Conscious about consciousness

For some time now, we have used a remarkable graphic image in advertisements for Grimm Audio. In this picture, the high-tech bionic hand of Arie Rommers reaches out to the human hand of cellist Saskia Le Poole, both hovering above our MU1 music player. It is beautifully captured by photographer (and TRPTK sound engineer) Brendon Heinst. We call this image “When Science Creates Art” and the reference to Michelangelo’s painting on the Sistine Chapel ceiling is not coincidental.  

What does Michelangelo’s painting depict? God breathes life into Adam, man is created. Eve arrives shortly thereafter and they live together in paradise until Eve bites the apple. The apple essentially represents consciousness. Now that Adam and Eve have become aware of themselves and everything around them, they can imagine their future. They acquire wishes, and the creative power to make those wishes come true. But at the same time, they lose paradise since ‘negative wishes’ also occur: concerns about bad things that might happen. And with their newly found creative power they can also (unintentionally) realize those concerns, just as they can realize their wishes. Unfortunately, consciousness is unaware of its limitations and worries feel just as strong as wishes, maybe even stronger. And with that, we lose paradise.

I believe that in order to taste a piece of paradise again, we need to become a little more aware of how our consciousness works. In an earlier blog, I tried to become more aware of the unconscious. Just like then, it is not by accident that music appears to play an important role in the end. 

The high-tech bionic hand of Arie Rommers reaches out to the human hand of cellist Saskia Le Poole.


I propose we start by looking at the general tasks of consciousness. From birth, our brains build a model of reality. In evolution, the need for such a model arose naturally with perception of the environment. For example, if you look forward and then close your eyes, turn your head and open your eyes again, the world suddenly looks completely different. Your brain is tasked with making that transition logical. So, it combines the visual stimuli with information from other senses, in this case from your vestibular organ, and thus creates a map that reflects the world around us. One of the brain’s main tasks is to create models that make the perceived information from all senses seem logical and correct. This process is called ‘cognition’. Without cognition, an organism with senses cannot function. That’s why even the most primitive animals have it. If you have paws and a mouth you should already have a self-image so that you don’t eat your own paw. (I found this example in Peter Godfrey-Smith’s great book Metazoa, which is about the animal kingdom and the evolution of consciousness).

In the learning process, in which the cognitive model slowly but surely takes shape, the brain places what you feel, see, or hear as ‘updates’ in the model. Over time, the map becomes more and more detailed. If an observation does not match the existing model, it attracts attention: perhaps something has changed in the environment, or perhaps it was an incorrect observation. Or maybe the model is incorrect and needs adjustment: we’ve learned something new. The more experience you’ve gained, the more noticeable a deviation from the map will be. But also, fewer adjustments are needed to an already detailed map. Cognition thus eventually becomes a reliable ‘future prediction machine’ and we desperately need that because being able to anticipate what is to come is essential for survival.

The human brain then goes one step further. Based on the cognitive model of reality, our consciousness can create a ‘story’ in symbolic language, with words and sentences. This allows us to create a vision of reality, giving it meaning. Through the language we can then share our vision with other people. Even with people we’ve never met, because the story can be passed on verbally or in writing. Based on the stories we hear from others, we can in turn adjust our own vision. In this way, we build a shared story that can be transferred through language (for example, through education) and we call that ‘culture’. This ability is fundamental to our success as a species, or as writer Yuval Noah Harari puts it: “Fictional stories form the basis of all cooperation in homo sapiens.”

With those stories, consciousness can ‘represent’ reality in words. And by adding a dose of curiosity to that, we may think that ‘if this works, then probably that is also possible’. And so, a wish is created which we would love to make come true. Creation is always driven by a wish. The Dutch physicist Marinus Knoope has written wonderful things about this in his book De Creatiespiraal (unfortunately only available in Dutch). Knoope shows that our creative powers also apply to concerns, or ‘negative wishes’ – things that you hope will not happen. We can also visualize those concerns and unfortunately, we are almost as good at realizing our concerns as we are at realizing our wishes.

