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The Physical Basis of Consciousness

  • H. Maudsley

The body is a vital union and communion of an infinite multitude of differentiated cells which constitute its different tissues and organs, their several functions intimately co-ordinated to serve the functions of a bodily whole; so many diversities in unity, unity in so many diversities, which is just what all nature is, what all science, when perfect, must needs be, what every well-fashioned mental organisation ought to be.

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(1) The trouble in thinking on these adapted reactions comes from imagining that they cannot occur without some kind of consciousness because similar reactions occur in ourselves consciously. One might, of course, in like manner imagine that the adaptive movements of the viscera were accompanied by some kind of consciousness. But that would simple be to destroy the meaning of the word consciousness, and to give it no definite meaning. What it seems necessary to realise is that rhythmical impressions and reactions occur as properties of the simplest living matter; that they are more complex in the various organic rhythms of the diverse inter-related organs; that they do not need consciousness, although consciousness needs them ; that they become conscious when in the complications of organic structure and their nervous inter-communications certain reflections of them take effect.

(2) Sensibility and irritability are convenient divisions in language if not in thought; they do not mark a division in nature.

(3) Such momentary delay of consciousness may, perhaps, explain the sometimes strange flash of feeling and apparent reminiscence of having been in exactly the same circumstances before, notwithstanding that they are quite new. Although new to consciousness they are not really new, because they have made their impressions before the conscious perception by which they are illumined, and then, as it were, remembered. Impressed in the dark they seem familiar when the light is thrown on them. In like manner, an interval may occur between a remark made which a person is not conscious of hearing at the time, attention being otherwise fixed, yet he hears and replies to a moment afterwards when con sciousness, so to speak, is released. Consciousness, in fact, cannot be in two places at the same time.

(4) As, indeed, of much coarser matter when there is answering rhythm to received rhythm. The latest inquiries show that masses of matter in contact are seldom, if ever, without influence upon one another. Molecular interaction of the surfacelayers takes place with incomplete chemical reactions and electrical charges. “Concentration, electric conductivity, all physical properties become abnormal,” so that “when the surface energy forms a large fraction of the total molecular energy, as in films or fluids in fine capillaries, ordinary chemical or physical knowledge fails us. And there is “good evidence to prove that the life-like characteristics of colloidal matter, its capacity of storing impressions, the elusiveness of its chemical and physical states, are due to the fact that an exceptionally large fraction of its energy is in the form of surface energy.” For it is certain that living matter contains a very large proportion per unit of mass. A French physicist, M. Perrin, has recently shown that by the use of minute quantities of salts one can fix in the surface-layer certain qualities which, for instance, define the electric properties of the surface. Moreover, the effect, once produced, endures; no amount of washing will undo it. In the absence of chemical intervention it will endure, exerting a directive influence upon the molecular events in its neighbourhood. (“The Physical Basis of Life,” Proceedings of Royal Institution, 1906, William Bate Hardy.)

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The British Journal of Psychiatry
  • ISSN: -
  • EISSN: 2514-9946
  • URL: /core/journals/the-british-journal-of-psychiatry
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The Physical Basis of Consciousness

  • H. Maudsley
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