AWARE – Glimpses of Consciousness is a meditation on the nature of self-awareness through the philosophies of six different explorers in the field. A neuroscientist, a molecular biologist — who is also a Buddhist monk, a researcher behavioral pharmacologist from Johns Hopkins, and a biologist from the University of Sydney present the hard science research in studying consciousness. A Mayan faith healer and a philosopher discuss the subject from more of an arts and humanities perspective.
One concept that threads through the documentary is the idea that humans are not distinct from our environment, that the separation we feel from the universe, and each other is an illusion, as much as our consciousness may be an illusion. Philosopher Alan Watts discussed this in his 1972 The Book On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. The illusion of separation is so powerful that it feeds the narcissistic human presumption of our primacy on Earth and even in the universe. Writers/directors Eric Black and Frauke Sandig point out the fallacy of human exceptionalism. The more we learn about the natural world, the less it seems human traits are unique.
In AWARE, biologist Monica Gagliano, professor at the University of Sydney, argues that her experiments with plants have shown them capable of rudimentary communication abilities, as well as basic responses to stimuli. She stretches this data into a theory that plants have a form of consciousness, which begs the next big question: how is consciousness defined? Is it enough to be self-aware at any level? For example, bees communicate with the hive through specific rhythmic movements, but is a bee self-aware? Gagliano says that the mechanistic view of the universe is fading in the light of new subjective discoveries. Perhaps, but if there are no objective, predictable, repeatable reference standards, how would we know?
“…a meditation on the nature of self-awareness through the philosophies of six different explorers…”
In another segment, philosopher Richard Boothby, seeking meaning in his life, which was shattered by personal tragedy, states that the most significant spiritual experience he’s ever had was from a psilocybin mushroom trip. He believes firmly that he saw a deity. This brings us to another thought AWARE explores. Neuroscientist Christof Koch expresses doubt about whether any objective definition or evidence of consciousness can be developed because it is an inherently subjective expression of human existence. Rounding out this notion is a Mayan faith healer who believes that Western science is beginning to merge with the learnings of indigenous peoples.
With all of the breathless hyperbole in the film, some credible, some fanciful, the most elegant and succinct demonstration of consciousness, and perhaps the best example of why it exists is a video clip of an elephant clearly having fun playing with a spare tire. What better reason to exist and be aware could there be?
The filmmakers explain AWARE – Glimpses of Consciousness best: “It invites audiences to review their long-held beliefs and assumptions and initiate their own consciousness journey, ultimately bringing awareness to awareness.” Whether it’s an elephant finding amusement at play or a deep introspective psychedelics-induced journey into inner space to find meaning, the film surfaces existential mysteries at the core of the human experience in an entertaining and enlightening fashion. Appropriately, it asks questions instead of trying to answer them.
"…entertaining and enlightening..."