In this article we will discuss about:- 1. Introduction to Consciousness 2. Biological Rhythms: Tides of Life and Conscious Experience 3. Waking States of Consciousness 4. Consciousness-Altering Drugs: What They Are and What They Do.
Introduction to Consciousness:
We all experience changing states of consciousness each day-varying levels of awareness of ourselves, our behavior, and the world around us. We shift from operating “on automatic” while driving a car, combing our hair, or brushing our teeth to full and careful attention to tasks we find challenging, either mentally or physically. And when we go to sleep at night (perhaps to dream), or take some drug that affects the way we feel, we may also experience dramatic shifts in consciousness.
The existence of these different states of consciousness raises many intriguing questions. Can we really do two or more things at once? Why are we more alert and energetic at some times during the day than at others? What causes jet lag? What happens when we fall asleep and dream? In addition, many other questions about the nature and processes of consciousness have been raised from modern disciplines like artificial intelligence, biology and physics as but also from indigenous thought systems like Vedanta and Samkhya. Indeed the study of consciousness poses a complex puzzle.
Psychologists have studied states of consciousness for several decades-ever since the time, in the 1960s, when the field of psychology rejected the artificial constraints of extreme behaviorism and recognized that consciousness, like all aspects of our mental activity, is indeed a legitimate area of study. What have psychologists discovered in their research on consciousness? Many fascinating facts. To provide you with an overview of this body of knowledge, we’ll focus on the following topics- First, we’ll discuss biological rhythms-naturally occurring, cyclical changes in many basic bodily processes and mental states that occur over the course of a day or longer periods of time. These rhythms help explain why we feel so much more alert at some times than others, why we experience jet lag, and why working the “graveyard shift” (from midnight to 8:00 a.m.) is so difficult for many people. Next, we’ll consider some aspects of waking consciousness—changes in consciousness that occur while we are awake.
Here, we’ll focus on two topics:
(1) The distinction between automatic and controlled processing—the kind of “automatic” behavior we often show in the shower versus the kind of conscious behavior I’m demonstrating right now as we write these words; and
(2) Shifts in self-awareness-the extent to which we focus our attention inward on ourselves or outward on various aspects of the world around us. As we’ll see, such shifts can have important effects on our social behavior, our psychological adjustment, and our performance of many tasks.
After examining changes in waking consciousness, we’ll turn to what is perhaps the most profound shift in consciousness we experience: sleep. Here, we’ll consider the nature of dreams and what functions, if any, they may serve.
Three Concepts of Consciousness:
In the newly emerging field of Consciousness Studies there is no consensus on what consciousness is or does, but the most widely held position holds that consciousness is a purely passive awareness of self and world which “emerges” out of the complexity of the brain. Unfortunately, nobody has come up with a plausible explanation of how a purely material brain could actually give rise to something as radically different as consciousness, and from a purely materialistic standpoint it is not very clear what consciousness could possibly be or why it would be there at all.
The Indian tradition doesn’t face this difficulty as it assumes that consciousness is present throughout the cosmos, and that it was there even in the transcendent before this creation came into existence. Within the Indian tradition one can distinguish two major schools of thought. The first agrees with the mainstream scientific view that consciousness is only a purely passive awareness.
It disagrees with it in almost every other aspect, and one could look at it as its mirror image. The mainstream scientific view holds that matter is the primary reality and considers it an open question whether consciousness is real or only a subjective illusion. The Indian “pure consciousness view” holds that consciousness is the primary reality, but wonders whether the physical world might not be an illusion (maya).
The second Indian viewpoint agrees with the first (and almost all other Indian schools of thought) that consciousness is the primary reality, but it takes matter as equally real as spirit. A typical example of this view one finds in the Mundaka Upanishad, where it is told how Brahman manifests the word out of itself in the same way that a spider builds a web, or that a mountain covers itself with plants and trees.
Translating these homely metaphors into more abstract thought, one could say that the Mundaka takes Brahman as the Self of the world and asserts that its consciousness is an integral part of all that exists. With this acceptance of the reality and the importance of the physical world, comes the idea that consciousness (chit) is not only passive awareness, but also dynamic force (tapas, or Shakti).