But perhaps even more importantly, through our imagination, the wishes and concerns form their own ‘fantasy world’ of stories and these are part of the stories that are shared among other people, contributing to culture. Unfortunately, it is not easy to distinguish which stories are inspired by the real world and which are inspired by the fantasy world.

If I summarize all this, we build a cognitive model of reality based on our unconscious observations. Our consciousness turns this into a story that can be shared and thus forms culture. Our imagination then conceives a wish or a concern, and that inspires our creativity. Man has become a creator through his consciousness.

Cognitive Dissonance Reduction

Of course the story we create never exactly matches reality. The inevitable consequence is that often your brains predict a different outcome than actually occurs. This leads to something called “cognitive dissonance” which is the uncomfortable feeling that your worldview may be incorrect and that you may lose your grip on reality. In response you will try to defend your model and look for an explanation that, with some effort, still fits within your existing story. This is called “cognitive dissonance reduction”, or “reducing the discomfort caused by a mismatch between your story and your perception.” Essentially, you have the strong desire to not change your story.

Sometimes that involves a lot of creativity. When Leo Festinger first studied this phenomenon in his book “A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance” in 1957, he was inspired by the story of a woman from Chicago. She had received several mysterious messages that the earth would end on December 21st, but that true believers who gathered in a certain place at midnight on December 20th would be saved by flying saucers. She and her supporters were ready, but nothing happened and the devastating tidal wave never arrived. You’d expect that they would now accept that they had believed in a delusion, but nothing could be further from the truth: they became convinced that thanks to their efforts, God had spared the earth. And they went out into the world to spread this message.

When I was 15 years old in the early 1980s, I first heard about cognitive dissonance reduction from a classmate. According to him, it explained almost all human behavior, and not just in extreme situations. I thought that was a very interesting idea, but it still took me a long time to realize that his theory might be closer to the truth than expected.

As mentioned, we as human beings have a strong urge to come up with explanations for everything we observe and to seek confirmation for this from other people. If others don’t agree with our story, it becomes uncomfortable. In that case, you have to choose between doubting the other person or doubting yourself. The latter is an existential doubt – you seem to lose some of your control and that feels threatening. So instead, people continue looking for supporters who go along with their story. However, when the world is divided into supporters and opponents, an ‘us versus them’ divide arises between people, instead of a healthy ‘me versus us’ duality.

The problem is that the stranger the story becomes (think of the flying saucers in the 1950s), the stronger the bond between the people who believe in it. And that can go very far because if you believe in a delusion for a long time the consequences of accepting that the story is incorrect is almost unbearable. What you and people you love may have supported for years turns out not to be true and facing that is extremely hard on your ego. Many people are not willing to do that and will do everything they can to continue to believe in it, even if they know deep down that it cannot actually be true.

When I fully realized this, I saw it everywhere. The ‘stories’ of consciousness often express themselves as opinions or as a frame. The Internet makes it easier than ever via social media to find people who confirm your opinion or even go a step further. And so, there is increasing polarization in the world. Everyone claims the ‘truth’ and does not understand that the others don’t realize that they are wrong.

What now?

This is a distressing situation. How can we get out of it? The core problem is that one person’s story does not match that of another’s and at least one of the two has to move. But taking such a step myself seems very difficult to me. Suppose my insight is correct, then I shouldn’t doubt it, right? I realized that this problem is as old as humanity itself and that it gave rise to the “scientific method“.

The scientific method combines accurate observations of reality with uncertainty and doubt, also called ‘skepticism’. Scientific research rarely shows that something is absolutely true or false. Usually, it is “probably true” with some probability, but it is not completely certain. A subsequent investigation could possibly say with greater confidence that it is “probably not true”. In that case, for example, more contextual data or insight from another study are taken into account. Curiosity drives the scientist to investigate again and again because he has a deep wish to know what happens and he doubts whether the current insight is the best view of the matter. Uncertainty and doubt are therefore inextricably linked to science. And I think they can also be a great help in everyday life.

