Consciousness: The Psychology of Awareness

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Consciousness refers to your individual awareness of your unique thoughts, memories, feelings, sensations, and environment.

Your conscious experiences are constantly shifting and changing. For example, in one moment you may be focused on reading this article. Your consciousness may then shift to the memory of a conversation you had earlier with a co-worker. Next, you might notice how uncomfortable your chair is, or maybe you are mentally planning dinner.

This ever-shifting stream of thoughts can change dramatically from one moment to the next, but your experience of it seems smooth and effortless.

What aspects of consciousness to researchers study? Topics such as sleep, dreams, hypnosis, hallucinations, meditation and the effects of psychoactive drugs are just a few of the major topics related to consciousness that psychologists study.

Early Research on Consciousness

For thousands of years, the study of human consciousness was largely done by philosophers. French philosopher Rene Descartes introduced the concept of mind-body dualism, or the idea that while the mind and body are separate, they do interact.

Once psychology was established as a discipline separate from philosopher and biology, the study of the conscious experience was one of the first topics studied by early psychologists.

Structuralists used a process known as introspection to analyze and report conscious sensations, thoughts, and experiences.

Trained observers would carefully inspect the contents of their own minds. Obviously, this was a very subjective process, but it helped inspire further research on the scientific study of consciousness.

American psychologist William James compared consciousness to a stream; unbroken and continuous despite constant shifts and changes.

While the focus of much of the research in psychology shifted to purely observable behaviors during the first half of the twentieth century, research on human consciousness has grown tremendously since the 1950s.

How Is Consciousness Defined?

One of the problems with the study of consciousness is a lack of a universally accepted operational definition. Descartes proposed the idea of "cogito ergo sum" (I think, therefore I am), suggested that the very act of thinking demonstrates the reality of one’s existence and consciousness.

Today, consciousness is often viewed as an individual’s awareness of their own internal states as well as the events going on around them. If you can describe something you are experiencing in words, then it is part of your consciousness.

In psychology, consciousness is occasionally confused with the conscience. It is important to note that while consciousness involves awareness of yourself and the world, your conscience is related to your morality and sense of right or wrong.

  

Recent research on consciousness has focused on understanding the neuroscience behind our conscious experiences. Scientists have even utilized brain scanning technology to seek out specific neurons that might be linked to different conscious events.

Modern researchers have proposed two major theories of consciousness:

Integrated information theory attempts to look at consciousness by learning more about the physical processes that underlie our conscious experiences. The theory attempts to create a measure of the integrated information that forms consciousness. The quality of an organism’s consciousness is represented by the level of integration. This theory tends to focus on whether something is conscious and to what degree it is conscious.

The global workspace theory suggests that we have a memory bank from which the brain draws information to form the experience of conscious awareness. While integrated information theory focuses more on identifying whether an organism is conscious, the global workspace theory offers a much broader approach to understanding how consciousness works.

While consciousness has intrigued philosophers and scientists for thousands of years, we clearly have a long way to go in our understanding the concept. Researchers continue to explore the different bases of consciousness including the physical, social, cultural and psychological influences that contribute to our conscious awareness.

References

Horgan, H. (2015). Can integrated information theory explain consciousness? Scientific American. Retrieved from http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/can-integrated-information-theory-explain-consciousness/

Lewis, T. (2014). Scientists closing in on theory of consciousness. LiveScience. Retrieved from http://www.livescience.com/47096-theories-seek-to-explain-consciousness.html.

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