousness they induce — clash or harmonize within our brains?

Most triggers clash. Consider the task of working on a large Excel spreadsheet — a trigger for focused, analytical consciousness. Now imagine adding some other triggers. Alcohol? Nope, destructive interference. Sitting in a football stadium? Hugely destructive. Reclining in a comfortable lounge chair? Also destructive, if only mildly (by sapping your energy and focus).

What about listening to music? Well it depends what kind. If it's lyrical, it's going to compete for access to the verbal regions of your brain (which are necessary for programming). But if the music is instrumental, it won't interfere — and if it has a fast, heavy rhythm, it might even enhance the focus you're trying so hard to maintain.

Organizing triggers so that they interfere constructively (rather than destructively) is hugely important. Wherever we see harmony/constructive interference, we will find stable behavior patterns — including social behavior patterns crystallized into institutions. Our most successful institutions harness constructive interference across multiple triggers, to induce and accentuate a particular state of consciousness (or multiple states that harmonize with each other).

Museums, for example, are designed to induce and heighten a sense of reverence. The vast space, the pieces elevated on walls or pedestals (set apart and forbidden), the hushed tones, and the way people dress and move (carefully, methodically) — all contribute to putting visitors in a highly reverential state.

Nightclubs are exquisitely tuned to induce and heighten an embodied, sexual consciousness. Triggers here include loud, pulsing music, flashing lights, people dancing and bumping into each other, a sexualized dress code, and of course alcohol.

Spectator sporting events are designed for collective excitement. Triggers here include alcohol, huge crowds, a synchronized dress code (home team colors), and synchronized activities like cheering, chanting, and doing the wave.

Cathedrals and temples are designed to suppress ego-centered consciousness and enhance collective reverence. Triggers here include humbling, awe-inducing monumental architecture, beautiful ceilings (prompting a craned-neck/open-mouth posture), kneeling, bowing, holding hands, and synchronized chanting and singing.

These are just a few examples; we could apply this analysis to all sorts of other rituals and institutions. Libraries, coffee shops, and corporate offices. Pep rallies and parades. Choirs, concerts, and raves. Monasteries. Funerals and war memorials. Presidential inaugurations. Military basic training. AA meetings and KKK meetings. Casinos and shopping malls. Etc., etc. Each of these institutions assembles a variety of triggers which interfere constructively, in order to induce a specific 'cocktail' of consciousness.

Consciousness is contagious

If you take nothing else from this essay, let it be this: consciousness is contagious. Or more precisely, certain states of consciousness are contagious. Not all states, but many of them, and arguably most.

A good illustration of this is panic. Panic is a state of consciousness characterized by heightened attention and a frantic readiness to action (the "fight-or-flight" response), and it's especially (and swiftly) contagious. This is how stampedes begin. If your neighbors in a crowded theater burst from their seats and start screaming, you will 'catch' their panic as surely as a child catches the flu at school.

But panic is only the most vivid example of contagion. We are all, constantly, 'catching' states of consciousness from, and transmitting them to, the people around us. When we drink, we urge others to drink with us. When we yawn, our neighbors do too. When we watch sports, we get caught up in each other's excitement. When someone is sad, we get sad too.

This effect — of syncing up our consciousness with those around us — is so reliable, and happens across so many different states, that it suggests a general-purpose explanation.

In economics, a system is said to enjoy a "network effect" when each additional user provides benefit for all other users. Examples of such systems include telephones, railroads, and social networks like Twitter. When network effects are particularly strong, a population tends to converge on a single network — the so-called "winner-take-all" dynamic. It's hardly guaranteed that a single winner will emerge (there are countervailing forces, after all), but the economic benefits push people toward bigger and bigger networks.

A variety of human social systems exhibit network effects. The easiest to understand are languages and cultures. The more people who share a given language or culture, the easier it is for everyone to communicate with each other — i.e., the fewer miscommunications there will be, linguistic and/or cultural.