It may be clear that these three different views of reality and consciousness have far-reaching consequences for psychology. If the mainstream view is right, then our consciousness is completely dependent on the workings of our brain and it has no independent agency. In that case it makes sense for psychology to focus on the study of the brain and the behaviour of others. If the Indian tradition is right, then it is only a bad habit for the consciousness to be entangled in the brain’s mental activities, and it should be possible to disengage one from the other.
There are many schools of yoga that claim to have developed methods to achieve this. If their effectiveness could be confirmed, this would open a whole new field of rigorous subjective studies, in which we could look with a perfect, objective detachment at our own mental processes. The incomparable wealth of psychological knowledge the Indian tradition has developed over the ages, might well be proof of the effectiveness of these methods.
There is another important area where the Indian understanding of consciousness could make a big difference. The present scientific view tends to go with a materialistic view of reality in which life is driven by chance and mechanical forces without inherent meaning or purpose. In such a world, the most reasonable thing to pursue is to satisfy ones needs and desires, whether through collaboration or competition with others. The many ills of modern society show how problematic such a motivation is.
In terms of the aim of life, there is a big difference between the two schools of Indian thought. If the pure consciousness view is true then the only intelligent behavior is to withdraw from the illusion of the world and enter into a state of pure consciousness, striving for moksha or nirvana.
The present generation is eager to enjoy all the possibilities of life and doesn’t see this any longer as an attractive aim for life, but if the second, more integral Indian view is true, then a whole new range of possibilities opens up to us. According to one of its most prominent proponents, Sri Aurobindo, the creation referred to in the Mundaka is not complete, and we are all, knowingly or unknowingly, willingly or unwillingly, participating in an ever on-going evolution of consciousness.
In other words, we should look at individual and collective progress in terms of their potential for a growth in consciousness, and the most sensible aim in life is to bring one’s consciousness in line with the larger Consciousness that informs the cosmos as a whole. If the integral view is true and if consciousness is not only passive awareness but also a dynamic force, then there arises the possibility of using the powers of consciousness in therapy and education for the pursuit of happiness as well as knowledge.
Since the Indian tradition has discovered ranges and types of consciousness far beyond those known and used in ordinary life, the potential for progress and genuine well-being created by such an inner extension of science might go far beyond anything we now know.
Biological Rhythms: Tides of Life and Conscious Experience:
When do you feel most alert and energetic? Whatever your answer, it’s clear that most of us do experience regular shifts in these respects each day. Psychologists and other scientists refer to such changes as biological rhythms—regular fluctuations in our bodily processes and in consciousness over time. Many of these fluctuations occur over the course of a single day and are therefore known as circadian rhythms (from the Latin words for “around” and “day”).
Other fluctuations occupy shorter periods of time; for instance, many people become hungry every two or three hours. And still other cycles occur over longer periods, such as the mating seasons shown by many animals-they mate only at certain times of the year-and the human female menstrual cycle, which Because circadian rhythms have been the subject of most research, however, we’ll focus primarily on these.
Circadian Rhythms: Their Basic Nature:
Most people are aware of fluctuations in their alertness, energy, and moods over the course of a day, and research findings indicate that such shifts are closely related to changes in underlying bodily processes. Daily cycles occur in the production of various hormones, core body temperature, blood pressure, and several other processes.
For many persons, these functions are highest in the late afternoon and evening and lowest in the early hours of the morning. Large individual differences in this respect exist, however, so the pattern varies greatly for different persons. In addition, circadian rhythms seem to shift with age; as people grow older, their peaks often tend to occur earlier in the day.
As you might expect, these cyclic fluctuations in basic bodily functions and in our subjective feelings of alertness—are related to task performance. In general, people do their best work when body temperature and other internal processes are at or near their personal peaks. However, this link appears to be somewhat stronger for physical tasks than for mental ones—especially tasks that require considerable cognitive effort.