Philosophers such as Descartes and Sartre have written a lot about this. They say that your perception is real, the matter around us exists. Your cognitive model of reality can also be tested to a certain extent because it has a direct relationship with the outside world. But you cannot observe the stories that your consciousness then creates, your vision of that reality, your personal thoughts. Because you have to observe them with those same thoughts. So, your deep self just exists in the story that you made of yourself. The only thing that you can know about it is how you arrived at that story, namely that your consciousness stands at the intersection of your perceptions of reality on the one hand, and your communication with other people, within your culture, on the other. It is this mix that defines you.

My personal insights and beliefs have therefore by definition become relative and not absolute: I can never be sure about them. Accepting this is a big challenge because it inevitably means that I will feel insecure about my foundations.

I heard the Belgian psychiatrist Damiaan Denys say: “Uncertainty leads to freedom. If you can allow uncertainty into your life, you receive the freedom that we as humans are fundamentally looking for.” In other words: being able to bear not being in control, not being able to know for sure, gives you freedom. And that is the great paradox: people want to gain control out of fear of losing their freedom. But by gaining control they lose their freedom. They can no longer see beyond their limited view.


What can help us to bear this uncertainty? Meditation is often mentioned because it calms both your perceptions and your communication, thus calming your consciousness. In addition, it seems to me that art can help too. It lets you experience special stories in unexpected ways and thus stimulates you to think about your own stories. Art challenges you to be curious about seeing things differently. And it turns out that music occupies a special place in this.

Leonid Perlovsky from Harvard University wrote a very inspiring article in 2009 entitled “Musical emotions: Functions, origins, evolution”. He describes the hypothesis that human ability for music emerged when language developed. Before language, our ancestors used sounds to express both the emotion and the function associated with a particular event or need. As language developed, the functional, descriptive side of verbal expressions became disconnected from the emotional side, and “the emotional part of primordial vocalization evolved into music” as Perlovsky puts it. That is perhaps why music offers such direct access to emotions.

With the help of language, our ancestors were able to jointly imagine a new reality and thus became creators. But as we’ve seen, a vision of reality can lead to cognitive dissonance. If that dissonance triggers violent emotions, the joint imagination will soon come to an end. So, there must have been an evolutionary advantage for people who kept their emotions under control once cognitive dissonance arose while acquiring knowledge.

Music allows you to experience all kinds of subtly different emotions in a constant stream. They arise and dissolve again, like a story told purely in emotions, instead of in words. This gives the feeling as if in addition to the imagined world, there is another world that functions independently of language. In the words of Perlovsky: “Musical emotions help maintain a sense of purpose of one’s life in the face of a multiplicity of contradictory knowledge.”

In a later study by Perlovsky, research with young children showed that music can indeed reduce cognitive dissonance. Toys that were not allowed to be played with received a lower rating from the children. If a Mozart sonata was played during the test, those toys did not receive a lower rating. Music seems to soften the dissonance by providing a strong experience that arises independently of a visual stimulus. And that softening helps to bear the uncertainty, which, as mentioned, gives you freedom. Music therefore leads to freedom. What a moving insight.


I was deeply moved by Perlovsky’s research, but was still left wondering where to start now that I had become aware of this. It occurred to me that the most important thing is that I have to accept that I am human with consciousness and that I will therefore inevitably suffer from cognitive dissonance… Also, that as a human being I need imperfect stories and rituals to hold onto, and validation from groups of other people who share my story so that I don’t feel alone. And that I am naturally afraid of losing control if I doubt my vision.

But being aware of all this – having empathy for my own humanity – can help me become curious about whether the story I’ve created might not be quite right. And with that same curious empathy, I can look at other people who have embraced a different story. And then maybe I can talk about their and my experiences instead of our opinions, because experiences have a stronger relationship with reality. That’s not all that easy of course, but fortunately, music can help me with that.

Eelco Grimm

Thank you Rik, Kommer and Wilko for your valuable feedback.