Have you ever been so engrossed in doing something that it felt as if you forgot you existed for a moment? This could be classified as a different state of consciousness, or a new level of awareness than what you usually experience, and these states of mind have been studied for years by psychologists.
What are the states of consciousness?
Consciousness is a broad term used to describe the awareness someone has about themselves and their environment. The level or state of consciousness we have is always changing, and there are different labels for them that dictate what’s happening while we’re in these states.
To get a better understanding of our awareness and what happens when it’s altered, we’ve created a simple guide that covers the basics. We’ll explain the different states of consciousness, how they’re altered, and what it all means, so you’ll know exactly what’s going on in your own mind.
What is Consciousness?
As humans, we experience consciousness, which is an awareness of things including our existence and the environment around us. For centuries, experts and everyday people have debated over consciousness and what it means, with the only agreeable thing being that we all know that it exists.
Within the study of consciousness, there are many different topics to uncover and healthy, ongoing debate surrounding it. The notion of self-awareness, our imagination, what we think in the privacy of our own minds, and the introspection we take part in our everyday lives all form part of the consciousness discussion, as does whether other animals experience it in the same way that humans do.
In addition to having many elements and questions to unpack, there is also the understanding that there are different levels of awareness or states of consciousness. If consciousness can be used to describe being aware of your own existence and the environment around you, then there may be times when this awareness is altered and also different things that can cause it to be altered.
Preconscious vs Conscious vs Unconscious
Freud was one of the first neurologists to delve into the subject of the conscious, and he did so by separating the mind into three distinct levels. According to Freud, three parts of the mind are responsible for everything that we do, including:
- Preconscious/Subconscious: This part of the mind is anything that might be brought into the conscious mind, but isn’t there yet. These things can influence how we are thinking and feeling even if we don’t know it, and it’s considered the storage space where we keep all of our experiences.
- Conscious: Everything that we are thinking, feeling, remembering, and hoping for is kept here, and it can be easily displayed to an outsider and ourselves. Freud believed that even memories were part of the conscious mind even if they are not always at the forefront, but could be retrieved when needed.
- Unconscious: These thoughts and feelings aren’t within our conscious but are able to be tapped into at times without us knowing. The information in here can’t be accessed by the human mind, even though it can influence certain feelings and behaviors.
Although Freud’s idea of the three levels of mind was just a theory, it is still used today in relevance and discussed by those in the field of psychotherapy. The neurologist believed that most of what we do or think is trapped underneath our consciousness and there are various levels of awareness that can help us tap into them if we want to.
Levels of Awareness
In addition to the different states of consciousness, there are also different levels of awareness that the human mind can be in. You can usually feel yourself whether you’re in a heightened state of awareness or a lessened one, and this will dictate how you interact with the world around you and yourself.
Low awareness is common when you’re feeling tired, drowsy, or in a daydreaming state, and it means you’re less likely to be aware of what’s going on around you. You’re still conscious and awake, but might be less receptive to external stimuli even if your brain is processing signals as normal.
During a high awareness state, you will be fully aware of what’s happening around you and be in control of your thoughts and actions. During this type of state, you might find it easier to calm down, pay attention to your surroundings, and be able to access thoughts and memories. People often use mindfulness meditation to reach this heightened state of awareness as it can be hard to achieve.
How Our Awareness Can Be Altered
When you think about your everyday life, you likely go through different states of awareness as it goes on. Sometimes, you might feel tired and drowsy in a low state, others you can be present and aware in a high awareness state, or you could be in between. These are just a few things that might alter your level of awareness in a regular day:
As we sleep, we’re experiencing a low state of awareness, but we are still somewhat aware, especially as we cycle through REM and non-REM sleep. Most people will know to instinctively reach for a blanket if they’re cold in the night, even if they’re fast asleep, so you are still conscious on some level.
Sleep puts the human mind into a special state of consciousness and allows our bodies to rest and recover for the following day. When we don’t get enough sleep, we notice an obvious change in our mental state including experiences like brain fog and drowsiness, which is a low state of consciousness in itself.
Hypnosis is a practice where a trained professional will put someone into a trance-like state where they might appear they are asleep. While hypnotized, it’s believed that people are more open to suggestions and can be easily influenced to do things, as they are processing thoughts in a deeper state of awareness.
Hypnotherapy is a common offshoot of hypnosis where a therapist will use this hyper aware but relaxed state to influence someone to change bad habits or unlock thoughts and experiences that may be causing them ongoing trauma symptoms.
Have you ever experienced a mid-afternoon slump where you feel as if you’re about to fall asleep at your desk? This is due to a shift in your body clock that determines how much energy you have, and it’s all thanks to the natural circadian rhythm we rely on.
Your body clock is what tells you it’s time to be alert and energetic in the morning, or start to wind down and relax for bed. This causes our energy to fluctuate and can change our awareness levels and how conscious we are as well.
Drugs and alcohol are some commonly used ways to alter your state of consciousness, and they fall into three distinct categories. Stimulants will create heightened awareness, depressants will lower awareness, and hallucinogens can alter your perception of reality.
These types of drugs can be used for the treatment of psychological and mental conditions or on a recreational basis. When taken, you will likely be altering your level of awareness in some way, with people reacting to them differently, and it can be dangerous to do so.
The Human Mind at Work
The study of human consciousness has fascinated everyone from philosophers to scientists, and everyday folk, for centuries. Although we are still learning more every day, what is known is that we can experience different states of awareness at any given time, so getting a better understanding of what these are and how they occur is essential to understanding the human condition.
The notion of human consciousness and having different states of awareness can be a confusing one to wrap your head around, but it’s an interesting topic nonetheless. If you want to find out more about consciousness, we’ve answered some common questions that others have asked to get you started.
What Part of the Brain Is Consciousness?
The cerebrum is part of the forebrain and is known to be the largest brain structure, including the cerebral cortex that enables consciousness. The cerebral cortex is also responsible for other functions including sensory and motor information, so it’s one of the most crucial parts of the brain.
Are Consciousness and Mind the Same Thing?
The terms ‘consciousness’ and ‘mind’ are often used interchangeably as they both refer to the human’s ability to have thoughts, feelings, and awareness of themselves and their environment. Some people might consider the mind to be their brain while their consciousness is their awareness, but no set definition separates them.