Consciousness is a multifaceted phenomenon, and many terms are used to describe its facets. Consciousness, conscious, aware of, experience (noun), and experience (verb)— all these words have different meanings in different contexts and for different people, so generalizations about their meaning will necessarily have limited validity. Considerable discrepancies also exist between the conceptual tools available in different languages for classifying consciousness and related phenomena. So, for example, the French conscience encompasses both “consciousness” and “conscience,” as the latter words are used in English; in German the subtle difference between the meanings of the English words “consciousness” and “awareness” is lost when both these words have to be translated as Bewusstsein.
Because of these linguistic and conceptual problems, every systematic treatment of consciousness has to start with a set of distinctions and definitions for the purpose at hand. The task of formulating these in a way that makes them useful for people with different mother tongues is far from simple. However, aspects of consciousness and related phenomena can be classified in three basic categories: cognitive consciousness, phenomenal consciousness, and control consciousness. All are the subject of ongoing philosophical debates.
Cognitive Consciousness Also referred to as intentionality, consciousness-of, awareness-of, and transitive consciousness, cognitive consciousness entails a mental relation to an object (not necessarily an existing one), and encompasses phenomena such as thinking of a dragon, becoming aware of the presence of another person, attending to a problem and knowing facts about a certain field. In English, awareness is often a more natural choice than consciousness when the cognitive aspect of consciousness is intended. However, the term “consciousness” is not seldom used in an exclusively cognitive sense—for example, the sociological and political terms class consciousness, gender consciousness, and environmental consciousness. Here consciousness stands for habitual attention to, and knowledge about, the issues in question.
The common denominator of all cognitive consciousness is its directedness toward an object, which may be concrete or abstract. It is an important conceptual fact that a person can properly be said to be cognitively conscious although she is in another sense (phenomenal consciousness, as discussed below) not conscious at all. For example, an environmentally conscious person is still environmentally conscious when sleeping dreamlessly. Similarly, since a person in dreamless sleep knows her mathematics, she is cognitively aware of mathematical facts while sleeping. On the other hand, there are forms of cognitive consciousness that cannot plausibly be ascribed to a dreamlessly sleeping subject, for example, thinking of or presently attending to the facts that she knows.
In this context it should also be mentioned that self-consciousness, which is not seldom given a fundamental role in conceptual schemes for handling matters of consciousness, can plausibly be argued to be a species of cognitive awareness (namely, of oneself). The same holds for reflexive consciousness.
Phenomenal Consciousness A good alternative term is experiential consciousness ; sentient consciousness is often given a similar sense but can also have other connotations. A dreamless sleeper does not have any present experiences (or we may suppose so for the sake of this discussion), and is therefore not conscious in the phenomenal sense. An awake person, on the contrary, usually has sensory and perceptual experiences, feels emotions, and entertains mental imagery; all these belong to her phenomenal consciousness.
Two long-standing controversies in philosophy of mind primarily concern phenomenal consciousness: the mind-body problem and the problem of other minds. What is the relation between the brain and phenomenal consciousness? The philosopher David Chalmers (1996) has called this “the hard problem of consciousness.” The problem of other minds is, can we ever know what another person’s, or another animal’s, experiences are like?
The relations between cognitive awareness and phenomenal consciousness have been the topic of many philosophical debates. One classic debate concerns whether cognition is necessarily rooted in phenomenal consciousness, or whether one could give an explanation of it in purely nonphenomenal (for example, physical) terms. Philosophers in the so-called phenomenological school argue for the first position, whereas most present-day analytical philosophers and cognitive scientists, not only those of a strictly materialist bent, defend the second. Today this discussion is usually presented as an issue about the nature of mental representations. Another important controversy concerns whether phenomenal consciousness depends on cognition: Is a pain or a thought phenomenally conscious only by virtue of one’s being conscious of it, or is phenomenal consciousness rather an intrinsic quality of experiences that can be possessed independently of any reflexive consciousness?
Control Consciousness The meaning of this term, for which there are no common synonyms, partly overlaps with that of what Ned Block (1994) calls access consciousness. In our commonsense understanding of ourselves and other people, as well as in many psychological, psychiatric, and neuroscientific theories, consciousness is given a role for initiating and/or controlling behavior. We talk about doing things with or without conscious intention. Psychologists and neurophysiologists speak about automatic versus consciously controlled behavior. A good example of the latter distinction is given by our ordinary, unconscious control of bodily posture versus conscious attempts not to fall when the automatic control fails for some internal or external reason. In some psychiatric theories, consciousness is even given the role of the superordinate controlling instance of mental life, and all mental disturbances are seen as results of more or less deep-seated disturbances of consciousness.
A philosophically controversial issue here is: How can consciousness have a causal role to play in behavior, if all our behavior stems from processes in the brain (as neuroscience seems to say)? This problem is sometimes taken as a motive for a materialistically reductive analysis of control consciousness. Control consciousness is then explained in terms of physical or biological regulatory processes. However, such an approach also has to explain the fact that many paradigm cases of conscious control (e.g., consciously regaining posture) also have a phenomenal aspect.
