the body of time

The Evolution of Consciousness

Against the backdrop of millions of years of evolution, the question is often asked as to why consciousness should have evolved. What benefit or advantage does the ability for self-awareness, and the concomitant existential reflection that attends self-awareness, lend to us evolutionary? As conscious beings, we are partial to consciousness; it is the only way we know ourselves. But as we survey the world around us, we must acknowledge that nearly all other life forms do not possess this ability for consciousness. Why, then, are we the exception? If there is a biological reason, then do we come to life on the back of this ancient creature of time, man, merely to take a ride on an existential Ferris wheel? Do we get swooped up to see the stars, only to retire gently, and forever, at the end of the ride? Or has our consciousness evolved for another reason? Are we a most-favored species, selected by the gods to become as we imagine them?

Consciousness is a psychological experience, but as with all psychological experiences, it possesses a neurobiological corollary. As suggested in chapter three, consciousness is our ability to experience the experience of sensation as it occurs. When we gain consciousness in a dream, we are able to experience our experience of the dream as it is occurring, which allows us to make the fairly obvious observation that we are dreaming. But notice that with consciousness, we always experience sensation twice: first when it comes over the sensory wires to us, and then when we actively observe, or experience, our experience of the sensation. Thus we “see” our seeing, “touch” our touching, and “feel” our feeling. The extent to which we focus our attention on the experience determines the degree to which the experience is impressed in our memory. It also determines the degree to which the experience becomes part of our active awareness—that is, memory that is recalled.

As our experiments with consciousness progress through the course of this book, we will find that a striking relationship exists between consciousness and memory. And to return to our original line of inquiry, this relationship also suggests a simpler answer to why consciousness evolved than, perhaps, does divine intervention. Our ability to reflect radically enhances our ability for memory, which may be one reason why consciousness is valuable from an evolutionary point of view. The relationship that exists between consciousness and memory is most likely the great advantage of consciousness. This ability for reflection also ushers us into the paradigm of experiential existence. Welcome to the living.

©1995 Charles McPhee. Excerpted from Stop Sleeping Through Your Dreams: A Guide to Awakening Consciousness During Dream Sleep published by Henry Holt and Company, Inc.

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