If bodily processes, mental alertness, and performance on many tasks change regularly over the course of the day, it seems reasonable to suggest that we possess some internal biological mechanism for regulating such changes. In other words, we must possess one or more biological clocks that time various circadian rhythms.
While there is not as yet total agreement on the number or nature of these internal clocks, existing evidence points to the conclusion that one structure—the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), located in the hypothalamus, and plays a key role in this respect. Interestingly, it appears that individual cells in this structure “tick”—keep track of time. Welsh and his colleagues (1995) removed tissue from the SCN of rats and observed the activity of individual cells. Results indicated that each cell showed fairly regular cycles of activity.
We should note, by the way, that the SCN is not a totally “sealed” clock, unresponsive to the outside world. On the contrary, it responds to light, which serves as a zeitgeber (German for “time giver”).
Morning light resets our internal biological clock, synchronizing it with the outside world. Why is this necessary? Because left to its own devices, our biological clock (and that of many other species) seems to operate on a twenty-five-hour cycle; thus, if it were not reset each day, our internal biological rhythms would get farther and farther out of synch with the world around us. We know this from research studies in which volunteers have lived in caves where no sunlight can penetrate. Under these conditions, most persons seem to shift toward a “day” of about twenty-five hours.
Waking States of Consciousness:
In a class, we notice many students who are looking at the teacher she speaks and who turn their heads to follow her as she moves about the front of the room. They seem to be listening carefully to what the teacher is saying; but we know from past experience that if some of these students are asked a question, they will look totally blank. Their minds have been a million miles away, even as they looked at the teacher and nodded their heads in response to what was said.
As such experiences suggest, even during our normal waking activities we often shift between various states of consciousness. One moment you are paying careful attention to a lecture; the next you are lost in a vivid daydream. Let’s take a closer look at these everyday shifts in consciousness.
Controlled and Automatic Processing: Two Modes of Thought:
Often, we perform two tasks at the same time—for example, brushing our teeth while our thoughts wander far and wide, or talking to another person as we cook some dish. How can we do this? The answer involves the fact that we have two contrasting ways of controlling ongoing activities—different levels of attention to, or conscious control over, our own behavior.
The first level uses very little of our information-processing capacity, and seems to occur in an automatic manner with very little conscious awareness on our part. For this reason, psychologists refer to it as automatic processing, and it does seem, subjectively, to be automatic. Several different activities, each under automatic control, can occur at the same time. Every time you drive while listening to the radio, you demonstrate such automatic processing. Both activities can occur simultaneously, because both involve automatic processing.
In contrast, controlled processing involves more effortful and conscious control of thought and behavior. In controlled processing you direct careful attention to the task at hand and concentrate on it. Processing of this type consumes significant cognitive resources; as a result, only one task requiring controlled processing can usually be performed at a time.
Research on the nature of automatic and controlled processing suggests that these two states of consciousness differ in several respects. First, behaviors that have come under the control of automatic processing are performed more quickly and with less effort than ones that require controlled processing—unless we think about them! In addition, acts that have come under automatic processing—usually because they are well practiced and well learned—can be initiated without conscious intention; they are triggered in a seemingly automatic manner by specific stimuli or events.
In fact, it may be difficult to inhibit such actions once they are initiated. If you ever played Simple Simon as a child, you are well aware of this fact. After following many commands beginning “Simple Simon says do this,” you probably also responded to the similar command, “Do this.” Why? Because your imitation of the leader’s actions was under automatic control, and you obeyed—without conscious thought—even when you should have refrained from doing so.
Because it requires less effort, automatic processing is very common in our everyday activities. Indeed, recent evidence suggests that it occurs even with respect to several aspects of perception—how we perceive the world around us. Perhaps the most fascinating research on automatic processing, however, concerns our efforts to control our own mental processes and our own physical actions.
Often these efforts seem to backfire and produce precisely the thoughts, feelings, or actions we don’t want. For instance, if you are on a diet and tell yourself, “Don’t think about how good a juicy hamburger or a delicious dessert would taste,” you may find yourself thinking precisely these thoughts.