The French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes (1596–1650) formulated a philosophical conception of consciousness in which the concept was differentiated from conscience, with which it was previously conflated. Descartes’s dualism is well known, and already in the seventeenth century it posed an embarrassing philosophical issue, the body-mind problem. He regarded body and mind as two separate but interacting substances, body (or matter) being essentially characterized by spatial extension whereas mind is characterized by thinking. For Descartes the presence of conscious states was a mark of human beings, in contrast with animals, which he thought were mechanical automata.
Although a clear emphasis on cognitive consciousness can be discerned in Descartes’s writings, the cognitive, phenomenal, and control dimensions of consciousness cannot really be disentangled in them. In seventeenth-and eighteenth-century British empiricist philosophy, phenomenally conscious processes and our consciousness of them are the main concerns. However, the problems of cognitive consciousness are still of central concern. For the British empiricists, ideas are experiential states that are accessible by means of introspection, but they are also themselves essentially about things.
John Locke (1632–1704) formulated the distinction between an outer sense—our experiential access to material objects—and an inner sense, reflecting on one’s own experiences. His theory of inner sense can be regarded as the first systematic treatise of introspection. By consciousness Locke meant all ideas that passed in a man’s own mind and his self-consciousness about them. Consciousness, not bodily continuity, was regarded as constitutive of personal identity.
The famous principle of association of ideas can be traced to Aristotle, but it was the British empiricists who made it the foundation of a whole new science. Locke’s formulation of the principle became of utmost importance for the development of psychological ideas in later centuries. Our understanding of the world and of ourselves was seen as built up from associations between ideas that are similar or contrasting, or that just happen to be contiguous in our experience. Later schools of association-ist philosophy and psychology (as exhibited in the work of David Hartley, David Hume, James Mill, John Stuart Mill, and Alexander Bain) took it for granted that conscious experience is built up from elements and processes that are discernible to the self-conscious mind. Simple ideas are copies of sensations, and complex ideas are construed from simple ideas according to the laws of association. Mental elements and the principles according to which conscious thoughts—or ideas—are built up and interact can be investigated by introspection.
In the late eighteenth century the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) questioned the program of the British associationist philosopher-psychologists. According to Kant, a science in the strict sense requires both mathematical measurement and experimental procedures. None of this is possible in the case of consciousness, as thoughts do not exist in a spatial continuum and as man cannot divide himself into one observing subject and one observed object.
Trying to overcome the obstacles put up by Kant, German philosophers in the nineteenth century formulated several programs for a science of psychology defined as the study of conscious processes. Based on the psychophysical methods the physicist Gustav Theodor Fechner (1801–1887) had devised in 1860, the German physiologist and philosopher Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920) institutionalized the new science in Leipzig in 1879 as an experimental laboratory discipline. Wundt and his students defined psychology as the study of immediate experience. They held that it was a proper scientific discipline and that mental processes can be measured provided that one uses controlled experimental methods. Simple introspection was therefore replaced by experimental self-observation, a method that required a painstaking training before the subject could correctly describe the phenomena in his consciousness.
In his Principles of Psychology (1890), the American physician and philosopher William James (1842–1910) described psychology as “the science of mental life.” He tried to give a holistic description of consciousness, stressing consciousness as personal, intentional, selective, shifting, and continuous. James’s discussion of consciousness as “a stream of thought” is very similar to the understanding of consciousness in the theories of Franz Brentano, Carl Stumpf, and Edmund von Husserl. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the latter philosophers developed what Husserl (1859–1938) in his 1900–1901work named phenomenology. Phenomenology is a philosophy that emphasizes the intentionality of consciousness and the importance of investigating the detailed intentional structure of consciousness. This should be done by means of a certain method, which, although systematically related to introspection, is not identical to it.
In opposition to the British associationists, the phe-nomenologists stressed the fact that conscious ideas need not be similar to that which they are ideas of. In other words, it is not essential to ideas that they are images of their objects. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the psychologists of the so-called Würzburg school (Narziss Ach, Karl Bühler, Oswald Külpe, and others) took an interest in deeper descriptions of phenomena of consciousness. They found in the experimental subjects’ introspective reports instances of “imageless” conscious phenomena (Bewusstseinslagen ) that in their opinion questioned the traditional associationist psychology.
During the late nineteenth century there was widespread interest in the possibility of unconscious mental phenomena. Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) famously formulated a systematic theory, or rather several theories, about the unconscious mind. Such an enterprise requires a theory of consciousness. In a crucial paper written in 1915, Freud distinguishes between a “systematic” and a “descriptive” sense of “consciousness.” The systematic sense is close to what is here called control consciousness. The descriptive sense has essentially to do with knowability, but Freud also speculates that a descriptively conscious mental state is conscious by virtue of its possessing a certain intrinsic quality. In Freud’s later thinking, control consciousness is instead described in terms of the mental systems named ego and super-ego.
