Mental Consciousness

As we advance in the scale of life, we are met with constantly increasing unfoldment of mentation, the simple giving place to the complex manifestations. Passing by the simple vital processes of the monera, or single-celled “things,” we notice the higher forms of cell life, with growing sensibility or sensation. Then we come to the cell-groups, in which the individual cells manifest sensation of a kind, coupled with a community-sensation. Food is distinguished, selected and captured, and movements exercised in pursuit of the same. The living thing is beginning to manifest more complex mental states.

Then the stage of the lower plants is reached, and we notice the varied phenomena of that region, evidencing an increased sensitiveness, although there are practically no signs of special organs of sense. Then we pass on to the higher plant life, in which begin to manifest certain “sensitive-cells,” or groups of such cells, which are rudimentary sense organs. Then the forms of animal life, and considered with rising degrees of sensations and growing sense apparatus, or sense organs, gradually unfolding into something like nervous systems.

Among the lower animal forms there are varying degrees of mentation with accompanying nerve centers and sense-organs, but little or no signs of consciousness, gradually ascending until we have dawning consciousness in the reptile kingdom, etc., and fuller consciousness and a degree of intelligent thought in the still higher forms, gradually increasing until we reach the plane of the highest mammals, such as the horse, dog, elephant, ape, etc., which animals have complex nervous systems, brains and well developed consciousness. We need not further consider the forms of mentation in the forms of life below the Conscious stage, for that would carry us far from our subject.

Among the higher forms of animal life, after a “dawn period” or semi-consciousness, we come to forms of life among the lower animals possessing a well developed degree of mental action and Consciousness, the latter being called by psychologists “Simple Consciousness,” but which term we consider too indefinite, and which we will term “Physical Consciousness,” which will give a fair idea of the thing itself. We use the word “Physical” in the double sense of “External,” and “Relating to the material structure of a living being,” both of which definitions are found in the dictionaries. And that is just what Physical Consciousness really is–an “awareness” in the mind, or a “consciousness” of the “external” world as evidenced by the senses; and of the “body” of the animal or person. The animal or person thinking on the plane of Physical Consciousness (all the higher animals do, and many men seem unable to rise much higher) identifies itself with the physical body, and is conscious only of thoughts of that body and the outside world. It “knows,” but not being conscious of mental operations, or of the existence of its mind, it does not “know that it knows.” This form of consciousness, while infinitely above the mentation of the nonconscious plane of “sensation,” is like a different world of thought from the consciousness of the highly developed intellectual man of our age and race.

It is difficult for a man to form an idea of the Physical Consciousness of the lower animals and savages, particularly as he finds it difficult to understand his own consciousness except by the act of being conscious. But observation and reason have given us a fair degree of understanding of what this Physical Consciousness of the animal is like–or at least in what respect it differs from our own consciousness. Let us take a favorite illustration. A horse standing out in the cold sleet and rain undoubtedly feels the discomfort, and possibly pain, for we know by observation that animals feel both. But he is not able to analyze his mental states and wonder when his master will come out to him–think how cruel it is to keep him out of the warm stable–wonder whether he will be taken out in the cold again tomorrow–feel envious of other horses who are indoors–wonder why he is compelled to be out cold nights, etc., etc.,–in short, he does not think as would a reasoning man under such circumstances. He is aware of the discomfort, just as would be the man–and he would run home if he could just as would the man. But he is not able to pity himself, nor to think about his personality as would the man, nor does he wonder whether such a life is worth living, after all. He “knows,” but is not able to think of himself as knowing–he does not “know that he knows,” as we do. He experiences the physical pain and discomfort, but is spared the mental discomfort and concern arising from the physical, which man so often experiences.

The animal cannot shift its consciousness from the sensations of the outer world to the inner states of being. It is not able to “know itself.” The difference may be clumsily illustrated by the example of a man feeling, seeing or hearing something that gives him a pleasurable sensation, or the reverse. He is conscious of the feeling or sensation, and that it is pleasurable or otherwise. That is Physical Consciousness, and the animal may share it with him. But it stops right there with the animal. But the man may begin to wonder why the sensation is pleasurable and to associate it with other things and persons; or speculate why he dislikes it, what will follow, and so on–that is Mental Consciousness, because he recognizes an inward self, and is turning his attention inward. He may see another man and experience a feeling or sensation of attraction or aversion–like or dislike. This is Physical Consciousness, and an animal also may experience the sensation. But the man goes further than the animal, and wonders just what there is about the man he likes or detests, and may compare himself to the man and wonder whether the latter feels as he does, and so on–this is Mental Consciousness.

In animals the mental gaze is freely directed outward, and never returns upon itself. In man the mental gaze may be directed inward, or may return inward after its outward journey. The animal “knows”–the man not only “knows,” but he “knows that he knows,” and is able to investigate that “knowing” and speculate about it. We call this higher consciousness Mental Consciousness. The operation of Physical Consciousness we call Instinct–the operation of Mental Consciousness we call Reason.

The Man who has Mental Consciousness not only “feels” or “senses” things, but he has words or mental concepts of these feelings and sensations and may think of himself as experiencing them, separating himself, the sensation or feeling, and the thing felt or sensed. The man is able to think: “I feel; I hear; I see; I smell; I taste; I desire; I do,” etc., etc. The very words indicate Mental Consciousness recognizing mental states and giving them names, and also recognizing something called “I” that experiences the sensations. This latter fact has caused psychologists to speak of this stage as “Self-consciousness,” but we reserve this idea of the “I” consciousness for a higher stage.

The animal experiences something that gives it the impressions or feeling that we call “pain,” “hurt,” “pleasant,” “sweet,” “bitter,” etc., all being forms of sensation, but it is unable to think of them in words. The pain seems to be a part of itself, although possibly associated with some person or thing that caused it. The study of the unfoldment of consciousness in a young baby will give one a far better idea of the grades and distinctions than can be obtained from reading mere words.

Mental Consciousness is a growth. As Halleck says, “Many persons never have more than a misty idea of such a mental attitude. They always take themselves for granted, and never turn the gaze inward.” It has been doubted whether the savages have developed Self-consciousness, and even many men of our own race seem to be but little above the animals in intellect and consciousness. They do not seem able to “know themselves” even slightly. To them the “I” seems to be a purely physical thing–a body having desires and feeling but little more. They are able to feel an act, but scarcely more. They are not able to set aside any physical “not–I,” being utterly unable to think of themselves as anything else but a Body. The “I” and the Body are one with them, and they seem incapable of distinguishing between them.