Generally, we are aware of what is going on around us but it is not that we are aware of everything that is happening. When we listen to a lecture in a class, in between our thought moves to some other things. This only shows that our consciousness moves away. The states of consciousness are subjective and very personal.
Though discussion of conscious experience occurs in every topic of psychology, defining it and explaining it has been difficult. Many people refer to consciousness as a person’s current awareness of external and internal stimuli. This is one aspect of consciousness. We are conscious not only when we monitor our environment but also when we try to control ourselves and our environment.
Hence consciousness involves:
- Monitoring ourselves and our environment so that perceptions, memories and thoughts are represented in awareness.
- Controlling ourselves and our environment so that we are able to initiate and terminate behavioral and cognitive activities.
Monitoring ourselves is one important aspect of it. Processing information from the environment is the main function of the body’s sensory system. It aids in becoming aware of what is happening in our surroundings as well as within us. But it focuses only on some stimuli and ignores others. This helps in dealing with information overload. Our attention is selective; events that are important for our survival are given top priority.
Another important function of it is controlling. It helps in planning, initiating and guiding our actions. Of course all our behaviors are not controlled by consciousness. In fact, many behaviors occur outside of it.
It refers to a person’s awareness of the sensations, thoughts and feelings being experienced at a given moment. An altered state of consciousness is a change from an ordinary pattern of mental functioning to a state that seems different to the person experiencing the change. Altered states of consciousness can vary from the distraction of a vivid daydream to the confusion and perceptual distortion caused by drug intoxication.
Preconscious memories: Though our awareness at any given moment is only limited, stimuli that are not our focus of attention can have some influence in our consciousness. For instance, when you are having lunch in a restaurant, ignoring the conversation of others when your name is mentioned by someone that catches your attention.
Many of our memories and thoughts which are not part of our consciousness can be brought into awareness. For instance, you may not be conscious of your friend’s marriage that took place last month. But the memories can be brought into your awareness if you wish. Memories that are accessible to consciousness are preconscious memories.
The unconscious: The earliest theory of consciousness is the psychoanalytic theory by Sigmund Freud. He believed that a major portion of the mind was unconscious. It contains memories impulses and desires that are not accessible to consciousness. Freud believed that unpleasant memories and unfulfilled wishes are diverted to the unconscious. Though these are not accessible to consciousness, they exert a strong influence on one’s behavior. Many psychologists and researchers disagree that unconscious contains only unpleasant memories. Instead they state that there are memories and mental processes that are outside of consciousness. In other words, all agree that there exists and unconscious aspect.
Automaticity and Dissociation: while controlling is an important function of consciousness, some activities with frequent practice become automatic or habitual. For instance, when we learn to drive it requires our complete attention. Once we master the activity, we are able to drive at the same time carry on a casual conversation. The habituation of responses that initially required conscious attention is called automaticity. In such activities the control is there but it is dissociated from consciousness. Proposed by the French psychiatrist Pierre Janet, dissociation is a state that under certain conditions some thoughts and actions become split off, or dissociated from the rest of consciousness and function outside awareness.
Consciousness is a person’s perceptions, thoughts and feelings at a given moment. It monitors and controls our actions.
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