Similarly, if you are carrying a full cup of coffee and tell yourself, “Don’t spill any!” you may find that this is exactly what happens-you do spill some! Daniel Wegner, a psychologist who has studied such effects for many years, suggests that these events occur because efforts to control our own thoughts and actions-to bring them under controlled processing-involve a system consisting of two parts. One, an intentional operating process, searches for mental contents that will produce the state we desire (avoiding thoughts of hamburgers, not spilling the coffee).
The other, an ironic monitoring process, searches for mental contents that signal out failure to achieve the desired state. The intentional operating process is effortful and consciously guided-it involves controlled processing. The ironic monitoring process, in contrast, is unconscious and less demanding; it involves automatic processing.
Usually the two processes work together-one to keep thoughts we want in mind, and the other to keep unwanted thoughts out of consciousness. But if there are extra demands on our information-processing capacity, the intentional operating process may be overloaded, with the result that the automatic monitoring process dominates, and we find ourselves thinking about, feeling, or doing precisely what we don’t want to think, feel, or do. (Remember: This process is constantly searching for the thoughts or feelings we don’t want to have, so it may have the ironic effect of actually bringing these to mind.)
Evidence for these suggestions has been obtained in many studies, but one of the most interesting was conducted by Wegner, Ansfield, and Pilloff (1998). These researchers asked male and female college students either to try to prevent a crystal suspended from a nylon rope from moving sideways, or simply to hold it steady. Within each of these two conditions, half the students were also asked to count backwards from 1,000 by threes (1,000, 997, 994, etc.) while performing this task; the other half were not.
Wegner and his colleagues reasoned that counting backwards would use up information-processing capacity and so would interfere with the intentional (controlled) operating system. Thus, more sideways movement-precisely what the participants did not want-would occur under mental load than in its absence. However, more movement would not occur when students were simply told to hold the pendulum steady.
The students who tried to prevent sideways movement showed more of the unwanted movement than those merely told to hold it steady, and this difference was larger when they also counted backwards by threes. These results, and those of many other studies, suggest that automatic processing is indeed a ubiquitous aspect of human cognition.
The operation of the ironic monitoring process also helps explain why it is often so hard to pay attention to something-for instance, a lecture-even when we want to do so. Wegner (1994, 1997) suggests that operation of the ironic monitoring process causes us to lose the focus of our attention as it searches for signs that we aren’t paying attention!
Is either of these types of processing superior? Not really. Automatic processing is rapid and efficient but can be relatively inflexible—precisely because it is so automatic. Controlled processing is slower but is more flexible and open to change.
In sum, both play an important role in our efforts to deal with information from the external world. One final point- Automatic and controlled processing are not hard-and-fast categories, but rather ends of a continuous dimension. On any given task, individuals may operate in a relatively controlled or a relatively automatic manner.
Self-Awareness: Some Effects of Thinking about Ourselves:
What do you do when you pass a mirror? Probably, you stop—however briefly—and check your appearance. Is your hair messed up? Your hat on straight? Your makeup OK? When you engage in such activities, you are, in a sense, changing your current state of consciousness.
Before you passed the mirror, you were probably thinking about something other than yourself; but while you stand in front of the glass, your thoughts are focused on yourself. Psychologists term this focus self-awareness, and they have found that entering this particular state of consciousness has interesting and widespread effects. Let’s take a look at some of these.
Why Do We Become Self-Aware, and What Happens When We Do?
One question about self-awareness that comes readily to mind is, “Why do we enter this state to start with?” the answer seems to be that some situations induce us to do so. Passing a mirror is one, speaking to or performing in front of an audience is another, and having our picture taken is yet another.
In these situations, we are induced to think about ourselves. And once we do, an interesting process is initiated. According to one theory of self-awareness, control theory, when we focus our attention on ourselves, we compare our current state (our feelings, thoughts, and performance) to internal standards-how we would like to feel, think, and perform. If the gap between reality and these standards is small, everything is fine.
