Updated: Aug 13
The introduction to our book, Consciousness in a Nutshell: A Psychonautical Odyssey is now available for everyone to read and understand just what creative nonfiction is.
We hope you all enjoy!
- Jay & Lindy
First his eyes widen, then he creeps down low, watching. Inching closer and closer to his prey, he flattens himself out and raises one paw. Eyes narrowing, he starts to wiggle his butt and sway his head side to side. You can tell he’s moments from pouncing, when you start to wonder…Why is he moving his head and body like that?
Or how about you’re at a restaurant. You’re sitting in the main dining room, just waiting for your friends to arrive, when somewhere behind you a clumsy waiter lets a champagne flute topple off his tray and come crashing to the floor. Without even having to think, you instinctively swivel around to your 5 o’clock with enough time to see the base of the stem break off and come skirting across the dining room floor.
But how did you know where to look?
Or what about when you’re running late to a movie theatre across town. You thought you knew the way, but after about ten minutes of driving, you start to get the sneaking suspicion that you might be lost. Panicking, you fire up your phone’s GPS app, and within seconds your phone’s receiving pings from at least three or four satellites—orbiting thousands of miles away—and yet somehow, based on the time-lag differences between these pings, your device is able to workout your exact location inside of ten feet.
How is this possible?
In all three of these scenarios, the champagne flute, the cat, the GPS satellites; the concept of triangulation is what’s saving the day. Technically, with GPS it’s called “trilateration” but the same basic principle still applies. If you know where Satellites A, B, and C are, then based on these three known data points, you can determine an unknown fourth data point (where you are).
With each sway of his head, the cat’s not only capturing a different image of his prey on the backs of his retinas because he’s also helping his brain to compare the difference between what his left eye sees and what his right eye sees. That way, when he finally does make the jump, he does so with pinpoint precision.
With the champagne flute, the sound of the breaking glass hits your right ear about eight millionths of a second before hitting your left ear, and without you even having to know what interaural intensity difference is or what interaural time difference even means, your unconscious mind is still able to localize the sound and orient your attention fast enough for you to still spin around, catch the tail-end, and stop a piece of the flute sliding across the floor with your foot. Three cases of triangulation; three scenarios in which we harness the power of known data points to solve unknown ones.
So now, the question is; when it comes to tracking down the elusive definition of consciousness, might we be able to employ a similar strategy?
To answer that, we present this book. A creative non-fiction or narrative non-fiction novel that seeks to inform as it entertains. Calling forth only the best arguments from neuroscience, biology, and philosophy to answer the age-old question: What is consciousness?
In many ways, we already know what consciousness is. We feel it every morning when we open our eyes. We experience it waxing and waning as the day marches on, until, sometime after sundown, when it all starts to slip away. Descending into an altered state of consciousness we call sleeping, here, we’re not exactly awake, but we’re not exactly shut-down either. Rather, we exist between worlds, as our brains consolidate memories and clean house.
This is consciousness. Fleeting but persistent. Inseparable yet mysterious. You could say it’s the very thing that makes life worth living, that it’s the very thing that defines our capital “B” Being. Hell, you could even say that consciousness is the only reason that something like meaning even exists, for without some sort of experiencer, or conscious agent, how could there be meaning?
Meaning necessitates an interaction; a subject. And as far as we know, the only thing that’s capable of producing meaning in the entire universe is us.
Too often, at lectures and events, I’ll hear physicists and cosmologists purposefully trying to trivialize our existence. Standing on stage, lecturing about the immense size of the cosmos, they’ll say things like, “We’re just an average-sized planet orbiting an average-sized star in a relatively small-sized galaxy that has somewhere between 100 and 400 billion stars in it.” Then, holding their hands like they were bragging about some big marlin they just caught, they’ll boast about how even our galaxy is just one of trillions. After that, they’ll either mention the fact that there’s a supermassive black hole at the center of each galaxy, or they’ll start comparing the age of our universe (about 13.82 billion years) against the fact that our species has only been around for the last 200,000.
That we’ve only been recording history for about the last 5,000 years.
