On consciousness and behaviour

– Tom Van Iersel, 2006

Everyone knows what behaviour is. But when asked to define it, things become a lot more complex. In a generalised description of the concept, you can state that behaviour is an activity of living organisms. It is a process, an activity; not a thing. When we claim that a non-living thing exhibits behaviour, we are actually projecting upon it. Another principle of behaviour is that not all activities of living beings are behaviour. The conscious control of activities is the demarcation that allows us to separate behaviour from other activities. Behaviours of which you say you can actively or consciously do: for instance “I eat” – but not “I produce insuline”. The majority of the processes going on in your body fall outside the control of your consciousness. You don’t generally have a feeling of being able to control and influence your body temperature, nor the accompanied sweating.

Defining consciousness is difficult: it is the most essential experience we have, and any attempt to define such an experience with words and language seems doomed for failure. Quoting Samuel Johnson: “This difficulty [of making definitions] is increased by the necessity of explaining the words in the same language, for there is often only one word for one idea, and though it may be easy to translate words like sweet, bitter, salt into another language, it is not easy to explain them." If we accept the proposition that conscious behaviour is behaviour that you can do, by consequence you also have to accept that behaviour can only emerge in organisms that have a consciousness. But how can we know which organisms possess consciousness? Do monkeys? Do snails?

One thing we know is that humans have a consciousness and that is bound to one specific organ: the brain. When the activity of the brain is disturbed, by sedation for instance, we lose consciousness and are no longer able to behave. Chimps undoubtebly have a consciousness as well. Their brain is very similar to that of a human. But what about a wasp or an ant? They do have a nervous system. There really isn't any sharp line that allows us to make a difference between species with or without consciousness. We must realise that consciousness is not a case of true or false. There are different layers of complexity.

Behaviour is a complex phenomena. To study such a complex phenomena you can best look at it in an analytical way. We break it down to perception, memory, imagination, thinking, motivations, emotions and learning.


One of the most intriguing human behaviours is the capability of self-reflection. We know we are a conscious species, or a conscious individual. We can think about being able to think, think about what consciousness means exactly, think about what is going on in our brain when we are thinking. Our consciousness enables us to do meta-thinking: thinking about thinking, or talking about language, or writing about literature.

But if we perform this trick a little too long, we get entangled in a pretty mess of meta-thoughts bounding back on themselves, it's like feeling your brain melt. I am a conscious individual, I think, therefore I am... but where am I exactly? Behind a set of levers and buttons inside my brain? A ghost inside the machine? It sure feels like that, looking out from behind those two round windows other people call my eyes. But, then what is enabling this tiny Gremlin-me inside my head from making conscious actions? Does the Gremlin-me have a brain? A brain with a set of levers, and behind it, an even smaller Gremlin-me? Infinite regression.

The short answer is that the brain is decentralised. There is no Gremlin-me. Part of the mind is your consciousness; a spyglass searching uncharted territory. The other parts of the mind are engaged in their own activities unconsciously: breathing, seeing, processing. What is conscious or unconscious is constantly shifting as the network of neurons in the brain interact through different connections.

You are about to lose

An entertaining example of (conscious) meta-cognition (thinking about thinking) that is as beautiful as it is irritating is The Game, a social phenomenon growing in popularity. The point of The Game is to forget it ever existed. Once you know about The Game you are playing it, and if you remember that you are playing, you lose. Thus, I just lost The Game. And so have you!

Another rule in The Game is that once you lose you have to tell everyone nearby about it. The really fun part is the emergent (or viral) social aspect of The Game: people that haven't heard of The Game will likely ask you to elaborate on your strange remark. Then they learn of The Game, lose, and have to tell everyone about it. The result is cascading as everyone starts declaring they have lost. You start winning again once everyone forgets they are playing and things quieten down for a while. You can never quit however, neither can you control The Game as it isn't a behaviour and is usually triggered randomly by connotation: seeing the one who first told you about The Game, hearing the word game, seeing a red mailbox. One of my favorite stories is the one about the girl ordering drinks in a pub, and suddenly declaring she's lost. An older man turns around and speaks up: "I haven't thought about The Game in twelve years". Marvellous!

This game is what Richard Dawkins would call a meme: a modern-day variant of gene replicators. Genes, DNA, Dawkins states, are the near-immortal survival machines making up living entities, and passing from generation to generation. Good genes have good surivival and planning strategies... bad genes eventually leave the fight for survival. Good genes work together, temporarily make up things like human beings before passing on. They don't have a will or want of their own, they just are. But as a collective they exhibit behaviour for which we need words like consciousness to describe. We don't think of ourself as a collective of genes, but as a single entity.

In the same way, human culture can be unraveled as a modern-day evolution process. Here, the survival machines aren't genes, but memes: ideas and trends that pass from brain to brain. They cultivate, grow, refine in these brains at a rapid rate and pass on to other brains, like a virus. Good memes eventually spread and root in all of the entities in the system, ideas like life after death, empathy or The Game.

Further reading:

  1. Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman (2011)
  2. Algemene Psychologie: de wetenschappelijke analyse van het gedragsproces, Jan De Laender (1996)
  3. The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins (1976)