Concepts: The Foundation of Consciousness

When you understand consciousness as a complex information system, then concepts become the foundation of each experience. A single experience is made up of many concepts that combine together to form one moment of experience.

So when you look at it this way, concepts are how our consciousness experiences reality. They are the only meaning in the world.

What are concepts?

Let's take visual concepts as an example.

  • Your retina converts light waves into electric signals.
  • These signals connect into your brain.
  • The raw signals themselves are "meaningless" in that they are just streams of information.
  • It isn't until our brain's neural network integrates the information that we get concepts.
  • Even the most basic thing such as experiencing redness, is a concept.
  • So concepts are the integration of information; they are meaning.

Note: What do I mean by integrate information?

When all the information in our brain gets combined in a complex network, the resulting information is greater than the sum of the parts; this is integration. This is the foundation of any information theory of consciousness.

Concept hierarchy

You could think of there being a concept hierarchy, which is really a hierarchy of complexity.

  • Concepts are built on other concepts.
  • Lower concepts are simpler and more "fine-grained". They abstract away less information and hence could be said to be more detailed.
  • While higher concepts are more complex but "coarser". They abstract away more information and hence could be said to be less detailed.
  • At a certain point, I think there must a lower limit; a minimally complex concept (e.g. experiencing edges 🤷‍♂️).

An example

Continuing on the theme of visual concepts we could look at some concepts (in reverse order: low to high)

  • The concept of a specific red (lowest) – when you see the world you experience colours. Not the idea of colour, but just the raw experience of redness.
  • The concept of redness – you experience the concept that redness exists in varying degrees. There are many different colours that we would experience as red, different saturations and slightly different hues.
  • The concept of colour (higher) – While before we were experiencing different reds, now we have formed a higher level concept of colour. That there are many different colours, and that hue and saturation are ways of constructing them.

Why does it matter?

This is the point we have been working up to.

  • Concepts are how we experience reality.
  • More complex concepts abstract away the details of reality.
  • This is likely done to increase the processing efficiency of our brains.
  • Which in turn enables us to do/understand/experience more complex things 👍
  • But this inherently comes with a trade-off in detail (or "accuracy").

Conceptualising reality

By the time we are adults we operate mostly in "auto-pilot". We go through life without having to interact with new concepts. Everything we do is abstracted away behind very high-level concepts.

This is what walking through life feels like when highly conceptualised (experienced through high-level concepts).

Living in a highly conceptual mode

There are some pros and cons of living in high-level conceptual mode:

  • Intelligence – by experiencing the world through high-level concepts we can do more complex things. Understanding an engine through the ideas of thermodynamics enables you to do more than through simple mechanics. Humankind has flourished because of our ability to create, transfer, and communicate with high-level concepts.
  • Efficiency – it's easier to see a car than it is to see all the components as separate things working in a complex system. High-level concepts allow us to make sense of the world with less concepts; meaning less brain processing needed.
  • Loss of accuracy – when we associate a high-level concept to anything in reality, we are going to be making a trade-off on accuracy. While the idea of "socialist" is useful, nobody embodies the idea perfectly. So by thinking of someone as a socialist, you are going to end up with rounding errors.
  • Loss of detail – high-level concepts reduce detail in order to increase complexity. Thinking of the socialist is less interesting than thinking of a human being with a variety of political, social, and economic views.
  • Familiarity – when using high-level concepts two cars are just two cars. Using slightly lower concepts you can appreciate the differences in form, colour, texture, etc. of the cars. There is more similarity in high-level land, and hence the world feels familiar and boring to us.

The paradox

So here lies the paradox of everything.

On one hand, you could argue that the purpose of consciousness is to integrate as much of reality into higher and higher concepts. That maybe integrating the entire universe into larger and larger concepts is the "purpose" of consciousness 🤷‍♂️

On the other hand, if you study mindfulness and awareness, you'll find that when you are living in a high-level conceptualised reality it is harder to appreciate the world and hence find happiness, since everything feels so familiar and lacking in detail.


Sebastian Kade, Founder of Sumry and Author of Living Happiness, is a software designer and full-stack engineer. He writes thought-provoking articles every now and then on

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