Then, as if they were actually going to say something profound, they’ll point at the ground and slow their speech. Like a commander leading their troops into battle, they stand up tall and milk that last sentence for all that it’s worth, capping off their little diatribe with something to the effect of, “So in the grand scheme of things…we don’t matter.”
And right out the gate I have to vehemently disagree with this position. Not with the facts but with the conclusion. Sure, we might be living on a small mote of dust amidst the grand sea of the cosmos but the fact that we have conscious experiences at all is no trifling matter. For a moment, just consider the idea that it took nearly 14 billion years for the universe to produce something that definitively has a consciousness, or that the oldest fossils we’ve ever found indicate that life has been existing on this planet for at least the last 3.5 billion years. Conservatively speaking, that means it’s taken at least 3.5 billion years for life to be able to ask the question: What am I? And only about a couple thousand years to generate a reasonable response.
To quote Sir Julian Huxley, “Evolution has become conscious of itself.”
And if we only took an extra second to think about what that quote implies, I seriously don’t see how anyone could ever utter the words, “We don’t matter.”
Put it this way, between your ears sits this three pound lump of flesh (the most complicated object we’ve ever discovered mind you) and yet, somehow, this bundle of neurons can ask questions about itself like: Where do thoughts come from? Are other animals conscious? And why do we even have brains in the first place?
Surely in the age of fMRI’s, EEG’s, and Positron Emission Tomography we’ve made some headway with this, haven’t we?
For nearly a decade, this has been the subject of my partner and I’s research. Collecting and collating all of the greatest minds and philosophical insights under one roof. Meticulously combing through all of the most alluring arguments and then breaking them down into more easily digestible chunks that might readily fit inside a semi-autobiographical narrative. If we’ve succeeded, then I think you’ll find what follows to read a little less like a medical journal and a little more like a one-on-one chat with an old friend. Like most books in the creative non-fiction genre, there’s a story to help guide you through the topic. In Stanislavski’s landmark acting book An Actor Prepares it’s a “mock diary” you’re presented and get to learn from, whereas, for Consciousness in a Nutshell…it’s a letter. Told through the eyes of a knowledgeable, up-and-coming neuropsychopharmacologist.
You see, Konstantin Stanislavski (one of the greatest acting teachers of all time) knew he could never recreate the emotionality and weight of the acting conservatory experience simply by publishing his lectures verbatim. So instead, what he did was, publish three narratives: An Actor Prepares, Building a Character, and Creating a Role (all written from the perspective of an up-and-coming student named “Kotsya”). He could have theorized abstractly, but Stanislavski opted to have a dialogue instead.
To write his teachings down, in a diary, as if he were one of the students himself. Pulling bits from his life, his lectures, and then weaving it all together with a bit of fiction, Stanislavski found that he could expose more of the psychological components to acting than any textbook ever could, helping to secure his three-part series into the top five best books on acting ever written. Granted, this book is not about acting, per se, but it turns out that a lot of the same problems arise when you’re trying to teach someone ‘how to recreate a psyche’ as do when you’re trying to teach someone ‘what a psyche is.’ As a consequence, this book cannot be presented in your usual run-of-the-mill non-fiction form. Instead, it’ll be presented more like a dialogue. Like light, consciousness is one of those subjects that’s hard to wrap your mind around. We so desperately crave the kind of definition that could fit on a t-shirt like: “Light is a particle” or “Light is a wave,” when the truth is actually much stranger.
Light is both a particle and a wave.
And understanding this key fact about light is step one in understanding the complexity of consciousness.
To show you what I mean, just pretend we were trying to describe what light is instead. Supposing that were the task of this book, the first thing we’d probably do is have the reader closer their eyes and picture the rainbow. Asking them to picture all the all the colors they’ve ever seen; every sunset, every full moon, every shade of green. Then, once it felt like we both had some confidence in what light is, we’d pull out some game-changing fact like: All the light that our eyes can even detect is less than one-half of one percent of the entire electromagnetic spectrum.
