I find here that thought is an attribute that belongs to me; it alone cannot be separated from me. I am, I exist, that is certain … I know that I exist, and I inquire what I am, I whom I know to exist … What then am I? A thing which thinks. What is a thing which thinks? It is a thing which doubts, understands, conceives, affirms, denies, wills, refuses, which also imagines and feels … For it is so evident of itself that it is I who doubts, who understands, and who desires, that there is no reason here to add anything to explain it.
-Rene Descarte. Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Seeking Truth in the Sciences. 1637
What is consciousness? Philosophers and scientists have struggled with this question since the beginning of philosophy and science, usually ending in near incomprehensible allegories and a resignation that it will remain an unknown and perhaps unknowable mystery of the universe. Still, there are those who continue to answer this question. Because it is an important question—some would say the most important question—the answer to which has the best chance of unraveling the larger esoteric mysteries and the deep existential confusion inherent in living as a conscious being.
OK, ready for the hippie nonsense you hoped for when you clicked on this article? Good. Though it might not be nonsense, and it certainly doesn’t come from a smelly man in a tie-dyed burlap sack. For the past decade, psychologists Tam Hunt and Johnathan Schooler at the University of California, Santa Barbara have been developing a new theory on the nature of consciousness that they call the “Resonance Theory of Consciousness,” which, to be fair, does argue the same thing that tie-dye burlap man has been yelling about since 1963 (or a couple thousand years if you want to get all Hermetic and magical about it): it’s all vibration.
In a piece written for The Conversation, Tam Hunt gives an overview of their theory. Here’s their thesis:
The central thesis of our approach is this: the particular linkages that allow for large-scale consciousness – like those humans and other mammals enjoy – result from a shared resonance among many smaller constituents. The speed of the resonant waves that are present is the limiting factor that determines the size of each conscious entity in each moment.
As a particular shared resonance expands to more and more constituents, the new conscious entity that results from this resonance and combination grows larger and more complex. So the shared resonance in a human brain that achieves gamma synchrony, for example, includes a far larger number of neurons and neuronal connections than is the case for beta or theta rhythms alone.
All things are in motion, all things vibrate. When vibrating things are in close proximity to one another they begin to resonate. That is, the frequency of their vibrations sync up. This results in phenomena such as the orbit of the moon synced with its rotation so that only one side is ever visible to the earth. This is called spontaneous self-organization.
Building off the work done by Pascal Fries, a German neuroscientist who was explored brain waves and how they relate to different states of human consciousness, and the theory of “panpsychism”—the increasingly allowed-into-the-conversation idea that consciousness did not arise through evolution, but is an intrinsic part of the universe—Hunt argues that large scale consciousness is the result of ever increasing resonance as matter organizes itself from a single atom (itself, they argue, conscious, though at a small scale) through more and more complex iterations until it makes a complex system that looks like a man typing into a computer about the nature of his own mind.
The idea that vibration is key to understanding the universe is not new, nor is the idea of panpsychism. That vibration is key to all things and that “all is mind” are both central tenets of Hermeticism, the ancient Greek and Egyptian philosophical tradition which laid the groundwork for all occult, esoteric, and magical traditions in the west afterwards. In fact, you can trace these ideas all the way from the first hermetic texts, through Gnosticism, medieval occultism, renaissance Neoplatonism, late 19th and early 20th century Theosophy and Golden Dawn occult revival, Aleister Crowley’s Thelema, into rock and roll and the hippie movement in the 1960’s. So yes, this is hippie nonsense. But it’s far, far older than that as well. Once again, we’re seeing a vector where the spiritual, or magical, comes into contact with science. As it should, because it’s all the same thing in the end: the quest for understanding and the fearless dive into the great mystery.