The inquisitiveness about consciousness is as old as the inception of homo sapiens species and it is as prevalent and mysterious as God. Philosophers have been contemplating on it for thousands of years but the more it is studied the more confusing it becomes. Since most scientists are either atheist or agnostic, they were never interested in this topic, also because they did not foresee any potential in the research of consciousness. Scientists largely found this topic ‘unfit’ for science. Although the topic of consciousness was discussed in psychology that was never considered a mainstream science because of lack of empirical research. Finally, a scientist of mainstream science Dr. Cricks, a Nobel prize winner for discovery of double helical structure of DNA, veered off from molecular biology and put great efforts to start research on consciousness. As of today about 100 research papers on this topic are being published every year and research on consciousness has been established as a full-fledged discipline of science.

I have bifurcated the discussions on consciousness based on conceptual differences between consciousness in East and consciousness in West. In the first part I have discussed studies on consciousness by the West and in the second part I have discussed the studies on consciousness by the East. The conceptual difference arises because of the difference in approach of study. The Western world has been largely materialistic traditionally. Therefore, most scientists think that in the physical world there is nothing beyond matter and consciousness has emerged from matter, that is, from complex assembly of neurons in the brain. Scientists are studying consciousness with this premise.

The study of consciousness started in the East, in the prehistoric period, perhaps 7000 years ago when Rishis (Whom I call ancient scientists) started the tradition of meditation. Many Rishis studied the nature of mind and consciousness through meditation and the knowledge they acquired is compiled in ancient scriptures, Vedas.  According to Vedic model of mind, consciousness is generated by Atman, the Soul.

The earliest study of consciousness in the West is attributed to Greek philosopher Plotinus, who proposed that consciousness is related to experience. According to him the self is made up of different layers of consciousness, each layer representing a different experience. Thus, Plotinus was the first to introduce the notion of subjectivity. In addition to subjective experience, Plotinus may be the first to attribute consciousness to the divine soul and introduced the idea of hypostasis, which is akin to the concept of ‘Brahman’ given by ancient Indian Rishis and seers and is the basis of Advait Vedanta.

Aristotle used the word mind for consciousness and proposed the theory of how the mind senses external objects and events and makes an impression in mind. His work can be considered as laying the foundation of science of mind. Aristotle can be regarded as the father of materialism though he never used the word materialism. According to him, anything that exists, even the soul, must be an embodiment of a material. He also defined the material as the one which can have form or the formulable essence. Aristotle may be regarded as a pioneer in setting the terms of reference for the future discussion of the problem of consciousness.

Rene’ Descartes, a renowned mathematician and philosopher, discussed mind and consciousness through a famous mind-body problem. He identified the mind with consciousness and self-awareness. He considered the brain as the seat of intelligence. In his views, the mind is a non-physical and therefore non-spatial substance. Descartes went ahead of previous philosophers and said that the mind cannot be discussed without reference to the body (brain). According to him, mind and body are distinct and separable, and this duality of mind and body is known as Cartesian Dualism. Discussion on consciousness was limited to philosophical debate till the time of Sigmund Freud who was first to discuss consciousness in the realm of science. He used the concept of consciousness while developing a model of mind based on which he proposed the psychoanalytic theory of personality. Though the model of mind and Psychoanalytic theory faced harsh criticism and collapsed,  it paved the way for future research.

The study of consciousness became a subject of scientific investigation when American Psychologist William James, one of the foundation pillars of modern psychology, first coined the phrase “stream of consciousness” of which thoughts are the content. In this way he was quite close to understanding the nature of consciousness.

I believe the credit of speeding up research on consciousness should also be given to Mahesh Yogi, the Indian spiritual guru, who taught and popularised meditation in the West. Since meditation is nothing but the control of consciousness, many scientists started designing experiments to study the effect of meditation on the mind. It was Francis Crick who launched a sort of campaign to convince the scientists that consciousness is really a subject of mainstream scientific research. He was aware that the subject of consciousness was viewed with deep suspicion in the scientific community. Therefore, he wrote in a 1979 editorial of Scientific American:……the time has come for science to take the previously forbidden subject of consciousness……. As a part of his campaign, he wrote a book: Astonishing Hypothesis : the scientific search for Soul. According to the book, emotions, ambitions and sense of identity are results of behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. He was first to outline an empirical approach to study consciousness for which he chose visual consciousness. He collaborated with Chistof Koch and introduced the concept of Neural Correlate of Consciousness or in short NCC.

David Chalmers posed the Easy problem and Hard Problem of consciousness. Giulio Tononi, a neuroscientist proposed integrated information theory (IIT), which he claims can predict whether a system is conscious or not. By 2004, consciousness research was established as a full-fledged multi-disciplinary field integrating psychology, neuroscience, philosophy and physiology. Large number of research papers are being published every year in mainstream journals and journals dedicated to consciousness study. A centre for consciousness study in University of Arizona and many similar research institutes have been established with an objective to bring together disciplines like philosophy, cognitive sciences, neuroscience, physical science, and medicine.