If the gap is large, however, we have two choices:
(1) We can “shape up,” changing our thoughts or actions so that they fit more closely with our standards and goals; or
(2) We can “ship out”-withdraw from self-awareness in some way. Such withdrawal can range from simple distraction (we can stop thinking about ourselves and how we are falling short of our own internal standards) to more dangerous actions, such as drinking alcohol, engaging in binge eating, or-in the extreme-ending our own existence through suicide.
What determines whether we try to change or try to escape from unpleasant self-awareness? Research findings suggest that a key factor is our beliefs concerning whether we can change successfully or not. If we believe that the chances we can change are good, we concentrate on meeting our internal standards and goals. But if we believe that we are unlikely to succeed in changing, then we may seek escape-with all the dangers this implies. In sum, self-awareness can have stronger and more far-reaching effects on behavior than you might at first guess.
Another factor that can strongly influence our tendency to focus on ourselves is our affective state-our current mood. Several studies suggest that we are more likely to turn our attention inward when we are in a negative mood than when we are in a positive one.
However, more recent findings indicate that the situation may be more complex than this. Some affective states (e.g., sadness and contentment) tend to lead us to think about ourselves and why we are feeling as we do. Others, in contrast (e.g., being thrilled or angry)’ lead us to think about other persons.
Anger, for instance, is often focused on someone who has annoyed or irritated us; when we experience such feelings, we tend to think about this other person rather than about ourselves. So it’s not necessarily the case that negative moods cause us to focus on ourselves and become self-aware; rather, this is’ true only when such moods are reflective in nature.
Results of recent studies by Green and Sedikides (1999) offer support for these predictions. These researchers found that people show one kind of self-awareness (awareness of their own inner thoughts and feelings, known as private self-consciousness) when induced to experience reflective moods such as sadness or contentment, but do not experience increased self-awareness when induced to experience socially oriented moods such as being thrilled or being angry. Still another type of self-awareness involves the tendency to focus on our public image-how we appear to others; this is known as public self- consciousness.
Large individual differences exist in the tendency to become self-aware-to enter private self-consciousness or public self-consciousness. Some persons are very high in these dimensions, others are very low, and most are in between.
Consciousness-Altering Drugs: What They Are and What They Do:
Have you ever taken aspirin for a headache? Do you drink coffee or soft drinks to boost your own alertness or energy? If so, you are in good company. Each day, many millions of persons all around the world use drugs to change the way they feel—to alter their moods or states of consciousness.
Much of this use of consciousness- altering drugs is completely legal—aspirin and soft drinks are freely available everywhere, and many other drugs are consumed under a doctor’s supervision. In many other cases, however, people use drugs that are illegal, or use legal ones to excess. The effects of doing so can be both dramatic and tragic. Here, we’ll consider several issues relating to the use of consciousness-altering drugs.
Consciousness-Altering Drugs: Some Basic Concepts:
Let’s begin with some basic definitions. First, what are drugs? One widely accepted definition states that drugs are compounds that, because of their chemical structure, change the functioning of biological systems. Consciousness-altering drugs, therefore, are drugs that produce changes in consciousness.
Suppose you went to your medicine cabinet and conducted a careful inventory of all the drugs present. How many would you find? Unless you are very unusual, quite a few. Many of these drugs probably are perfectly legal and can be obtained in any pharmacy without a prescription (for example, aspirin).
Others are probably ones prescribed by a physician. Using drugs in both categories is generally safe and appropriate. The term drug abuse, therefore, applies only to instances in which people take drugs purely to change their moods, and in which they experience impaired behavior or social functioning as a result of doing so.
Unfortunately, when people consume consciousness-altering drugs on a regular basis, they often develop dependence-they come to need the drug and cannot function without it. Two types of dependence exist. One, physiological dependence, occurs when the need for the drug is based on organic factors, such as changes in metabolism. This type of dependence is what is usually meant by the term drug addiction.
However, people can also develop psychological dependence, in which they experience strong desires to continue using the drug even though, physiologically, their bodies do not need it. Physiological and psychological dependence often occur together and magnify individuals’ cravings for and dependence on specific drugs.