Now (as I will argue) certain states of consciousness also enjoy network effects. It's not hard to see why this should be the case. Consider the benefits of syncing up with those around you:

  • Better communication. When people experience the same consciousness, it's easier for them to understand each other's behavior and motivations. You can see this in reverse when people misunderstand each other due to different states of consciousness, e.g., when an extrovert mistakes an introvert for being unfriendly, or when someone who's been drinking mistakes friendliness for flirting.
  • Shared goals. Many states of consciousness are intentional (i.e. directed toward a goal), and often these goals are best pursued collectively. Political rallies, riots, religious worship, finding mates, watching sports or comedy, going into battle — all of these activities benefit from the presence of others who share the same goals and the same types of consciousness.
  • Shared environment. When we're synchronized with the people around us, we can benefit from an economy-of-scale by sharing a single environment (rather than requiring isolated environments tailored to each person). This is true whether we're pursuing collective goals or individual goals. Many students can use the same library, for example, even when they're studying alone.

If these benefits are hard to see in daily life, it's because most of us are mentally-healthy, well-adjusted adults. We synchronize with each other so effortlessly, and so automatically, that we hardly even notice. But it's happening all the time — as we can see from the (rare) examples when it breaks down.

Consider, then, the case of the drunk man in a coffee shop.

Before he enters, most of the patrons are synchronized on roughly the same state of consciousness: energetic focus. People are typing or talking in small groups. The room is warmly lit and buzzing with a pleasant amount of noise and energy. Everyone's sitting in a comfortable buffer of personal space and maintaining control of their bodies, taking care not to bump into one another or make any large, sudden movements. Most are happily caffeinated, but even those who aren't drinking coffee (or tea) are nevertheless striving for 'energetic focus.' (It's a type of consciousness accentuated by caffeine, not uniquely caused by it.) All of these factors are harmonizing to help people achieve a particular type of attention and control.

Now enter the drunk. Suddenly everyone becomes aware of an unwelcome, jarring presence. He's too loud. He moves clumsily. He bumps into people. If the other patrons don't realize he's drunk, they may even suspect him of being mentally ill. No one is enjoying what he brings to the room — nor, to be fair, is he enjoying what the room has to offer. It's too quiet, too calm, too uptight.

In other words, the drunk's consciousness is frustratingly out-of-sync with the coffee-shop environment. (And yet it would be perfectly suited to a nightclub....)

What this illustrates is just how carefully we are all, always, syncing up with the people around us (and with our environments), and how much benefit we're getting from this. When the synchrony breaks down, as with the drunk in the coffee shop, the network effects are greatly diminished — something we experience as social discord.

* * * *

What I hope to have shown here, so far, is that "states of consciousness" are a productive unit of analysis for understanding human behavior. Now let's see what these ideas can tell us about important social issues.

Mental illness

One way to think about mental illness is to note that it's less about objective disease states, and more about deviations from socially-acceptable patterns of consciousness.

I'm not denying that there are very real things that can go wrong in a human brain — even things that are objective, categorical pathologies. Rather, I'm simply noting that there are some politics inherent in the question of whether a given type of consciousness is useful or harmful, acceptable or deviant.

Imagine a society of people whose brains are wired so that they behave, all the time, like drunk nightclubbers. A calm, sober man would appear mentally ill to these people — just as the drunk appears mentally ill inside a coffee shop.

Or to use a real example, consider the aspirational diagnosis du jour: Asperger's syndrome.

It's no great revelation to point out that people with Asperger's attend to the world in a way that's different from how "neurotypicals" attend to the world. Aspie brains are great at processing discrete data (dates, numbers, words, logical statements, rules), but struggle with nuanced, messy, continuous social data. Aspies are also less expressive with their bodies and less comfortable with spontaneity. (If it weren't a 'syndrome', we might call this being uptight.)