Within the American school of functionalism that William James was part of, the aim of studying consciousness was regarded with suspicion. In 1904 James even stated that consciousness did not exist, but he meant that it did not exist as an entity, only as a function. With the behaviorists of the early twentieth century, however, the interest radically shifted from consciousness (now often regarded as a metaphysical concept) to behavior. Humans should be understood through their actions and not their thoughts. The idea of finding the basic laws of mental elements using introspective methods was abandoned. The alternative, nonassociationist approaches, such as phenomenology and Gestalt psychology, were also relegated to a minor role in the psychological community. The behaviorists took diverse philosophical positions: Some took the strong metaphysical position that consciousness does not exist, whereas others only defended a moderate methodological statement to the effect that introspective methods should be abandoned as unscientific in favor of behavioral observation.
Behaviorism was to dominate the behavioral and social sciences from about 1920 to 1960. During this time the Gestalt psychologists, who thought in ways related to both phenomenology and the Würzburg school, kept up a keen interest in the study of perception and other forms of experience and did much valuable research on the structure of consciousness. In many respects the thrust of their work was biological, and they were much opposed to explanations of experience by means of mental laws. In Gestalt theory, immediate experience is a direct result of brain processes and cannot be explained by any association of mental elements.
Consciousness research continued throughout the behaviorist era in the fields of psychiatry and neurology. Karl Jaspers (1883–1969), a psychiatrist and philosopher in the phenomenological tradition, in 1913 created a classification scheme for pathological disturbances of consciousness that is still in use. During the whole of the twentieth century, the understanding of consciousness and its pathology was generally regarded as essential for the psychiatric understanding of patients. Around mid-century, the French psychiatrist Henri Ey (1900–1977)— who was also influenced by phenomenological thinking—formulated a new theory about consciousness, stressing its functional and controlling aspects. In most present-day psychiatric theories, however, consciousness is not given such a central explanatory role.
The Cognitive Revolution In the 1960s an important methodological and theoretical shift in the behavioral and social sciences occurred that is often referred to as the cognitive revolution. It was partly inspired by the possibilities offered by computer modeling of rational processes, and it is no coincidence that the main focus of cognitive psychology is memory and thinking. Consciousness was no longer a forbidden territory. Since the 1960s, cognitive psychologists have also shown a renewed interest in unconscious mental processes such as implicit memory, subliminal perception, and other forms of perception without phenomenal perceptual consciousness (e.g., blindsight).
Although consciousness and several different kinds of introspective procedures have once again been admitted into psychology, the terms introspection and consciousness are not used as frequently by psychologists as they were in the early twentieth century. This may not be of any importance in itself, but it reflects the more serious circumstance that there is a fundamental break of tradition between the old psychology and the new. This break also means that several philosophical and methodological issues, which were common knowledge in the psychological community in the early 1900s, seem to be little known by many behavioral and social scientists of the twenty-first century.
However, there are signs that this situation is changing. Since the 1990s a large amount of interdisciplinary work on consciousness has been accomplished, partly under the auspices of independent organizations such as ASSC (Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness), but also within the academic programs of many universities around the world. Neuroscientists and philosophers, as well as behavioral and social scientists, participate in this effort. The body-mind problem occupies one focus under the name of a search for “the neural correlate of consciousness.” The role of consciousness in perceptual and motor processes is another much researched and hotly debated topic. Finally, “mentalizing” (ascribing mental states to other people) is a third area of central concern for today’s interdisciplinary study of consciousness.
SEE ALSO Anthropology, Linguistic; Aristotle; Cognition; Epistemology; Freud, Sigmund; Gestalt Psychology; James, William; Kant, Immanuel; Knowledge; Locke, John; Mill, James; Mill, John Stuart; Phenomenology; Philosophy; Psycholinguistics; Psychology; Self-Consciousness, Private vs. Public; Theory of Mind
Block, Ned. 1994. Consciousness. In A Companion to the Philosophy of Mind, ed. Samual Guttenplan, 210–219. Oxford: Blackwell.
Chalmers, David J. 1996. The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. New York: Oxford University Press.
Ey, Henri. 1968. La Conscience. 2nd ed. Paris: Desclée De Brouwer.
Hassin, Ran R., James S. Uleman, and John A. Bargh, eds. 2005. The New Unconscious. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hilgard, Ernest R. 1980. Consciousness in Contemporary Psychology. Annual Review of Psychology 31: 1–26.
Hommel, Bernhard. 2007. Consciousness and Control: Not Identical Twins. Journal of Consciousness Studies 14 (1–2): 155–176.
Husserl, Edmund von. 1921. Logische Untersuchungen. Vols. 1 and 2. 2nd ed. Tübingen, Germany: Niemeyer.
