We all have an idea of what consciousness is, but it is not easy to give a definition. Consciousness would be something that every moment is present in our minds in our experience... You can say that it is a working knowledge of the world around us and ourselves, we feel it as exclusively ours and we use it to make personal decisions. We understand that consciousness is something that defines us as individuals. It is knowledge about ourselves and our situation at present, which puts us in the world and directs our behavior.
Memory is a necessary condition of consciousness, because without memory there is no knowledge nor therefore consciousness. Bergson said that memory is indeed the most obvious feature of consciousness: "Consciousness means first memory. Memory may be not wide; it may embrace only a small part of the past; it may not hold more than what just happened; but memory is there, or then consciousness is not. A consciousness that does not retain anything of his past, which continually forgets itself, would perish and be reborn every moment."
Consciousness is the updating memory in the present. It does not have to be wide but there must be some memory, even if just of what happened right now, for there to be consciousness. If nothing is retained there is no a moment of conscience; There exists no consciousness nor even the 'moment' (the experience of the moment), which come to be the same thing.
But more than the actual content of the memories of the past itself, consciousness is the action performed in the present to bring to mind such content; it is to make present in thought the past; it is an action. The actions of consciousness are always in the present, as any other actions; it can not be otherwise. But the action of consciousness is oriented to the future, and this is fundamental. What can happen in the more or less immediate future is the driving force of consciousness, is what attracts it and fixes it to ones or others aspects of the world around us. Consciousness leans forward, directs attention to what we think will happen, to the different possibilities; it keeps us expectant about what may happen. Consciousness is, in short, the action I perform in the present updating what I know of the past in expectation of what is going to come (future). It is the action I perform in the present to produce some practical thoughts for coping and influence the possible events around me.
Bergson said: "All consciousness is to anticipate the future. Consider the direction of your mind at any time: will find that deals with what is, but especially in view of what it will be. Attention is an expectation, and there is no consciousness without some attention to life. The future is there; calls us or rather draws us to him: this continuous traction, which takes us forward on the path of time, it also causes us to act continuously. All action is an overlap with the future."
What attracts us, which continuously draws our attention, it is what will happen. We continuously anticipate the future, and we do it based on what we know-understand-believe that happened or is happening. What is most immediate and most important, what it is more 'urgent', is what attracts us. Consciousness is the attention to the life and to the future, and is the basic mechanism of our psyche and our behavior (and our survival).
Any of our actions reflects an assumption we make about the future, comes on and overlies it, determines it from what we know and what we decide.
"To hold what is not yet, to anticipate what still is not, this is the first function of consciousness. Will not be at present, if present would be reduced to the mathematical instant. That instant is nothing more than the limit, purely theoretical, which separates the past from the future; in fact it can be conceived, never perceived; when we think we catch it, it is away from us. What in fact we perceive is true thickness duration that consists of two parts: our recent past and our immediate future. On this past we are supported, on the future we are tilted; to support and to tilt are so characteristic of a conscious being."
Mental actions, as of all actions, are performed in the pure present, in the exact boundary between the past and the future, but the results of these actions, mental contents, refer to the past and the future, more or less close to this pure present, but never exactly coincide with this zero moment, that is the moment of action and yet not of the outcome, a kind of blind spot of time and psyche.
Every moment our consciousness makes our personal way of being in the world, creates 'a thickness in time', creates a personal past and future beyond the imperceptible instant, creates a singularity of the possible interpretations of the world extended in time.
If consciousness is attention to life, have we to understand that all living things could have consciousness? Bergson asks. All living things have life by definition, have a past and a future, a cause and an effect on the actions they take in the present interacting with their environment. In man consciousness is unquestionably linked to the brain: but beware! it does not follow from this that the existence of a brain is a necessary condition of consciousness, as the stomach is not a necessary condition for digestion into simple beings who, in fact, have no stomach or even differentiated organs, such as the amoeba, although they digest food.
As digestion involves not only the participation of the stomach, consciousness does not involve only the participation of the brain. In both cases it seems that also involves simpler elements and vital processes, beyond any specific organ. In fact, everything that is alive may be aware: consciousness is coextensive with life, Bergson argues. In the lower living beings, which do not have brain, would have to be some form of consciousness, but surely very different from ours, which would be confused with the simplest biological processes of life of these organisms. Would be "a diffuse, confused, reduced to little consciousness, though not reduced to nothing", says Bergson.
In addition to the brain there are much more primitive nerve centers and pathways, other tissues and organic masses, in man and in the simplest living things, which certainly interact with the external environment, which retain some information and act in certain circumstances and at certain elements of the environment. This would be a form of consciousness, rudimentary compared to man, but consciousness, so it has the fundamental elements of it.
The same in humans. The brain is not an isolated organ from the body, on the contrary it is an integrative organ of the rest of the body functioning while integrating energy and stimuli from the external medium. Our body functions as a whole, and therefore our consciousness works with all of it, not just with the brain.
Consciousness, as we have seen, has the function of decision and choice. In all living beings consciousness is what, from knowledge of the past and anticipating the future, choose the action to take in every moment of the present. "To choose need to think about what can be done and remember the consequences of what has been done; is needed to anticipate and to remember". This occurs at different levels of complexity, depending on the complexity of organisms, of course.
Living beings choose, which is the same as saying that they create their own future, says Bergson. With their decisions they influence the future. Consciousness creates a "zone of uncertainty" around the living being. The more consciousness, the greater the uncertainty (or freedom) of being, the greater the 'creativity'. Consciousness is the ability to choose in a situation in which the subject attends and responds individually based on his experience; somehow is the ability to break the determinism of the outside world, by activity of internal environment, to define how the future will go.
Henri Bergson, L'energie spirituelle.