So is Asperger's a pathology? The current consensus seems to be no. It's just a different type of consciousness, and it falls within the range that society finds acceptable. Aspies get along with neurotypicals without too much friction, and Aspie consciousness has undeniable benefits — for math, engineering, understanding computer systems, etc.

But tweak the balance of variables just a few degrees in any direction, and it's easy to see how Asperger's might get classified as unacceptably deviant. Being Aspie in a world of neurotypicals makes everyone's lives harder. Aspie folks thrive in different environments, and have different styles of body language and ways of relating with others. This can cause major miscommunications, as when a neurotypical mistakes an Aspie's flat affect for being dismissive, or when an Aspie fails to notice someone's "leave me alone" body language. In this way, Asperger's disrupts the network effects that neurotypicals enjoy with each other.

But Asperger's is interesting for an additional reason: it benefits from its own network effects. Put ten Aspies in a room together and they'll have a glorious time, exchanging all sorts of information — mutually (and blissfully) ignorant of each other's (quote/unquote) faux pas. In other words: Aspie consciousness harmonizes with itself. This sets it apart from other, more severe mental illnesses like paranoid schizophrenia. Put ten schizophrenics in a room together and brace yourself for some serious discord.


Analytically-speaking, drugs present a problem that's similar to mental illness. Where and how should we draw the line between acceptable and deviant? Which drugs are legitimate public health concerns, and which are 'merely' political issues?

Certainly, many drugs cause public health problems. Among these are heroin and methamphetamine, both of which are highly addictive and devastating, both for the individuals who (ab)use them and for the communities in which they live. Arguably this is true of tobacco as well, although the pernicious effects are physical (cancer rates, etc.) rather than psychological.

But not all drugs are problematic in the same way as heroin and meth. Marijuana and LSD, for example, don't seem particularly addictive or harmful. They're probably much safer than alcohol, for instance. Why, then, are they treated as such a threat — the perennial bogeyman of so many politicians and (let's be honest) much of the voting public?

The answer (I think) is that marijuana and LSD induce states of consciousness that interfere destructively with the way society is organized. Even though these drugs don't lead to violence or increased hospital bills, they are still somehow dangerous — somehow at odds with sober, Western-domesticated consciousness.

Over prolonged periods, these drugs can change the goal hierarchies of the people who use them. Someone who takes LSD regularly will, by virtue of attending to different facets of reality, find it harder to be motivated by the same things (and in the same ways) as the rest of the population. And since so many of our institutions, norms, values, etc., are orchestrated to harness a particular style of motivation (the work/consumption cycle?), someone who's using these drugs isn't going to resonate 'properly' with the rest of society. Turn on, tune in, drop out: and therein lies the trouble.

Any drug that can reliably induce discordant consciousness is a potential threat to those who aren't using that drug. But the threat will be especially pronounced when the induced consciousness has its own network effects. Marijuana and LSD aren't used in isolation (e.g. the way someone might take Adderall as a 'study drug'). They're enjoyed with others — in the context, if not always the immediate presence, of a community — and the consciousness that they induce harmonizes with itself. Thus these drugs are nontrivially contagious, and compete with the network effects of the rest of the population.

By no means am I the first person to point this out; it's what counter-culturalists have been saying for at least half a century. And for all I know, this is common knowledge. But for some reason, it never made sense until I looked at it through the lens of epidemiology.


Finally, and most tentatively, we can apply this framework to the question of how technology is re-shaping our conscious experience of the world.

In epidemiological terms, three things seem to be happening.

1. New forms of media are inducing new types of consciousness.

Of course this isn't a recent development — it's been going on for millennia. First there was language, which gave rise to verbal consciousness. Then came writing, from which literate consciousness was born. The introduction of photography heightened the visual aspects of our culture (with an attendant increase in visual consciousness), while moving pictures gave rise to an especially powerful, comfortable, trance-like state — one which has since fueled an incredible global addiction to 'entertainment.'

