Feeling Aware

Igor Rudan
12 min readAug 1, 2022

Several Nobel prizes in Physiology or Medicine were awarded for helping us understand how our nerve cells evolved to make us aware of ourselves and our surroundings.

The fact that we are a cluster of cells in space, which takes on a very particular shape and assigns very specific functions to each cell, still does not necessitate that this multi-trillion-cellular cluster should be self-aware. Indeed, if we are not only a cluster of our own cells. Within our organism, we also host trillions of bacterial cells. So, we resemble a mixed bag of diverse cells — both our own and those foreign to us — that are held together by the complex mechanisms of our immune system. Why do we, then, think of ourselves as a single, unique being? Obviously, we possess an awareness of our own existence as individuals. Moreover, we were born with the ability to remember everything that happened to us over time. Both our consciousness and our memory are rooted somewhere in the network of cells of our nervous system. Our brain, the processing centre of that system, continuously absorbs the information that it receives from every part of the body, to which the nerves and their thin branches extend.

The importance of the brain for our self-awareness is illustrated by the following example. In various unfortunate circumstances, people can be left without limbs. Due to trauma or illness, they can have their spleen, kidney, lung, a large part of the intestine removed. They can also have their heart, liver, kidney or other organs replaced by a transplant. Clearly, we can be left without many parts of the body, which implies the absence of the billions of cells that built those parts. However, we still maintain self-awareness as a single being. The only part of our body that we really can’t remove if we still want to feel aware is the brain. We still don’t know how to repair its damage or any discontinuation in the spinal cord or nerves. Importantly, we understood the precise function of the other organs in our body from their cellular structure, in a rather mechanistic way. Everything that happens in our other organs resembles a very elegantly designed biological machine. But we can’t understand the functions of the brain in the same way. The nature of thoughts and consciousness and their material basis remains elusive to science, at least at this point.

In his 1968 masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Stanley Kubrick pointed to a problem in a visionary way. If humanity continued to develop increasingly complex technologies, but without a firm…

Igor Rudan

Director, Centre for Global Health at the University of Edinburgh, UK; President, International Society of Global Health; Editor, Journal of Global Health;