Consciousness is a very broad term with multiple meanings. Oxford dictionary defines consciousness as The state of being aware of and responsive to surrounding or a person’s awareness or perception of something.  Merriam Webster dictionary defines consciousness as the quality or state of being aware especially of something within oneself. According to Cambridge dictionary, consciousness is a state of understanding and realizing something. Psychologists, scientists, and doctors adhere to this dictionary definition of consciousness. Every normal human being has the experience of being conscious of its surroundings via sensory organs and conscious of what is going on in the mind and body. According to scientists and psychologists, human beings have the ability to be conscious because of a quality  of the brain  which they call ‘consciousness’. The scientists consider consciousness a physical entity that has emerged from brain and they even have proposed a mathematical expression for it which is denoted by symbol ɸ. According to an assumption the consciousness is a physical entity like heat, light and sound etc., but so far they have not found any physical property of consciousness which is normally attributed to physical entities under the realm of Physics. The widely agreed notion about consciousness is the intuition that it exists. Perhaps this may be the reason why consciousness is not a topic of research in Physics. Although there is no well-established physical property of consciousness, the psychologists have agreed upon various states of consciousness. Here I have differentiated consciousness from conscious-ness. The conscious-ness is an abstract noun derived from the adjective conscious and consciousness is a hypothesized physical entity. Psychologists, based on observations categorized many states of consciousness:

          (1) Fully conscious, when a person is fully awake. (2) Fully unconscious, when a person is in deep sleep, or when a person is under influence of drugs or he is under coma. (3) Inter-mediatory conscious when a person is in sleep but dreaming. (4) Altered state of conscious-ness when a person is under the effects of recreational drugs.

There are many other usages of the word ‘conscious’: When a person drives the car for the first time, he is fully conscious but after he learns driving the car completely, he becomes less conscious.  These states of consciousness have anything to do with consciousness is a matter of research. However, some modern scientists are so confident in treating consciousness as a physical entity that they are talking of consciousness as having information and have proposed integrated information theory.

Many ancient philosophers expressed their views on consciousness which are different from that of modern scientists who relate consciousness to awareness and subjective experience only. The philosophers who advocated Physicalism like Aristotle regarded consciousness as a matter, he used the word soul  for it. Many philosophers used the words mind and consciousness interchangeably. For example, Rene’ Descartes did not distinguish between mind, consciousness and self-awareness. According to him consciousness is a non-physical and non-matter entity but still can interact with matter (brain). Baruch Spinoza though not used the word consciousness but according to him everything that exists is a substance, a substance of God and the thoughts which appear in the mind are given by God.

There are not many physicists who expressed their view on consciousness partly because most of them are materialistic.  Max Planck who is the father of quantum physics expressed his idea on consciousness. According to him: I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot……….  Another physicist Eugene Wigner has similar views. He said: He could not have completed his research on quantum mechanics without postulating consciousness. The proponents of Panpsychism have similar views on consciousness, but they use the word mind for consciousness. According to the theory of Panpsychism: The mind is the fundamental nature of the world which exists throughout the universe’.

The concept of consciousness was first given by Rishis (Indian ancient scholar) and is extensively discussed in Vedas. In Sanskrit it is known as Brahman,  which is all pervading, infinite, eternal truth, and bliss which does not change and is the cause of the origin of the universe. In Vedas, Brahman is discussed with the concept of Atman. When translated in English, Brahman is translated as Universal Consciousness and Atman is translated as consciousness. According to Advait Vedanta, Brahman and Atman are not two (Advait) but one and same. They differ in quantity only; while Brahman is infinite, Atman is finite. When Lord Krishna says in Bhagavad Gita to Arjun: Atman is eternal and indestructible…… It is a big hint to modern scientists that consciousness is a form of energy, which is fuelling (giving life, prana) every living being.


It is really a matter of concern that after three decades of research (and about 100 research papers being published every year), there is still no universally accepted definition of consciousness. Scientists offer an unscientific sort of description of consciousness instead of defining it. There is a general agreement that sensation and subjective experienceConsciousness is a quality or a state of being aware of an external object (surrounding) and something within oneself (mental phenomena) such as thoughts, feeling, emotion, 

It is not because of proper understanding of consciousness but because of proper and scientific designing of experiments, that consciousness research has proven to be actual and functioning discipline and reproducible and meaningful results are being obtained. Despite such results, research on consciousness is still at surface level only. Some of the objectives of current consciousness research are as follows: (1) To understand inner workings of the brain to find a possible treatment of mental illness and psychological disorder. (2) To develop the model of mind in respect to mind-body problems, and (3) To understand the origin of consciousness.


