Semantics: Consciousness, Cognition, and Conscience

Reticular nuclei synapse in a rostral desiccation....What!? Neuroscience is filled with scary language. As we explore new and eerie parts of the brain, it seems an even more intimidating word is coined. But do not fear, fellow amygdalae! Place a hand on each side of your head. Every word describes what is now in between your hands, and learning them will give you an edge on understanding the brain you own. This series, Semantics, seeks to clarify all of these words and their meanings in a short, quirky and memorable blurb. After all, what use is a word if it carries no meaning?

 

Today we explore three major C words of Neuroscience: Consciousness, Cognition and Conscience. You are standing before a giant labyrinth, akin to the one Ariadne led Theseus out of in the Greek myth of the Minotaur.

Consciousness is a statement of existence. It is the torchlight you shine in the labyrinth to declare that you are alive and that you are there. Cognition is how you process the possibilities before your feet. The cogs of your brain begin to turn as your eyes scan across the four conflicting directions ahead of you. This visual takes precedence over the dank smell of the fungus covered moldy stone and the grumble of hunger in your stomach.

Precedence over the dank smell of the fungus covered moldy stone

Touch your temples. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, housing much of the cognitive workings, is just millimeters past your fingertips. Last but not least, conscience is the universal phenomenon of appealing to right or wrong. Based on the information cognitively processed, your conscience ("con"- with, "science" - knowledge) indicates to you the best path to take. Conscience can be subtle but is often revealed by heuristics, or quick and rapid decisions. If you touch your forehead, the nearby Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex has the unique capacity to override what you feel like doing with what you should do. It is the gut feeling that appeals to a universal standard of what it right over what is wrong. This leads to a very interesting subject. Our brains are wired to appeal to constant standard for what is right and what is wrong, meaning that universalism, or the conception that everything can be correct, is rendered incorrect. Our morality is programmed into our brain and it dictates every decision to be made, from choice of food to the direction we take.

Suddenly the daunting journey through a labyrinth does not seem so overwhelming.

Suddenly the daunting journey through a labyrinth does not seem so overwhelming. We have a guide.

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