The Curious Person’s Guide To Theories Of Consciousness

It’s easy to be conscious and self-aware, but it’s another to comprehend what this consciousness actually is, how it works, and where it came from.

To this day, there are a number of working theories regarding consciousness — as is the case with other intangible questions of life that require much guesswork and faith, like religion.

Theories have existed for centuries regarding the mysteries of consciousness, which scientists continue to explore today. Here are some of the major ones, boiled down to the basics.

Higher Order theories

According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, higher order theories hold that consciousness is explained by the relationship between two levels of mental states, in which the state of a higher order takes the lower as its object.

By this theory, one is conscious of a lower state (for example: the pen I use to write) only by virtue of a higher state — that which allows me to understand the state of myself holding the pen.

Such theories present the idea of phenomenal consciousness (how something feels or has likeness), as compared to functional access-consciousness (something that simply carries usable information).consciousness2

Philosopher David M. Rosenthal of the City University of New York is a founder of this theory, and has published a number of papers regarding higher-order thought since 1991.

Global Workspace theories

First theorized by Bernard J. Baars, the Global Workspace theory suggests “a fleeting memory capacity that enables access between brain functions that are otherwise separate.”

Baars uses the metaphor of a theater to help clarify this idea, where consciousness is represented by a bright light on stage, directed by a spotlight of attention, where the surrounding stage’s darkness represents the unconsciousness — still present, but not in focus.


It is the sensory cortex of this “spotlight” which is key in this theory — a neural activation resulting in awareness of internal and external events on a short-term and long-term basis.

Biological/Evolutionary theories

Biological theories of consciousness attempt to make sense of awareness on a neurological level, viewing consciousness as a product of both evolution and development.consciousness3One such theory concludes that consciousness arises from a functional cluster in the thalamocortical system called the Dynamic Core of the brain, a network of both differentiated and integrated neurons that represent thought and memory.

Quantum Mind theories

Quantum theories of consciousness, in contrast, propose that classical mechanics can’t explain consciousness as the biological theory would have you believe. Instead, electrical dipoles from the brain’s water molecules create a cortical field, which interacts with the brain’s neural network to form consciousness.

One quantum theory proposes that these quantum states (cortical and neural) produce two poles: one of self, and one of the external world, which communicate between each other.

Another particularly controversial quantum theory was reinforced by January 2014 findings of quantum vibrations within brain neurons’ “microtubules” (structural components inside cells), inside which quantum coherence theoretically collapses to produce instances of consciousness.

Finally,  scientist Robert Lanza takes quantum theory as far as suggesting that space and time are only tools of the mind, our consciousness being part of a nonlinear multiverse in which perception determines the world’s shape and size, instead of the other way around.

In the end, it’s anyone’s guess where consciousness really comes from. You don’t have to be a philosopher or neuroscientist to speculate, but it certainly takes some brain power.

Originally published on February 4, 2014. 

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Jennifer Markert