What can consciousness, self-awareness, or mindfulness do for you? 

By Pierre Alain Joseph Guertin, Ph.D. (aka PAJ Guertin and PAJ Guertain)

What do these expressions mean?

For most of us, consciousness and self-consciousness (or self-awareness) are two relatively different things. Being self-conscious generally means to be shy or to worry about what others think of us. However, for scientists (e.g., van Gulick), consciousness is different although it includes self-consciousness. A long time ago, Descartes was among the firsts to propose that consciousness (or spirit) was associated with both the mind and the body, although separately controlled. Consciousness or spiritual matters or souls were localized in the brain’s pineal area according to Descartes – their mission was to control or animate the body. A role for neurons, synapses, and multiple brain regions in consciousness was further developed more recently by Eccles, Popper, Cottingham and Penfield bringing this area of research into the field of modern neurophysiology (Guertin PA, Journal of Consciousness Exploration Research 10, 2019).

Despite those earlier definitions, no consensual definition of consciousness or self-awareness has yet been found. For instance, in the medical field, general practitioners often define consciousness as a level of verbal, motor, and brain activity whereas anesthesiologists care essentially about the loss of alertness to confirm the effects of anesthetics. For psychiatrists, self-consciousness or self-awareness is clearly different from consciousness – e.g., schizophrenic patients suffer from a distortion of the reality/self-representation or self-awareness without significant changes in normal consciousness. For Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic and developer of the mindfulness-based stress-reduction program (MBSR), mindfulness rather than consciousness best describes the idea of consciousness. It is defined as the state of a person who focuses on the present moment and perceives, without any judgment or choice, current internal or external impulses, emerging at any given moment in time, enabling in turn a reduction of stress.

Consciousness is altered by aging

There is indeed increasing evidence indicating that aging alters consciousness in general. It is generally known that all organs of the body progressively undergo some loss of functions over time that leads to dysfunctions and diseases in elderly – e.g., the cardiovascular system undergoes a loss of function and become less efficient since the VO2max of healthy adults is normally 55 ml/kg/min in 20 year-old men but only 40 ml/kg/min in 50 year-old men. The brain – where resides consciousness according to most neuroscientists becomes smaller over the years – it gets 5% smaller every decade after 40 year-old.  Its neurotransmitters (e.g., dopamine and serotonin levels) decrease also by 10% every decade. Oxidative stress, DNA damage, loss of circuits and reduced plasticity are believed to affect each and every corner of the brain in elderly.  Given that consciousness, self-awareness or mindfulness depends upon one or several specific brain areas, it is reasonable to think that lower functional levels may be experienced by elderly compared with young adults (Guertin PA, International Journal of Aging Research 1(5), 2018).

Consciousness is relative since it depends also on many other factors

According to a theory developed in my research program, consciousness is everything but fully expressible (e.g., as suggested by mindfulness or Buddhist beliefs). It is in fact relatively expressed which is why we have called it Relative Consciousness or 3TC Consciousness. The latter is defined as a continuum of states ranging from significant alertness to loss of communication and motor reflexes, that enables perception of thoughts, emotions, and sensations without any judgment and at the present moment with limits and continuously changing levels that depend upon time, training, task(s), and concentration as well as on the functional integrity of underlying sensory system elements (i.e., receptors, neurotransmitters, neuronal networks, and pattern of activity)(Guertin PA, Journal of Consciousness Exploration Research 10, 2019).

Different approaches, aids, and stimulation can help improving consciousness

Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) approaches have been reported to enhance attention, memory and executive motor function – several neurological functions generally considered to underlie consciousness. Effects on general health (e.g., cardiovascular function, blood pressure) have also been reported with transcendental meditation. The enhanced release of some endogenous neurochemicals (e.g., serotonin/5-HT, dopamine, noradrenaline, etc.) stimulated by vagal nerve stimulation has been shown to restore consciousness in a comatose person. Highly selective ligands (e.g. 5-HT2A receptor agonists) capable of mimicking partially the actions of some neurochemicals (e.g. 5-HT), as with psychedelic drugs, could possibly improve those brain functions (consciousness levels) with lesser side effects (e.g., hallucinations, etc.)(Guertin PA, Gerontology and Geriatrics Studies 4, 2019).