James, William. 1890. The Principles of Psychology. Vols. 1 and 2. New York: Dover Publications, 1950.
Jaspers, Karl. 1913. Allgemeine Psychopathologie. Berlin: Springer.
Velman, Max, and Susan Schneider, eds. 2007. The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness. Malden, MA, and Oxford: Blackwell.
"Consciousness." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/consciousness
"Consciousness." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/consciousness
Although some philosophers (panpsychists) have believed that all things, including inanimate objects such as chairs and umbrellas, are conscious, most people agree that consciousness is associated with brains (and, some would argue, with inanimate machines that work, in some crucial respect, like brains). Stated simply, then, the problem is how does the activity of nerve cells in the brain give rise to our subjective mental life? Neurons — specks of jelly in the brain, with their electrical impulses and their little squirts of neurotransmitter — seem so utterly different from the redness of red or the flavour of Marmite on toast.
The riddle of qualia is best illustrated with a thought experiment. Imagine a neuroscientist in some future century, who has complete knowledge of the workings of the brain — including the mechanisms of colour vision — but who happens to be colour blind and cannot herself distinguish between red and green. She uses the latest scanning techniques to generate a total description of all the electrical and chemical events in the brain of a normal human as he looks at a red object. The functional account may seem complete, but how could it be so without an explanation of the nature of the unique experience of red, which the scientist herself has never had? There is a deep epistemological gulf between descriptions of physical events in the brain and the personal, subjective experiences that we presume to be associated with those events.
Is consciousness a property of the entire brain — does it ‘emerge’ when the brain reaches a certain level of complexity? Or are only some parts of the brain conscious? (After all, if we argue that only brains and not other organs are conscious, why not imagine that only some parts of the brain are involved?) Indeed, neurological evidence suggests that we are unconscious of most of the activity in our brains — not just the below-stairs business of running the heart, digestion, posture, and so on, but also the pre-perceptual processing of information from the senses, and the complex task of selecting and controlling the individual muscles that carry out actions.
A rare disorder, aptly called ‘blindsight’, strikingly demonstrates a dissociation between conscious and unconscious visual processing. It results from damage restricted to the primary visual cortex in the cerebral hemispheres, which classically causes ‘cortical blindness’ in a corresponding part of the visual field. Although the patient denies seeing, say, a small spot of light presented in the blind part of the field, he or she can fairly accurately point towards the spot. Moreover, if a moving spot or a line is shown, the patient can ‘guess’ the direction of movement or the angle of the line, all the time unaware that it exists! This amazing paradox is explained by the fact that there are two main pathways of interconnected nerve cells from the eyes and through the brain. One goes to the primary visual cortex, and on into the lower parts of the temporal lobe, which is responsible for the identification of objects and the laying down of personal memories. The other projects via the reflex visual centres of the midbrain (which control eye movements) and thence up to the parietal lobes of the cortex, where the information is used to guide hand movements. Since the latter pathway is still intact in the patient with blindsight, he or she can use it for reaching for the object. But the other pathway into the temporal lobe seems to be intimately involved in conscious perception. A more subtle dissociation can occur in patients who have extensive damage to the temporal lobe, which does not interfere with basic visual functions but can cause agnosia — an incapacity to distinguish consciously between different objects and shapes. However, such patients can correctly shape their hands to pick up different objects that they cannot perceptually distinguish. It is almost as though there is an unconscious ‘zombie’ inside the heads of such patients, ‘seeing’ the world and guiding the hands but not troubling consciousness with what it is doing.
Unconscious vision is not just a neurological anomaly — it occurs even in normal people. If you are driving a car while talking to the person next to you or on a mobile telephone, many parts of your brain are processing enormous amounts of visual information to enable you to negotiate the traffic. Yet little of it reaches consciousness so long as your attention is focused on the conversation. Interestingly, it is hard to imagine the opposite scenario — of having a conversation unconsciously while paying attention to the traffic. At any instant, we seem to be fully aware of only a minute fraction of the things that we could be aware of. As you stand chatting to a friend at a party, you are unaware of the content of the other conversations around you — unless you deliberately eavesdrop out of the ‘corner of your ear’. Equally, our embarrassingly poor ability to recall the detail of a visual scene if the lights are suddenly switched off indicates that we are genuinely aware of only a tiny fraction of the flood of information that pours into our brains from our eyes. Only the focus of current attention seems fully represented in our consciousness, in the sense that it can be remembered. This all suggests that there is a link between consciousness, attention, and memory, and also that we cannot use language creatively without being conscious.
