Sometimes a person, creature, or thing really resonates with you. That sense of “vibing” may be more than a figure of speech, it turns out.
In a Dec. 5 post in Scientific American entitled “The Hippies Were Right: It’s All About Vibrations, Man!” lawyer and philosopher Tam Hunt explains a new theory of consciousness he developed with his colleague, psychologist Jonathan Schooler, at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Hunt is a philosopher of mind, biology, and physics, while Schooler is a professor of brain science, and together they’ve been working on answering one of the world’s most perplexing questions: “What physical processes underpin mental experience, linking mind and matter and creating the sense of self?”
In other words, what natural laws govern our perception of existence? This search for the rules that relate mind and matter (pdf) is often referred to as the “hard problem of consciousness.” And no one has really solved it, but there are various theories.
Hunt and Schooler suspect that every physical object, including you, is vibrating and oscillating. The more synchronized these vibes are, the more complex our connection with the world around us, and the more sophisticated our consciousness. The “resonance theory of consciousness” they present posits that synchronized vibrations are central not only to human consciousness but to all of physical reality.
“All things in our universe are constantly in motion, vibrating,” Hunt writes. “Even objects that appear to be stationary are in fact vibrating, oscillating, resonating, at various frequencies. Resonance is a type of motion, characterized by oscillation between two states. And ultimately all matter is just vibrations of various underlying fields.” When different oscillating things are close together for a time, they begin to vibrate in sync. That applies to neurons in brains, fireflies gathering, the Moon and Earth, and much more. This phenomenon is called “spontaneous self-organization.” The synchronization is a kind of physical communication between entities.
Hunt argues that the more complex the synchronization is, the more complex the consciousness. So, for example, the billions of neurons that fire in the brain together to make a decision and form our experience of the world are extremely sophisticated, yielding a rich and dynamic sense of self. He refers to this sense of self as perception.
The degree of perception possible for any thing or being varies widely. Still, even seemingly inanimate objects, like boulders or piles of sand, have a rudimentary level of consciousness according to Hunt’s definition of perception, which is simply an object “receiving information from the world.”
Each grain of sand is an object in relation to the world and therefore it is also a subject that “experiences” existence, albeit to a much more limited extent than humans do, according to Hunt. He calls this a “micro-consciousness.” In a 2011 paper in the Journal of Consciousness Studies (pdf), Hunt explains:
[L]iterally every life form and every speck of dust down to the smallest subatomic particle is influenced by the world through the various forces that act upon it. An electron is influenced by charged particles close enough to have an impact, and from objects that exert a gravitational pull—and the electron behaves accordingly. To exist, to be in the universe, means that every particle in the universe feels some pull and push from the various forces around it—otherwise it simply doesn’t exist. Thus, the electron perceives, as I have defined this term, and the electron is a subject.
What humans have is a “macro-consciousness.” But that more complex awareness that gives us our rich sense of self, the experience of existence, Hunt argues, is based on “a shared resonance among many micro-conscious constituents.” Basically, all of the relatively simple vibrations and oscillations that occur individually in various physical aspects of the brain, working together, become extremely complex and provide our self-awareness. “The speed of the resonant waves that are present is the limiting factor that determines the size of each conscious entity,” Hunt writes. “As a shared resonance expands to more and more constituents, the particular conscious entity grows larger and more complex.”
This resonance theory of consciousness tries to provide a unified framework for understanding mind and matter that includes neuroscience, the study of human consciousness or subjective experience, neurobiology, and biophysics. It offers an explanation for the differing degrees of consciousness in various physical systems. “It is all about vibrations, but it’s also about the type of vibrations and, most importantly, about shared vibrations,” Hunt argues.
This view that he and Schooler have that all things are conscious to a greater or lesser extent is called panpsychism, and it’s relatively widely accepted among consciousness researchers. Their work builds on centuries of thinking about perception by philosophers and many decades of work by scientists on the physical underpinnings of this process.
However, their theory that vibrations explain how perception is created at varying degrees of complexity, resonating to a more or less sophisticated extent, has yet to be proven definitively. It’s a possible framework that could solve the “hard problem of consciousness” and lends credence to the sense long expressed by spiritual types that it’s all about the “vibes.”