Several brain areas, networks, and cellular processes have been postulated to enable consciousness expression (e.g., medial prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, amygdala, precuneus cortex, thalamus, anterior insular, etc.). Meditation was shown indeed to either increase or decrease their activity/volume/thickness. Interestingly, physical stimulation and aerobic exercising have been shown to elicit comparable effects on those same brain structures. For instance, massage devices known to elicit muscular relaxation were reported to induce slightly greater benefits on mental wellbeing and altered states of consciousness than meditation. Aerobic exercise training during six months was shown using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to increase brain volumes including both gray and white matter areas in elderly persons. Men running regularly exhibit a greater capacity to remain focus in the present moment. It has been postulated by researchers that neuronal mechanisms activated during mental training with meditation are perhaps further strengthened and ‘consolidated’ by regular physical activity. Stress is also reduced by combination therapies with aerobic exercising and meditation. Most of the brain areas and neural mechanisms (also often referred to as the neural correlates of consciousness or NCC) believed to underlie consciousness have been shown to be activated or modulated in a comparable manner by meditation and aerobic exercise training (Guertin PA, Current Treads in Neurology, 2020).

Concluding remarks

Although no consensual definitions have been found to describe consciousness, self-awareness, and mindfulness, it does not prevent scientists from moving forward with research aimed at further understanding what these concepts are, neurobiologically. When we get older, our systems (neurological, cardiovascular, immune, etc.) undergo deteriorations and sometimes dysfunctions or diseases (e.g., Alzheimer, Parkinson’s disease, etc.). Although brain areas underlying consciousness expression are likely to be affected too, it does not prevent someone to seek minimal losses. Meditation, vagal nerve stimulation, massage devices, exercise training, and pharmacological aids can be used and sometimes combined to improve those higher brain functions in young or older people.

One thing is clear though, as we speak, the world desperately needs more consciousness. Enlightenment and full consciousness are rarely encountered. In fact, we can witness daily extreme violence, anger, and stress perhaps more than ever before (Guertin, X-Folia, Part I, Edilivre 2015). Moreover, even among those who train their consciousness skills, that function is bound to undergo constantly and dynamically changing levels as further explained in the 3TC theory (Guertin PA, Journal of Consciousness Exploration Research 10, 2019).  Although, enlightenment per se does not exist per se (it is only a idealistic concept), at least not for ordinary people who can’t afford spending five or ten hours per day to meditate like Buddhists, it is the process itself that is the most important. At first, a few minutes per day of being more conscious of your feelings, thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and reactions are all you need for experiencing early changes that will already calm you down at least a little bit. Over time, you can try to use that new calmness to begin increasing your level of lucidity, truth-seeking, joy, and serenity.  No complex training, no super knowledge is required. Just starting to pay attention will do it, normally. I have done it myself for a few years (practicing 3TC theory-based meditation) for reasons explained in my most recent book – 8th Chance at Enlightened Living by a Regular Guy (Guertin, 2021). It is simple, doable everywhere and at any time in contrast with most traditional methods.

To read PAJ Guertin’s newest book ‘8th Chance at Enlightened Living for a Regular Guy’, simply go to Amazon/Kindle: https://www.amazon.fr/s?k=paj+guertin&__mk_fr_FR=ÅMÅŽÕÑ&ref=nb_sb_noss

PAJ Guertin PhD is a neuroscientist, senior pharmaceutical executive, and author of novels and scientific articles on topics such as neurological trauma, drug development, and consciousness, unconsciousness or awareness.

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  • Guertin, P.A. (2020). The benefits of exercise on mental functions, consciousness, and mindfulness. Current Trends in Neurology (in press).
  • Guertin, P.A. (2020). Conscious, unconscious, and involuntary control of locomotion and comparable stereotyped motor behaviors. Journal of Consciousness Exploration & Research/ANNS (under review).
  • Guertin, P.A. (2019). 3TC consciousness: A novel definition for research in drug development and healthy ageing. Current Trends in Neurology 13: 1-7.
  • Guertin, P.A. (2019). Medicines to enhance self-consciousness, mindfulness and healthy ageing? Gerontology & Geriatrics Studies; 4(3): 1-3.
  • Guertin, P.A. (2019). A novel concept introducing the idea of continuously changing levels of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Exploration & Research. 10(6): 600-606.
  • Guertin, P.A. (2018). Comparable CNS mechanisms for locomotor rhythm generation and self-consciousness expression . Journal of Clinical Pharmacology and Toxicology Research; 1(2): 3-4.
  • Guertin, P.A. (2018). Are self-consciousness and mindfulness altered by aging? International Journal of Aging Research; 1 :24.
  • Guertain, P.A.J. (2018). X-Folia. Part III (French). https://www.amazon.fr/X-folia-1-Paj-Guertain/dp/2332927298
  • Guertain, P.A.J. (2017). X-Folia. Part II (French). https://www.edilivre.com/x-folia-tome-2-paj-guertain.html/
  • Guertain, P.A.J. (2015). X-Folia. Part I (French). https://www.amazon.fr/X-FOLIA-3-PAJ-GUERTAIN/dp/2414245247.