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Food for thought: consciousness as recognition of contrast

Food for thought: consciousness as recognition of contrast

Food for thought: consciousness as recognition of contrast

…at the beginning!

Whilst the idea of expanding individual consciousness and awareness is currently very en vogue—be it in terms of breadth using travel and technology… or depth using mindfulness, meditation, or maybe even a lil’ medication1—most can’t quite seem to agree on what the consciousness we’re all so keen on expanding actually is.

As with anything ever2, there are two distinct camps; with ideas falling on the gradient between the extremes. In this specific case:

  1. Humans are special—our consciousness is unique, never to be seen again!
  2. Humans are insignificant—we’re literally monkeys floating through space on a rock, bruh.

Although it’s easy to frame the first as an ego trip, and the second as… an ego trip in the form of the selfless admission of insignificance, it’s just as easy—and frankly quite necessary—for both to be true. But before we can even begin to discuss the hyper-compressed, multilayered, onion like mess of our own consciousness… we have to simplify, reduce, and distil the concept of consciousness itself to the most basic example accessible for a conversation that doesn’t have the entry requirement of a PHD;

prokaryotes. (pro-carry-oats)

Meet Perry3; our very own, personal example of a prokaryote.

Perry is an industrious little E. coli residing in the bustling metropolis of an chimp’s intestine—and our tiny friend is just one of the millions of microbes living in this diverse, thriving, banana loving ecosystem. Every day, Perry goes about his microscopic life, navigating the twists and turns of the intestine, swimming through rivers of partially digested food4; absorbing nutrients from his ever-changing environment.

Just as the rising and setting sun affects our environment in a distinctly recognisable way, Perry is quite sensitive to levels of nutrient concentrations and the way they fluctuate throughout the day. It’s a smorgasbord of chemicals, textures, and gradients that would leave any microbe dizzy with excitement, but this doesn’t phase—let alone overwhelm—our determined prokaryote! Perry cares about one thing, and one thing only; food. But what is food at this level and how does Perry find it?

Perry uses a mechanism called chemotaxis. Chemotaxis allows him to sense changes in chemical concentrations around him—like a Shoreditch hipster sniffing out the scent of a freshly brewed coffee amidst the other, more prominent aromas of the urban environment—and move either toward, or away from the source. And just like the hipster; it’s an automatic decision-free process.

A very simple game of “hot and cold.”

As Perry wriggles through the complex landscape of the intestine—propelled by his flagellum, a whip-like tail that acts as his personal outboard motor—he senses a faint whiff of glucose, and his chemotactic abilities kick into gear. Perry automatically adjusts his course, following the gradient of the enticing molecule. As he swims, the concentration of glucose grows stronger, telling him that he’s moving in the right direction.

Although there is an obvious oversimplification here, it’s not huge! The example uses a single dimension; glucose. Perry is ever-so-slightly a more sensitive being than I make him out to be… E. coli sense levels of acidity, presence of oxygen, and—with a small touch of genetic engineering—light.

When combined, these basic senses and the automatic reactions to them make up the apparent consciousness of Perry the Prokaryote—the way he seems to be aware of, and reacts to his world—but when separated each one can be distilled to a binary choice; yes or no.

Are there hydrogen ions5? Yes or no?
Oxygen? Yes?

Each of Perry’s senses can be mapped to a single dimension—a line—with the well defined ideal of the marker—be it a photon, a hydrogen ion, or the molecule for glucose—at one end, and its absence on the other. And although it may seem excruciatingly obvious, it is absolutely necessary to establish that dark—what we collectively agree on as the opposite of light—is the absence of photons, not the presence of something else!

As we apply this structure to any other sensory input we can get our hands on—exploring the range between a clearly defined ideal and its absolute absence—we come to a realisation. It is impossible to define hot without referring to cold, close without distant, left without right… awareness without ignorance. Consciousness is the space between the two;

consciousness is the recognition of contrast.

The awareness of the two extremes creating a dimension. The infinity between 0 and 1. The gray between black and white. The distinction between Yin and Yang.

The boundary between self and other; and the incessant drive to define it.

We must at this point recognise the subjective nature of the ideal; what constitutes an absolute feast for Perry the prokaryote is a toxin for one of his other microbic neighbours. It is this establishment of his personal, subjective ideal that defines Perry’s entire being—if he had other ideals to move towards, he would not be the same E. Coli that we’ve been following on his journey through the yet-to-be-fully-digested contents’ of a chimp’s gut!

Oh! Well… what about the chimp?

As we scale out and see the chimp as this strange amalgamation of prokaryotes, cells, and tissue—all with their respective ideals, dimensions, and drives… the chimp itself becomes a collective of simple consciousnesses forming a complex one! How different really is the succulently sweet scent of a ripe banana to the chimp, when compared to however a prokaryote perceives glucose?

Just because Perry doesn’t have the ability to tear my limbs out of their sockets if I stand between him and the glucose, doesn’t mean he wouldn’t. It seems nothing more than a question of scale…

And so with existential dread rising as a background drumroll, a simple question dawns;

what about us?

We romanticise and tell tall tales of the desire of humankind, but how different really are we?

We draw a line between other animals, other mammals, other bipeds; and ourselves… we are not like them. We’re intelligent.

This thought permeates through our fiction and our imagination of the yet-to-be-discovered world outside of the familiar. We yearn for intelligent life on other planets and labour toward artificial intelligence closer to home. We strive to discover something like us, because we consider nothing else we’re aware of to be it.

Is this is nothing but ego?

Let’s look past it and work from the admission that consciousness—no matter how simple—is consciousness, and what we define as “intelligence” is an abstract ideal in itself. One that could be looked at as the ability to expand to a higher, more complex form of consciousness; a broader recognition of contrast with a deeper dynamic range across an ever diverse set of dimensions.

The journey from zero…


  1. I’m not telling you to take drugs, I’m also not not telling you—go ask a doctor.

  2. Yes, literally anything—read the chapter…

  3. Perry the Prokaryote… all names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this book are fictitious. No identification with actual persons (living or deceased), places, buildings, and products is intended or should be inferred.

  4. What a delicious thought!

  5. Acidity is a measure of the concentration of hydrogen ions (H+) in a solution. The higher the concentration of hydrogen ions, the more acidic the solution is.

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