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VIEWPOINT: Awareness and Consciousness

By Bill Berthel

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Most of us believe what we see with our own eyes. At the same time, we know that looks can be deceiving. We all have at least some sense of the fallibility of our perception, and a healthy respect for the mysteries we cannot grasp.

We often use “awareness” and “consciousness” interchangeably to refer to our power to sense and make sense of the world around us. These words are useful, but they hide a great many unknowns. Where do consciousness and awareness come from? No one knows for sure, but neuroscientists, physicists, philosophers, and spiritual leaders are all very engaged with this question. 

Neuroscientists believe that in humans and mammals, the cerebral cortex is the “seat of consciousness,” while the midbrain may be the location of the emergent activity called awareness. What we think of as consciousness, according to these thinkers, is the sum total of billions of electrochemical interactions going on inside our brains.

But is it even possible to locate these faculties? Some neuroscientists and physicists suggest that consciousness and awareness extend beyond the brain. These ideas revolve around the “nonphysical” or “non-local” properties of consciousness. Following this line of thinking, certain thinkers believe consciousness is a fundamental property — an irreducible attribute that can’t be defined with other metrics. According to this view, consciousness is a thing in itself, like mass. 

If you’re anything like me, these ideas seem impenetrable at first glance. They might even seem pointless. Wouldn’t it be easier to say, “I think, therefore I am” and be done with it? But I believe there’s value in this line of questioning. Investigating the mysteries of consciousness has the potential to change the way we live and lead.

Let’s explore an idea that has been getting a fair amount of attention in philosophical circles: cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman’s “User Interface Theory.” It’s named after a computer interface, the set of tools and applications we see when we boot up our laptops or open our phones. The interface is a representation of the power of the device; it is a proxy for an infinity of computations happening in the hardware of the computer, all of which we can use without seeing or understanding them.

Take, for example, the small blue rectangular file on your computer’s desktop. This icon contains a collection of documents or spreadsheets that you have saved and expect to use at a future time. The information contained in the little blue rectangle looks nothing like a blue rectangle. The icon looks nothing like the document you’ve saved. It could look like a cheeseburger and still serve the same purpose. The icon is a simple interface that we use to navigate an incredibly complex machine. Most of us mistake the icon for the machine, but what’s behind the interface is something else entirely.

User Interface Theory suggests that what we experience as consciousness is not consciousness. Consciousness comes from a source we can never fully understand. It may well be impossible to explain with other metrics. We know it exists because we can access the interface, but we can’t get under the hood.

So, what does all this mumbo-jumbo have to do with leadership?

At Emergent, we believe that all intelligences, especially social and emotional, are essential competencies of effective leadership. And awareness is what makes social and emotional intelligence possible. Our ability to recognize and acknowledge our thoughts and feelings, as well as those of other people, allows us to create connection and act with intention. 

To do this effectively, we must practice meta-awareness: being aware of awareness. By acknowledging that our consciousness has unimaginable depth and breadth, we accept there are things that go on in our mind that we can’t understand. And relinquishing control over the uncontrollable allows us to focus our attention on what we can control. Eventually, we learn how to access the mysterious parts of our consciousness, the parts where those miraculous processes — flow state, intuition, love and genius — wait to be tapped. Being aware of the depth of our consciousness readies us to lead more effectively.

When we look for physical sources to our questions, we are limiting ourselves to the surface-level interface. Remember the Buddhist principle: you are not your thoughts; you are the observer of your thoughts. There is a power within you that cannot be accessed through normal thinking. Reaching it requires meta-awareness, mindfulness, and meditation.

If you’d like your head to hurt more, read up on the User Interface Theory. Few scientific theories are as confounding to scientists and laymen alike. But Hoffman’s ideas are challenging in the best way — by offering us a new paradigm of consciousness, they open doors we never knew where there.     


Bill Berthel is a partner with Emergent, L.L.C., a provider of executive coaching and leadership training, based in Syracuse. Contact him at Bill@GetEmergent.com