When did you first begin to feel it? -- locating the beginning of human consciousness

Bioethics. 1996 Jan;10(1):1-26. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8519.1996.tb00100.x.


In this paper we attempt to sharpen and to provide an answer to the question of when human beings first become conscious. Since it is relatively uncontentious that a capacity for raw sensation precedes and underpins all more sophisticated mental capacities, our question is tantamount to asking when human beings first have experiences with sensational content. Two interconnected features of our argument are crucial. First, we argue that experiences with sensational content are supervenient on facts about electrical activity in the cerebral cortex which can be ascertained through EEG readings. Second, we isolate from other notions of a 'functioning brain' that which is required to underpin the view that a cortex is functioning in a way which could give rise to rudimentary conscious experiences. We investigate the development in the human fetus of the anatomical and chemical pathways which underpin (immature) cortical activity and the growth and maturation of the electrical circuitry specifically associated with sensational content in adult experience. We conclude (tentatively) that a fetus becomes conscious at about 30 to 35 weeks after conception; an answer based on a careful analysis of EEG readings at various stages of cortical development. Finally, we survey the possible ethical ramifications of our answer.

MeSH terms

  • Beginning of Human Life*
  • Brain*
  • Embryonic and Fetal Development*
  • Fetus*
  • Human Characteristics
  • Humans
  • Individuality
  • Life*
  • Moral Obligations
  • Personhood
  • Self Concept*
  • Social Responsibility
  • Stress, Psychological