This raises the so-called ‘Zombie problem’. If we are able to do so much without being aware of it, what purpose does consciousness serve, and how did it evolve? Imagine an unconscious zombie that looks exactly like a person and does all the things a conscious human does, but without being conscious. There seems to be nothing logically impossible about this. Indeed, we have no way of knowing, for sure, that machines, animals, or even other human beings are truly conscious in the way that we feel ourselves to be. Some philosophers, most notably Gilbert Ryle, have argued that concepts of mind, such as self and intention, are merely ‘category mistakes’ — muddles that arise from the misuse of language. Such virtuosic philosophical argument reinforces the ‘Zombie problem’, but is deeply unsatisfactory. We know that we are conscious. Indeed, as René Déscartes pointed out, knowing that we are aware is the only thing that we are really sure about — ‘cogito, ergo sum’.
In parallel with Ryle's attempt to explain away the ‘Ghost in the Machine’, the school of psychology called behaviourism also argued that consciousness does not (or need not) exist and that science should confine itself to an attempt to explain externally observable behaviour. To behavioural psychologists, it has indeed been valuable to view the brain objectively, merely seeking accounts of behaviour without the baggage of common-language concepts such as will, intention, and need. However, it is difficult for most people — even brain researchers — to accept the extreme notion of ‘eliminative materialism’, namely that words such as ‘love’, ‘want’, and even ‘red’ have the same logical status as the once universal but now arcane view that living things have some kind of ‘vital essence’, which distinguishes them from the inanimate world.
More intriguing is epiphenomenalism. Just as the shadow of a running horse appears to run along with it but plays no causal role in the running, consciousness may simply accompany certain brain events but not itself have a function. Can it really be true that when you feel that you are choosing to pick up a cup, it is not the conscious intention that initiates the picking up? In fact, there is growing evidence that our subjective impressions of events in the world and of our intended actions are a kind of post-hoc ‘commentary’ on things that have already happened. Disturbing though it is, our conscious lives may be a plausible but illusory tale, a translation of the zombie world into the domain of subjectivity. But why should we have such a self-deluding system in the brain? How did it evolve? What could its value be?
Faced with such philosphical conundrums, many neuroscientists, with Francis Crick as their standard-bearer, have argued that we should simply aim to define the ‘neural correlate of consciousness’ — the parts of the brain and the nature and activity of nerve cells that implement conscious states. Once we have a clear understanding of the neural activity that is both necessary and sufficient for subjectivity, perhaps many of the philosophic problems will disappear.
The pragmatic advantage of this approach is that it transforms consciousness into an empirical problem that is approachable experimentally. Instead of asking ‘What is consciousness?’, one asks ‘What parts of the brain are active, or in what special way are they active, when someone does something consciously?’ One experimental approach that is proving fruitful is to monitor the activity of different parts of the cerebral cortex (with microelectrodes in animals, or with imaging techniques in human beings) while the retinal image is unchanging but the content of consciousness changes. For instance, how does activity in the brain change as a person or animal shifts attention from one thing to another? What happens when they view ambiguous visual images that can appear, at one moment, to be one thing, but, at another instant, to be something else?
That other mysterious aspect of subjectivity — the feeling of ‘free will’ and intention — is more difficult to study. However, fingers of evidence point towards the anterior cingulate cortex, a region on the inner surface of the frontal lobe. Patients with damage here sometimes feel that their own actions occur without being intended — alien hand syndrome. Conversely, they may be fully conscious but feel that they don't want to do anything at all — akinetic mutism.
The early decades of the twenty-first century will undoubtedly see great advances in our understanding of the neural correlate of consciousness. What is less certain is whether such empirical observations will take us any closer to resolving what philosopher David Chalmers has called the ‘Hard Problem’, that is, what really is the nature of subjectivity? We may be forced to admit that consciousness, like infinity and the particle-wave concepts in quantum mechanics, is a property that cannot be made intuitively straighforward. Consciousness, like gravity, mass, and charge, may be one of the irreducible properties of the universe for which no further account is possible.
V. S. Ramachandran, and Colin Blakemore
Churchland, P. M. (1996). The engine of reason, the seat of the soul. MIT Press, Cambridge MA.
Crick, F. H. C. (1993). The astonishing hypothesis. Charles Scribner, New York.
Ramachandran, V. S. (1998). Phantoms in the brain. William Morrow, New York.
Searle, J. (1994). The rediscovery of the mind. MIT Press, Cambridge MA.
Weizkrantz, L. (1986). Blindsight. Oxford University Press.
See also brain; colour blindness; illusions; imaging techniques; perception; vision.
"consciousness." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/consciousness
"consciousness." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/consciousness
Awareness of external stimuli and of one's own mental activity.
Wilhelm Wundt 's investigations of consciousness, begun in 1879, were central to the development of psychology as a field of study. Wundt's approach, called structuralism, sought to determine the structure of consciousness by recording the verbal descriptions provided by laboratory subjects to various stimuli, a method that became known as introspection. The next major approach to the study of consciousness was the functionalism of William James , who focused on how consciousness helps people adapt to their environment . Behaviorism , pioneered by John B. Watson in the early 1900s, shifted interest from conscious processes to observable behaviors, and the study of consciousness faded into the background for almost half a century, especially in the United States, until it was revived by the "cognitive revolution" that began in the 1950s and 1960s.