Before discussing the problems in consciousness research, it is required to discuss briefly what research is being conducted and how. There are mainly two types of research being conducted; (i) finding the NCC, neural correlates of consciousness and (ii) measuring the level of consciousness i.e. to what level a person is conscious. The framework for research on NCC was devised by Crick and Koch, the founders of consciousness research. Neural Correlate of Consciousness, NCC, is defined by Crick as the minimal neuronal activity jointly sufficient for any specific conscious experience. In layman language, NCC is the physical footprints of conscious experience. NCC can be elucidated with some more detail like this: Any subjective experience such as tasting a dish, listening to a piece of music or fantasizing, gives rise to a physical activity (in terms of electrochemical changes) in the brain called neural activity. There  is a serious objection to this definition of NCC. The time scale of neuronal activity is in milliseconds while the vibrations in light are in the order of 500 Terahertz which imply that neurons cannot respond to ultrafast changing Electromagnetic field of light and therefore fundamentally  the neurons cannot distinguish between red colour and green colour.  Consciousness comes into picture only because a person can have subjective experience when he is conscious, i.e. consciousness is required for subjective experience to take place. The subjective experience takes place in mind, but corresponding neural activity takes place in the brain. Theoretically, there is a one-to-one relationship between a subjective experience and neural activities which can be measured by brain imaging tools. In a single neuron, the neural activity can be thought of as a pattern of changing electrical and chemical parameters in amplitude and time. In fact, a single subjective experience activates a group of large numbers of neurons, so a neural correlate is integration of electrochemical changes of all neurons in the group. Since there are activation thresholds and phase shifts involved, the entire mathematical job of integration is extremely tedious and demands very complex computer computation which itself is very challenging. The estimate of neural activities calculated in this way necessarily and regularly correlates with specific subjective experience. In this approach of research there are many problems and challenges:

(i)       It is not evident from this procedure, where consciousness, a physical entity, is involved. If a person is listening to high pitch-sound, the auditory signal produced in cochlea is of high frequency and so the time variation in neural correlates will be fast which is a physical phenomenon and nothing to do with consciousness. If a person is unconscious, there will be no subjective experience and hence no neural correlates. That means the consciousness functions like a switch or a gate and what we are getting is a neural correlate of subjective experience and not of consciousness. To study the effect of consciousness, it will be necessary to vary the amplitude of consciousness and study the effect of variation on neural correlates. But a person is either completely conscious (fully awake) or completely unconscious (deep sleep). This will require varying the consciousness level from outside to perform an experiment. But nature has not provided any knob on the head to vary the level of consciousness.

(ii)     In order to establish a relationship between subjective experience and neural correlate, it is necessary to know subjective experience accurately which is a challenging task. How truly the subject is reporting the experience cannot be ascertained. Thus, the approach for finding NCC is not truly empirical and hence not fully scientific in nature in the sense that the conclusions cannot be drawn with the same accuracy as in the case of research in the field of pure sciences.

Another empirical research on consciousness was initiated by G. Tononi. He pioneered a technique, called Zap-Zip, to probe whether a person is conscious or not. In this experiment a sheathed coil is placed in contact with the scalp and a pulse of magnetic field is sent into the brain by passing a pulse of high current in the coil, a process which they called Zapping. The response of neurons in the brain was recorded by an array of EEG sensors. The pulse of the magnetic field perturbs the normal value of tiny currents of neurons and EEG records a perturbed response from neurons. Analysis of output from EEG revealed a mess of damping oscillations from a bulk of neurons. There was no regular or completely random pattern to draw any conclusion. The data of EEG was compressed using an algorithm generally used to zip a file in computer or mobile. The compression of EEG data yielded an estimate of complexity in the mess of oscillations, which is called “Perturbational Complexity Index”. The index provides a very crude approximation of consciousness but reasonable enough to confirm the behavioural evidence of consciousness.

Since the brain is highly interconnected and has an extremely complex structure, the data obtained from any experiment is expected to be complex. G. Tononi made use of this complexity to develop integrated information theory (IIT) to quantify consciousness. Tononi postulated that consciousness has intrinsic causal power associated with complex mechanisms such as the brain. As an example, he quotes “in cerebellum, the mechanism lacks integration and complexity, so it is not conscious”. IIT theory derives a parameter which quantifies consciousness, from complexity of underlying interconnected structure of the brain. The IIT theory is yet to be verified experimentally.