Of course, whenever we usually start thinking about light, the tendency is to only picture visible light, like sunlight or fluorescent lights, because more often than not, we forget about x-rays, gamma rays, ultraviolet, and infrared. Simply because we can’t ‘see’ them, we forget about microwaves and radio waves too. And yet, the fact still remains, they’re all forms of light; we just don’t tend to think of them that way. Truth is, they all exist on the same spectrum—inside the very room you’re sitting in at this moment—it’s just that human beings only evolved the sensory modalities necessary to perceive one ten trillionth of the entire electromagnetic spectrum!
Against this backdrop, if we truly were trying to have a discussion about light, it would certainly follow that we couldn’t just talk about the tiny band of light we can see because we would also have to talk rather extensively about the light we cannot see. In addition to that, we couldn’t just talk about light as a particle (a photon) because we’d also have to spend at least half our time talking about light as a wave. And to make a quick parallel here, we simply cannot talk about consciousness as it’s normally perceived. Matter of fact, to get anywhere at all, we’re going to have to talk about consciousness when it bends and it breaks. When it’s altered. Much like a cat swaying its head from side to side capturing different images of what its prey looks like, we too are going to have to consistently “shift our perspective” so that we can tackle this subject from many different angles. Call it a multidisciplinary approach, call it a systematic disentanglement of a complex issue through various fields of study this is the only sensible way to talk about consciousness. A multimodal conversation that spans the fields of psychology, cosmology, ethology, astrophysics, evolutionary biology, filmmaking, coding, cognitive neuroscience, philosophy, mythology, ecology, psychonautics, and neuropsychopharmacology.
To be clear, not a single one of these fields that can give you the answer to ‘what’ consciousness is or ‘how’ it came about…but the combined effort of all of them can. And to be perfectly honest, you don’t even have to be an expert in any of these fields to understand this topic. Although, you do need to have at least a working understanding behind these various fields of study which is where “James” comes in. Our faithful narrator. By following the story of his research and how he came to understand consciousness, you will be catapulted into and out of all of the aforementioned topics.
Presented in four unequal parts, it should probably be stated that everything about this book was constructed with momentum on the mind. Carefully leading the reader through some of the biggest breakthroughs in scientific history and some of the most compelling philosophical insights ever made.
In Part I, we’ll mainly be discussing the brain and a few key characters as we seek to gain knowledge around some of the neural correlates of consciousness and begin to understand how the structure of the brain informs that experience. Then, in Part II, we’ll provide the reader with a story that contrasts normal, ‘unaltered’ brain states to non-ordinary states of consciousness like anesthesia, dreaming, sensory deprivation, the psychedelic state and so on, in an attempt to solidify some of our vocabulary. In this way, the first two parts are really designed to help prime our brains and develop the shared terminology we need to have so that we can finally have a proper conversation about “where it all comes from” in Part III. Here, we’ll finally be able to map our understanding of ‘what consciousness is’ onto an actual timeline. Showing just how and why something like a conscious observer could even evolve in the first place. Then, right on top of that, we’ll be discussing the philosophical implications of conscious minds, before whipping everything we’ve learned into a frenzy of comprehension in Part IV.
Agreeably, the first three parts will be protected under the narrative non-fiction contract, however, the final portion entitled “Interpretations” will not. Reason being, there are many different ways one could interpret the facts. For instance, some people look at the size of our universe, only to conclude that its empty, void, and meaningless. While others, such as ourselves, see just the opposite. A rich, grandiose, tapestry of life of which we’re not only a part of but connected to.
Matter of fact, one of the biggest advantages to having a brain like ours is this ability to shift and change perspectives. To ingest long-form arguments, in the form of a book, and come to see our place in the world in a new and novel way. Just like time, consciousness is still one of the great mysteries of science, although, this story should get you closer to a lot closer to an understanding of that psyche because what you’re holding in your hands isn’t just one person's take on the matter; it’s humanity’s greatest crack at the age-old mystery.
A celebration of sorts, not only for how far we’ve come but for that curious thing we all seem to share as a species; consciousness.