The existence of different levels of consciousness was at the heart of Sigmund Freud 's model of human mental functioning. In addition to the conscious level, consisting of thoughts and feelings of which one is aware, Freud proposed the existence of the unconscious , a repository for thoughts and feelings that are repressed because they are painful or unacceptable to the conscious mind for some other reason. He also formulated the concept of the preconscious , which functions as an intermediate or transitional level of mind between the unconscious and the conscious. A preconscious thought can quickly become conscious by receiving attention , and a conscious thought can slip into the preconscious when attention is withdrawn from it. In contrast, the repressed material contained in the unconscious can only be retrieved through some special technique, such as hypnosis or dream interpretation. (What Freud called the unconscious is today referred to by many psychologists as the subconscious.) Freud's contemporary, Carl Jung , posited the existence of a collective unconscious shared by all people which gathers together the experiences of previous generations. The collective unconscious contains images and symbols, called archetypes , that Jung found are shared by people of diverse cultures and tend to emerge in dreams , myths, and other forms. In Jung's view, a thorough analysis of both the personal and collective unconscious was necessary to fully understand the individual personality .
People experience not only different levels, but also different states of consciousness, ranging from wakefulness (which may be either active or passive) to deep sleep . Although sleep suspends the voluntary exercise of both bodily functions and consciousness, it is a much more active state than was once thought. Tracking brain waves with the aid of electroencephalograms (EEGs), researchers have identified six stages of sleep (including a pre-sleep stage), each characterized by distinctive brain-wave frequencies. In rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which makes up 20% of sleep time, the same fast-frequency, low-amplitude beta waves that characterize waking states occur, and a person's physiological signs—heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure—also resemble those of a waking state. It is during REM sleep that dreams are experienced. Delta waves demarcate the deepest levels of sleep, when heart rate, respiration, temperature, and blood flow to the brain are reduced and growth hormone is secreted.
Certain waking states, which are accompanied by marked changes in mental processes, are considered states of altered consciousness. One of these is hypnosis, a highly responsive state induced by a hypnotist through the use of special techniques. While the term "hypnosis" comes from the Greek word for sleep (hypnos), hypnotized people are not really asleep. Their condition resembles sleep in that they are relaxed and out of touch with ordinary environmental demands, but their minds remain active and conscious. Other characteristics of hypnosis include lack of initiative, selective redistribution of attention, enhanced ability to fantasize, reduced reality testing, and increased suggestibility. Also, hypnosis is often followed by post-hypnotic amnesia , in which the person is unable to remember what happened during the hypnotic session. Hypnosis has proven useful in preventing or controlling various types of pain , including pain from dental work, childbirth, burns, arthritis, nerve damage, and migraine headaches.
In meditation, an altered state of consciousness is achieved by performing certain rituals and exercises. Typical characteristics of the meditative state include intensified perception , an altered sense of time, decreased distraction from external stimuli, and a sense that the experience is pleasurable and rewarding. While meditation is traditionally associated with Zen Buddhism, a secular form called Transcendental Meditation (TM) has been widely used in the United States for purposes of relaxation. It has been found that during this type of meditation, people consume less oxygen, eliminate less carbon dioxide, and breathe more slowly than when they are in an ordinary resting state.
Consciousness may be altered in a dramatic fashion by the use of psychoactive drugs , which affect the interaction of neurotransmitters and receptors in the brain. They include illegal "street drugs," tranquilizers and other prescription medications, and such familiar substances as alcohol, tobacco, and coffee. The major categories of psychoactive drugs include depressants, which reduce activity of the central nervous system ; sedatives, another type of depressant that includes barbiturates such as Seconal and Nembutal; anxiolytics (traditionally referred to as tranquilizers); narcotics—including heroin and its derivatives—which are addictive drugs that cause both drowsiness and euphoria, and are also pain-killers; psychostimulants, such as amphetamines and cocaine, which stimulate alertness, increase excitability, and elevate moods; and psychedelics or hallucinogens , such as marijuana and LSD. Psychedelics, which affect moods, thought, memory , and perception, are particularly known for their consciousness-altering properties. They can produce distortion of one's body image , loss of identity, dreamlike fantasies, and hallucinations . LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), one of the most powerful psychedelic drugs, can cause hallucinations in which time is distorted, sounds produce visual sensations, and an out-of-body feeling is experienced.
Various states of consciousness are viewed differently by different cultures and even subcultures. In the United States, for example, hallucinations are devalued by mainstream culture as a bizarre sign of insanity, whereas the youth counterculture of the 1960s viewed drug-induced hallucinations as enlightening, "mind-expanding" experiences. In certain other societies, hallucinations are respected as an important therapeutic tool used by ritual healers.
Dennett, D.C. Brainstorms. Cambridge, MA: Bradford Books, 1980.
Freud, Sigmund. "The Unconscious." In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth Press, 1962.