But the pace of change — in technology and consciousness — has only been accelerating. Notifications now claw incessantly for our attention. Reddit lets us submerge, anonymously, into the hive mind. Twitter helps us feel connected to the entire world in real time, even as we sit alone at a bus stop. Games like WoW enthrall and enchant us, inducing a state of flow so powerful we often forget to eat, drink, and even excrete. Meanwhile, users react to Workflowy — 'mere' mindmapping software — with sentiments ranging from romantic infatuation to narcotic addiction, and even to religious ecstasy.

Ask a software engineer her opinion about different programming languages, then sit back while she effuses, glowingly, about her favorites, and heaps blistering scorn on those she dislikes. Why such passion? Because each language requires a different kind of consciousness to navigate. And as consciousness is a personal, intimate experience, so too are our love affairs with different languages.

Technology, in other words, has created a broad set of new triggers, and our minds have learned new ways of configuring themselves in response.

2. Smartphones and wearable computers are changing the way we attend to, and interact with, our physical and social environments.

Drew Austin has written eloquently here about how these devices are refactoring city life. "The internet," he argues, "[now] functions as a back office to the city’s 'front end' of streets and public spaces." And at the same time, our experience with that 'front end' is increasingly mediated by the smartphones we use to navigate it.

The result is a devaluation of local, real-time perception. Ten years ago, walking the streets of a city, we were fully attentive to our surroundings; they were, after all, the best and richest source of information about where to go and how to get there. Now we choose destinations in advance — often from tailored, algorithmic recommendations — and navigate by tracking a blue dot on a map. If consciousness is a pattern of attention and control, then increasingly we are blending consciousness with our devices — paying more attention to them (and through them) and, more and more often, taking their advice.

But this kind of plugged-in, smartphone-enabled consciousness goes beyond changing how we navigate our physical environments. It also changes how we relate to each other.

For those who walk its streets, the city is (was?) a trigger for inducing a shared conscious experience with other pedestrians. Now we walk with our heads down, eyes and fingers glued to our screens, ears filled not with the symphony of the city — shared by all — but with headphones, fractured by songs, phone calls, and podcasts into a million different aural worlds. Once-public spaces have turned eerily private.

Meanwhile, omnipresent email lets us carve attention into ever finer slices, decoupling it from its traditional environments. With our phones, we bring our social lives to our offices, and our offices into our homes — and even into bed with us.

If there's any place to live in the moment, it's over food — yet I'm constantly reminding myself to "Be here now," because even among friends at a restaurant, my mind is elsewhere: intent on a screen that (like a portal) gives me instant access to anything, anywhere, except what's right in front of me.

God only knows what Google Glass will do.

3. Finally, technology is enabling better, faster, and richer communication between people — not to mention simply more communication — the predictable result of which is to strengthen the network effects of whatever is taking place 'on' that communication network. Language, culture, and (as I've argued) consciousness are three systems whose network effects will grow stronger as communication technologies improve.

In 1800, it was all but impossible for someone in the US to communicate with someone in (say) Germany, so it hardly mattered that we spoke different languages. In those days, the local, in-person network effects dominated the (much weaker) cross-continent network effects. Since then, every improvement in communication — telegraphs, telephones, satellite TV, cheaper flights, tighter supply chains, etc. — has made the language barrier more painful, and the Internet only takes us further along this trajectory.

Local languages are dying out, and local cultures and patterns of consciousness will die by the same forces. Maybe automatic translation tools will render the language barrier moot (by bridging the gap between languages) — but we'll still be left with culture and consciousness barriers. And every technology that improves communication will unlock more benefit for those who share the same culture and the same patterns of attention and control. Increasingly we will come to standardize on only the biggest networks: a homogeneous globalized culture, and a shared industrial-technological consciousness. Technology is pushing us, bit by bit, toward a single, unified human network.


Thanks to Kyle Erickson and Mills Baker for critiquing an earlier draft of this essay.

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Originally published July 29, 2013.