Charles Stangor, Jennifer Walinga, and Lee Sanders
Consciousness is our subjective awareness of ourselves and our environment including bodily sensations and thoughts.
Consciousness is functional because we use it to reason logically, to plan activities, and to monitor our progress toward the goals we set for ourselves.
The French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) was a proponent of dualism, the idea that the mind, a nonmaterial entity, is separate from (although connected to) the physical body. In contrast to the dualists, psychologists believe the consciousness (and thus the mind) exists in the brain, not separate from it.
Several philosophical theories of human consciousness inform the present study of behaviour and mental processes. Socrates (490–399 BC) argued that free will is limited, or at least so it seems, after he noticed that people often do things they really do not want to do. He called this akrasia or a lack of control over oneself.
A few centuries later, the Roman thinker Plotinus (AD 205–270) was presumably the first to allude to the possibility of unconscious psychological processes where he noted that the absence of conscious perception does not necessarily prove the absence of mental activity.
Consciousness has been central to many theories of psychology. Freud’s personality theories differentiated between the unconscious and the conscious aspects of behaviour, and present-day psychologists distinguish between automatic (unconscious) and controlled (conscious) behaviours and between implicit (unconscious) and explicit (conscious) cognitive processes.
Freud introduced the concept of the subconscious to account for things like memory and motivation that remain outside of the realm of consciousness
The concept of preconscious refers to information that we could pay attention to if we wanted, and where memories are stored for easy retrieval.
Awareness operates on two levels and humans fluctuate between these high and low thinking states.
Low awareness of subtle and even subliminal influences can become conscious as a result of cues.
Cues are stimulus of significant meaning.
High awareness refers to consciousness of what is going on around us.
Mindfulness is a state of heightened awareness, focus, and evaluation of our thoughts.
Attention is a mental resource that can be vigilant and sustained or divided and selective. William James referred to attention as a concentration of consciousness.
Priming studies aim to activate certain concepts and associations in people’s memory below conscious awareness in order to understand the effect on subsequent behaviour.
Researchers can engage the implicit associations test (IAT) to study unconscious motives and beliefs.
The Flexible Correction Model suggests that humans have ability to correct or change beliefs and evaluations that have been influenced or biased by an undue outside source.
Because the brain varies in its current level and type of activity, consciousness is transitory. If we drink too much coffee or beer, the caffeine or alcohol influences the activity in our brain, and our consciousness may change. When we are anesthetized before an operation or experience a concussion after a knock on the head, we may lose consciousness entirely as a result of changes in brain activity. We also lose consciousness when we sleep.
Sleep is unique because while we lack full awareness in this state of consciousness, the brain is still active.
Sleep serves the function of mental and physical restoration.
The behaviour of organisms is influenced by biological rhythms, including the daily circadian rhythms that guide the waking and sleeping cycle in many animals.
Sleep researchers have found that sleeping people undergo a fairly consistent pattern of sleep stages, each lasting about 90 minutes. Each of the sleep stages has its own distinct pattern of brain activity. Rapid eye movement (REM) accounts for about 25% of our total sleep time, during which we dream. Non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep is a deep sleep characterized by very slow brain waves, and is further subdivided into three stages: N1, N2, and N3.
Sleep has a vital restorative function, and a prolonged lack of sleep results in increased anxiety, diminished performance, and, if severe and extended, even death. Sleep deprivation suppresses immune responses that fight off infection, and it can lead to obesity, hypertension, and memory impairment.
Some people suffer from sleep disorders, including insomnia, sleep apnea, narcolepsy, sleepwalking, and REM sleep behaviour disorder.
Dream theories suggest that dreaming is our nonconscious attempt to make sense of daily experience and learning
According to Freud, dreams represent troublesome wishes and desires. Freud believed that the primary function of dreams was wish fulfilment, and he differentiated between the manifest and latent content of dreams.
Other theories of dreaming propose that we dream primarily to help with consolidation — the moving of information into long-term memory. The activation-synthesis theory of dreaming proposes that dreams are simply our brain’s interpretation of the random firing of neurons in the brain stem.
Hypnosis is a trancelike state of consciousness, usually induced by a procedure known as hypnotic induction, which consists of heightened suggestibility, deep relaxation, and intense focus. Hypnosis also is frequently used to attempt to change unwanted behaviours, such as to reduce smoking, eating, and alcohol abuse.
Sensory deprivation is the intentional reduction of stimuli affecting one or more of the five senses, with the possibility of resulting changes in consciousness. Although sensory deprivation is used for relaxation or meditation purposes and to produce enjoyable changes in consciousness, when deprivation is prolonged, it is unpleasant and can be used as a means of torture.
Meditation refers to techniques in which the individual focuses on something specific, such as an object, a word, or one’s breathing, with the goal of ignoring external distractions. Meditation has a variety of positive health effects.
A trance state involves a dissociation of the self where people are said to have less voluntary control over their behaviors and actions.
In some cases, consciousness may become aversive, and we may engage in behaviours that help us escape from consciousness, through the use of psychoactive drugs, for example.
Some substances can have a powerful effect on perception and on consciousness.
Psychoactive drugs are chemicals that change our states of consciousness, and particularly our perceptions and moods. The use (especially in combination) of psychoactive drugs has the potential to create very negative side effects, including tolerance, dependence, withdrawal symptoms, and addiction.
Depressants, including alcohol, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, and toxic inhalants, reduce the activity of the CNS. They are widely used as prescription medicines to relieve pain, to lower heart rate and respiration, and as anticonvulsants. Toxic inhalants are some of the most dangerous recreational drugs, with a safety index below 10, and their continued use may lead to permanent brain damage.
Stimulants speed up the body’s physiological and mental processes. Stimulants, including caffeine, nicotine, cocaine, and amphetamine, are psychoactive drugs that operate by blocking the reuptake of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin in the synapses of the CNS. Some amphetamines, such as Ecstasy, have very low safety ratios and thus are highly dangerous.
Opioids, including opium, morphine, heroin, and codeine, are chemicals that increase activity in opioid receptor neurons in the brain and in the digestive system, producing euphoria, analgesia, slower breathing, and constipation.
Hallucinogens, including cannabis, mescaline, and LSD, are psychoactive drugs that alter sensation and perception, and may create hallucinations.
Even when we know the potential costs of using drugs, we may engage in using them anyway because the rewards from using the drugs are occurring right now, whereas the potential costs are abstract and only in the future. And drugs are not the only things we enjoy or can abuse. It is normal to refer to the abuse of other behaviours, such as gambling, sex, overeating, and even overworking, as “addictions” to describe the overuse of pleasant stimuli.
Contributors and Attributions
- Introduction to Psychology by Jorden A. Cummings & Lee Sanders is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.
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