"Consciousness." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/consciousness-1
"Consciousness." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/consciousness-1
In psychology, consciousness is the subject's immediate apprehension of mental activity. Although Freud thought that conscious processes are "the same as the consciousness of the philosophers and of everyday opinion" and "a fact without parallel, which defies all explanation or description" (1940a , pp. 159, 157), he argued that they could not be considered the "essence" of mental life. Rather, consciousness has a fugitive quality and does not "form unbroken sequences which are complete in themselves" (p. 157). "The psychical, whatever its nature may be, is in itself unconscious and probably similar in kind to all the other natural processes of which we have obtained knowledge" (1940b , p. 283). Freud stressed, however, that consciousness still plays an importance role; indeed, it is "the one light which illuminates our path and leads us through the darkness of mental life" (p. 286).
The work of psychoanalysis, as Freud saw it, is "translating unconscious processes into conscious ones, and thus filling in the gaps in conscious perception" (p. 286). Consciousness is the qualitative perception of information arising both from the external world and from the internal world: an external world that is unknowable in itself and to which we have access only via subjective elements collected by our sense organs and an internal world that consists of unconscious mental processes and that we are aware of solely through sensations of pleasure/unpleasure and revived memories. According to Freud, "A person's own body, and above all its surface, is a place from which both external and internal perceptions may spring" (1923b, p. 25).
From the beginning Freud treated consciousness and perception as indissolubly linked, indeed, so much so that throughout his work he deemed them to constitute a single structure, the perception-consciousness system. Freud also drew a distinction, within nonconscious phenomena, between latent states susceptible of becoming conscious at any moment and repressed psychic processes inaccessible to consciousness. This led him to differentiate the unconscious system proper from a preconscious system, cut off from consciousness by censorship but also controlling access to consciousness. In this sense, the preconscious and the conscious are very close: both are governed by secondary processes and both draw on a bound form of psychic energy. In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), Freud spoke of the preconscious-conscious system, and in "The Unconscious" (1915e), he described the preconscious as "conscious knowledge" (p. 167), even though it provides access to unconscious contents and processes, provided that they have been transformed.
From his earliest writings on, Freud saw the link between consciousness and the ego as very close. And although by 1920 Freud viewed the ego as in large part unconscious in its defensive activities, he continued to attach consciousness to it as both the "nucleus" and the "surface of the mental apparatus" (1923b, p. 19).
By the early twenty-first century, the problem of perception had become increasingly complex. Freud's near conflation of perception and consciousness, which required him to postulate that perceptual phenomena and the laying down of memory traces are incompatible, has come in for serious reconsideration. It is worth noting, though, that Freud himself, in his last years, was given pause on this issue by the problem of fetishism, apropos of which it was apparent that perceptions and mnemic traces could be caught up in one and the same conflict. This line of thinking has led to a reevaluation of all psychopathologies where disavowal and splitting predominate, such as borderline conditions, and more generally, to a review of all states involving the relationship between perception and hallucination (see Donald W. Winnicott's notions of the subjective object and of transitionality ).
See also: Agency; Censorship; Conscious processes; Ego; Metapsychology; Mnemic trace/memory trace; "Note upon the 'Mystic Writing Pad,' A"; Perception-consciousness (Pcpt.-Cs.); Preconscious, the; Psychic apparatus; Psychoanalytic treatment; Topographical point of view; "Unconscious, The."
Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4-5.
——. (1915e). The unconscious. SE, 14: 166-204.
——. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 12-59.
——. (1940a ). An outline of psychoanalysis. SE, 23: 139-207.
——. (1940b ). Some elementary lessons in psycho-analysis. SE, 23: 279-286.
Winnicott, Donald W. (1953). Transitional objects and transitional phenomena: A study of the first not-me possession. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 34, 89-97.
"Consciousness." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/psychology/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/consciousness
"Consciousness." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/psychology/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/consciousness
consciousness, in psychology, a term commonly used to indicate a state of awareness of self and environment. In Freudian psychology, conscious behavior largely includes cognitive processes of the ego, such as thinking, perception, and planning, as well as some aspects of the superego, such as moral conscience. Some psychologists deny the distinction between conscious and unconscious behavior; others use the term consciousness to indicate all the activities of an individual that constitute the personality. In recent years, neuropsychologists have begun to investigate the links between consciousness and memory, as well as altered states of consciousness such as the dream state. See also defense mechanism; psychoanalysis.
See D. C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained (1991); A. Damasto, The Feeling of What Happens (1999); S. Blackmore, Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction (2005); C. S. Hill, Consciousness (2009); D. J. Chalmers, The Character of Consciousness (2010).
"consciousness." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/consciousness
"consciousness." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/consciousness
Consciousness is a person’s awareness of his or her inner world, the most private place where thoughts and feelings are formed and impressions and experiences are processed.