In addition to IIT theory, the ‘Talk of the Town’ in the scientific community engaged in consciousness research is “Hard problem of consciousness” formulated by David Chalmers, a mathematician turned philosopher. On the issue of understanding consciousness, he formulated the “Hard problem on consciousness” in contrast to the “Easy problem of consciousness”. The easy problem is to explain how the mind has the ability to discriminate, integrate information, report mental state, and perform different functions. The requirement is to specify a mechanism that can perform a function of mind. Although most of the easy problems are yet to be solved, there are less challenges. The hard problem of consciousness is related with the experience or Qualia – a term used by philosophers for subjective experience. The hard problem of consciousness is about explaining why and how we have subjective experience while interacting with the environment. Why people have phobias, and why phobias are so powerful. We know very well that some events are innocuous, but still we do not dare to face them. Subjective experiences have power, they feel like something pushing us back. According to Chalmers, Hard problems will persist even when all easy problems are solved, and it may take another 100 years to solve the hard problem of consciousness. I strongly disagree with him. In fact, the philosophers are there to pose the problems. It is a scientist who solves the problem. In my view philosophers are like politicians who create problems and linger on it to take benefit from it. If all problems in nature are solved what will philosophers do, so they create and pose problems for survival.

Biggest problem in consciousness research stems from what we understand by consciousness. Are  we studying Consciousness – a hypothesized physical entity or are we studying Conscious-ness – an abstract noun derived from the adjective, ‘Conscious’. This point is supported by writings of Dr. Crick, in which he described consciousness as ‘conscious awareness of subjective experience’. This description of consciousness does not appear to suggest that consciousness is a physical entity. At another place Dr. Crick mentions that there are specific neurons in the brain which are responsible for consciousness and he referred to it as awareness neurons. This notion of consciousness itself limits the functional significance of consciousness because it would imply that the role of consciousness is to generate awareness and subjective experience.

Neuroscientists and philosophers both accept the problems and challenges in consciousness research and express their helplessness in resolving them. As Anil Seth, Prof. of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience, rightly says, It looks like scientists and philosophers might have made consciousness far more mysterious than it needs to be. In my view, when there is too much research on a topic than reasonable, with no output it becomes mysterious. Seth adds further that instead of finding neural correlates of consciousness, one must try to find explanatory correlates which actually accounts for subjective experience. According to Morton Overgaard, “One major obstacle for consciousness research is lacking consensus of how to optimally measure consciousness empirically” and to identify neural correlates of consciousness which is not possible unless we can measure consciousness. A scientific tradition and procedure demand that it is necessary to define a parameter before measuring it. Thus, it is yet to be established that consciousness is a physical entity. It is a big paradox that extensive research has been done for the last three decades on an entity which is not yet identified as a physical identity.

We should also not overlook the views on consciousness expressed by Max Planck, father of Quantum Physics. He quotes: I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness. Not only Planck, many renowned scientists and philosophers also treat consciousness as fundamental. The idea of Panpsychism is nearly the same as the idea of Max Planck on consciousness. Greatest philosophers of all time like Plato, Spinoza, Leibniz, William James, and Bertrand Russell have advocated the idea of Panpsychism. It is a matter of great surprise that present research on consciousness is based on the idea that consciousness has emerged from matter (neurons) – an idea opposite to the idea of greatest minds of all times.

When I personally look at the whole scenario of consciousness research, I am reminded of an analogy which I heard at a very young age of about 14. I used to accompany my father to Satsang for discourse by Sant Kirpal Singh (Maharaj Ji), a saint from Radha Soami Lineage. In one of the discourses, Maharaj Ji described how people are searching for God and to explain that He used to tell a story according to which five dwarf and blind persons are asked to investigate the shape of an elephant. One person has an approach for the trunk, the second person has an approach for huge ears, the third person can access the middle portion of the body, the fourth person can only investigate the tail and the fifth one can touch the foot. After the search is over, they are asked to describe the shape of the elephant. Each person could describe their part only, nobody could describe the shape of the elephant as a whole. Likewise, the mind is equivalent to an elephant and to completely understand the mind, all aspects of mind are required to be studied because study of different aspects may reveal different aspects of consciousness. These aspects, in short, are mental events, mental function, mental properties, consciousness, and relationship of mind with body. In the layman’s language, mind has to be studied to understand human behaviour, mood swings, emotions, motivation, and cognitive activities – thought generation, root cause of stress, depression, anxiety, mental disorders, mental illness, origin of conscious awareness, problem solving capability and everything that human being is capable of doing. This also includes various mental states of meditation such as bare concentration, state of pure consciousness (zero thought), state of Samadhi (zero-breathing) and Kundalini activation. The research on consciousness to study Qualia or subjective experience is only equivalent to investigating the tail of an elephant only.

It is my intuition that a solution to the mind – body problem to explain above mentioned functions and properties of mind might be possible through Advait Vedanta. The intuition is not out of a prejudice, but it is based on my study of Advait Vedanta. I have not only studied Advait Vedanta extensively but I have found from my experiences during meditation that Vedic description of mind is true. There is a need to advance the ancient work on consciousness by Indian Rishis with the help of modern scientific developments.