“We all woke up this morning and we had with it the amazing return of our conscious mind. We recovered minds with a complete sense of self and a complete sense of our own existence—yet we hardly ever pause to consider this wonder.” ~ Antonio Damasio
What is consciousness? Is it a mysterious energy pervading the universe or an emergent function of your neurons? Let’s look at what we know: You are reading this page on a computer screen. Light from the screen hits your retinas, which convert it to signals that the brain processes and transforms into language. Your capacity to perceive these signals and translate them into something meaningful in the brain is called awareness. Awareness allows an organism to notice its environment and to generate responses to it. Yet awareness and consciousness are not exactly the same thing.
Although casually use awareness and consciousness as synonyms, most of our awareness is actually subconscious. For example, your brain is closely monitoring your blood sugar level right now, but you’re not conscious of it. In the same way, the majority of organisms in nature are highly aware of their surroundings, and yet have no ability to be conscious of their awareness at all. This capacity for basic awareness is typically located in the brain stem, and is roughly the same in human beings as it is in all vertebrates.
Human beings have the added capacity for self-awareness. Simply put, this means that we can be conscious of being conscious. Consciousness is a complex ability which may be generated in the prefrontal cortex and other high-level regions of the brain. Scientists hypothesize that consciousness is generated by brain networks that specializes in monitoring the activity of other brain networks. Metaphorically speaking, if awareness is composed of maps of the environment and the organism, consciousness is a map of those maps. Thus it seems that consciousness is an emergent property of the physical brain, and nothing more is needed to explain its underpinnings.