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Here is a test: Try to write down all the steps you followed in getting dressed this morning. Did you put on your pants or your top first? Which shoe went on first? What steps did you take to tie your shoes? This is likely to be a tough test, because getting dressed, brushing teeth, or tying shoes are automatic tasks that can be done without much thought. Other examples of automatic tasks include riding a bike, playing a sport, and dialing a phone number from memory. These tasks may seem difficult when we learn them for the first time, but they soon become so familiar that we do not have to focus our conscious minds on them. Without even realizing it, we rely on learned routines to complete them efficiently.
Automatic processing is not always enough for what someone needs to do. This is when the conscious mind takes over. Whether a person is mastering a new concept, focusing on a challenging book, writing a school paper, deciding how to spend the afternoon, or reacting to criticism from a friend, for example, that person is mindful, or conscious, of what he or she is thinking, feeling, saying, or doing. These and other tasks require the mind to be aware of the inside and the outside world, instead of relying on set automatic routines. It appears that “consciousness” gives human beings the awareness to be flexible in dealing with new situations and an ever-changing environment. Consciousness is a state of being aware and paying attention to thoughts, feelings, ideas, and actions at a given moment.
Generally, it is believed that the mechanisms of consciousness are controlled by the cerebral cortex, the upper wrinkled layer of the brain where higher functions, such as perception, memory, intelligence, and control of skilled movements, also are carried out. But it is not known whether scientists will ever be able to explain consciousness fully as a solely physical process carried out within the brain. This issue has been debated intensely over the years and likely will continue to be a topic of disagreement among experts. Consciousness has proved to be one of the most difficult functions to define, even though everyone experiences it.
Scientists, physicians, and psychologists, who are specially trained to study the structure, function, and biology of the brain and nervous system, have made great strides in understanding how different brain regions and brain chemicals are involved in producing emotions such as anxiety, sadness, fear, and happiness. Using advanced brain imaging techniques, they also are gaining a better understanding of how different portions of the brain play a part in speaking, listening, processing information, and other activities.
Some researchers in the emerging field known as “consciousness studies” believe that one day we will understand consciousness more fully in this way as well. They include not only psychologists* and scientists but also some philosophers. Philosophy is the study of the nature of the mind and of the role of thought in how we experience and deal with the world around us, including ethics*, morality, decision making, motivation, and beliefs. These researchers believe that eventually we will be able to “map” the process we understand as consciousness within the brain, explaining it in terms of the connections and messaging among nerve cells of the brain. They believe that consciousness will come to be understood as the product of the sophisticated machinery of the human brain, just as emotions have begun to be understood in this way.
- * psychologists
- (sy-KOL-o-jists) are mental health professionals who treat mental and behavioral disorders by support and insight to encourage healthy behavior patterns and personality growth. Psychologists also study the brain, behavior, emotions, and learning.
- * ethics
- is a guiding set of principles for conduct, a system of moral values.
Other researchers disagree. They contend that the so-called hard problem of consciousness will remain something of a mystery. The “hard problem” of consciousness refers to the question of how the physical brain can give rise to the unique experiences that we each have in relation to the external world. These experts do not dispute the brain’s role in taking in, processing, and interpreting concrete information from the outside world. For example, two people at the same concert hear the same music thanks to the inner ear’s auditory nerve, which sends along impulses to the brain, where they are processed in the region that controls hearing. But this does not explain the inner aspect of thought and perception or the way the music “feels” for each person. If listeners were asked to share their innermost thoughts while hearing the music, they likely would have very different responses based on personal experiences. For this reason, some experts contend that we will never be able to “locate” consciousness entirely within the structures and chemical processes of the brain. For them, it is too complex to explain consciousness fully in terms of gray matter and brain chemicals; instead, they argue that consciousness also draws on experiences and thoughts that are the essence of being human (and cannot be defined or measured).
The field of consciousness studies has brought together philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists*, physicians, and other researchers to discuss this and other issues related to understanding consciousness. Their first major gathering was held in Tucson, Arizona, in 1994, and many meetings have been held since then. This is a young field of study and research, but it holds great promise for furthering our understanding of the mind.
- * neuroscientists
- are scientists who study the nerves and nervous system, especially their relationship to learning and behavior.
Brain Chemistry (Neurochemistry)
Brynie, Faith Hickman. 101 Questions Your Brain Has Asked About Itself But Couldn’t Answer . . . Until Now. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1998. The book contains sections on learning memory, and even music and the brain.
"Consciousness." Complete Human Diseases and Conditions. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/consciousness-0
"Consciousness." Complete Human Diseases and Conditions. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/consciousness-0
con·scious·ness / ˈkänchəsnəs/ • n. the state of being awake and aware of one's surroundings. ∎ the awareness or perception of something by a person. ∎ the fact of awareness by the mind of itself and the world.
"consciousness." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/consciousness
"consciousness." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/consciousness
This entry includes three subentries:Overview
"Consciousness." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/consciousness
"Consciousness." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/consciousness