Continued use of a drug over a prolonged period of time often leads to drug tolerance—a physiological reaction in which the body requires larger and larger doses in order to experience the same effects. For example, I once had a friend who drank more than twenty cups of coffee each day. He didn’t start out this way; rather, he gradually increased the amount of coffee he consumed over the years until he reached the level where, we joked, he sloshed as he walked! In some cases, tolerance for one drug increases tolerance for another; this is known as cross-tolerance.
How widespread is drug use? Patterns vary greatly around the world and over time. In the United States, use of many consciousness-altering drugs by young people dropped during the 1980s but increased again during the 1990s. In fact, the results of one large survey indicated that teenagers’ use of many drugs-including alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, and nicotine (in cigarettes)-had increased substantially.
What factors were responsible for this rise? Many probably played a role, including greater availability of drugs; social factors (e.g., many teenagers consider it cool to use drugs); and reduced parental supervision—both parents are working, and are so busy that they may have little time or energy to keep close tabs on their teenage children.
Whatever the reasons, though, increased use of drugs poses many dangers to physical and psychological health, dangers we will describe below:
Psychological Mechanisms Underlying Drug Abuse: Contrasting Views:
Putting trends in drug use aside for the moment, a more basic question exists- Why do people take consciousness-altering drugs in the first place? Several psychological mechanisms seem to play a role.
The Learning Perspective: Rewarding Properties of Consciousness-Altering Drugs:
First, and perhaps most obvious, people often use such drugs because doing so feels good. In other words, the effects produced by the drugs are somehow rewarding. Evidence supporting this view is provided by many studies indicating that animals will self-administer many of the same drugs that people abuse, presumably because they find the effects of these drugs rewarding. The neural mechanisms responsible for such effects seem to involve a structure in the forebrain known as the nucleus accumbens.
Many addictive drugs we’ll consider below (alcohol, cocaine, nicotine, amphetamines) trigger the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in this nucleus. That the nucleus accumbens plays a role in the “good feelings” produced by such drugs is suggested by the fact that if release of dopamine in this location is prevented, addictive drugs lose their reinforcing effects.
On the other side of the coin, use of consciousness-altering drugs has also been attributed to the fact that these substances reduce negative feelings such as stress, anxiety, or physical discomfort. Thus, people take drugs to reduce negative feelings rather than simply to generate positive ones.
This explanation is especially applicable when individuals have become dependent on a drug; the negative symptoms they experience when it is no longer consumed, known as withdrawal— may provide a powerful incentive to obtain the drug at all costs.
The Social Perspective: Drug Abuse and Social Pressure:
Another perspective suggests that drug abuse can be understood largely in terms of social factors. According to this view, individuals, especially adolescents and young adults, use consciousness-altering drugs because it is the “in” thing to do. Their friends use these drugs, and they believe that if they do too, this will enhance their social image. Evidence for this view has been reported in many studies, so it appears that social motivation is a powerful factor in drug abuse, especially by young people.
The Cognitive Perspective: Drug Abuse as Automatic Behavior:
The distinction between automatic and controlled behavior forms the basis for yet another perspective on drug abuse. According to this view, the cognitive systems controlling many aspects of obtaining and consuming various drugs may soon take on the character of automatic processes. To the extent that this occurs, drug use becomes quick and relatively effortless, occurs without conscious intention, is difficult to inhibit, and may even take place in the absence of conscious awareness.
Once individuals have used a drug on numerous occasions, then, they may find themselves responding almost automatically to external cues-for example, to a specific environment in which they have often enjoyed this drug, such as a bar, or to specific sights and smells, such as the aroma of a burning cigarette.
In a similar manner, they may respond automatically to internal cues or emotions, such as wanting to celebrate or feeling tired or out of sorts. These cues may trigger people’s tendencies to use drugs, and they may find themselves doing so before they realize it, even without any strong urge to take a drug.
Which of these perspectives is most accurate? Most psychologists favor a view that combines the learning, social, and cognitive perspectives. Drug abuse, it appears, stems from a combination of factors; and this-sadly- is one reason why it is so difficult to combat.