Understanding Consciousness: How the Brain Works to Make Us Self-Aware

When someone brings up the term “consciousness,” I have the tendency to roll my eyes and change the subject. After all, who has the patience to talk about such a nebulous and philosophical subject? But when you think about it, understanding consciousness is one of the truly last great mysteries of science.

Someone who has been thinking about writing about this subject is David J. Chalmers. Chalmers has explored the subject of human consciousness for decades through numerous articles, books, lectures, and discussions. And although many thinkers (such as Freud, for instance, and William James) have spent a considerable amount of time defining and understanding consciousness, it wasn’t until the 1990s when neuroscience began to advance enough to get a better idea of how the human brain works. That said, however, those advancements did not do a whole lot to help us understand what consciousness really is.

Chalmers breaks human consciousness down into two so-called “problems”: “the easy problem” and “the hard problem” of consciousness.

The easy problem of consciousness, as Chalmers calls is, has to do with specific issues of memory, attention, and perception. Questions related to these facets of experience have had some light shed on them for decades. In the early 1990s the philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote a book called, “Conscience Explained.” According to Chalmers, Dennett’s book is full of solving the easy problems of consciousness. The hard problem of consciousness, on the other hand, explores how the brain give rise to subjective experience. The feeling that you are an individual experiencing the world through a subjective lens is what philosophers call “qualia.”

And qualia is what the hard problem of consciousness is all about.

“The hard problem is the question of how physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experience,” Chalmers writes.

According to Chalmers, “. . . a complete theory [of conscientiousness] will have two components: physical laws, telling us about the behavior of physical systems from the infinitesimal to the cosmological, and what we might call ‘psychophysical laws’, telling us how some of those systems are associated with consciousness experience.” Chalmers adds: “These two components will constitute a true theory of everything.”

To conclude, although the topic of conscientiousness may seem like an esoteric subject (and it may be sometimes), it is also one of the last remaining big problems that science has yet to tackle in complete way. At present, the literature about conscientiousness is littered with many solutions to easy problems, but a viable theory of how subjective experience is created by the brain has yet to be addressed. Finally, until then, the topic of consciousness will be broken up into easy and hard problems.


Chalmers, D. (1995). The Puzzle of Conscious Experience.


By Kenny Luck, M.A., A.B.D. (Doctoral Candidate)