22 October 2012
Consciousness: Core Issues
Consciousness is a person’s subjective experience of the world and the mind.
Other sciences, such as physics, chemistry, and biology, have the great luxury of studying objects, things
that we all can see. Psychology studies objects, too, looking at people and their brains and behaviors,
but it has the unique challenge of also trying to make sense of subjects.
Consciousness can refer to the state of being awake and alert. Medical doctors are often interested in
this issue; patients in a coma are not conscious. (IE: Do patients under anesthesia still perceive what’s
going on in the operating room? There was a time where doctors made jokes about patients while
operating on the patient, a study showed that if you did say a lot of negative things around the patient,
they take a longer time to recover).
In a more general sense, being “aware” of something so one could be conscious of the threat of global
warming or conscious of food in front of you; psychologists are often interested in this issue. (IE: Is the
dog conscious of the rabbit? If the behaviour has changed of a function of the presence of the rabbit we
can say it has been aware of the rabbit; however, the dog may not be aware of being aware of the
In a more specific sense, the state of being aware of oneself, or at least one’s own thoughts to be self-
conscious of self-aware. (IE: Does the dog know itself as an entity or is it just a brain on legs reacting to
stimuli and never being aware of itself).
When used as an adjective “conscious” thoughts or processes are typical linked to goals and the notion
of behavioural control (IE: Learning how to drive a car, the first time backing out of a driveway you are
weaving, but after a while, you are backing up fluently. Most driving, if very over practised, you can drive
long stretches and not remember driving – auto pilot).
Clearly it is a complex concept, and often the first step to understanding a claim about consciousness is
to figure out “which” consciousness is being referred to. Most psychologists believe that we are in
control of our behaviour, and sometimes we are not. We must believe that we all have a soul and have
control over what we do or else there will be no point in preaching morality. On the other hand, if we all
assume we control our behaviour, the issue of criminals becomes tricky.
Consciousness has four basic properties (intentionality, unity, selectivity, and transience), that it occurs
on different levels, and that it includes a range of different contents.
Intentionality is the quality of being directed toward
an object. (IE: Focusing the mind on something you
want to think about). However, things may enter
your mind and you notice things even without your
desire to think about. Psychologists have tried to
measure the relationship between consciousness
and its objects, examining the size and duration of
the relationship. Researchers have found that conscious attention is limited and described with unity, selectivity, and transcience.
Unity is where consciousness is very hard to divide, the resistance to division, being conscious of one
thing at a time. (IE: Concept of cell phones while driving, the government wants people to focus on
driving when they are on the road. With the phone, they do not know what is going on when you are
driving, and they will keep talking even when you encounter a complex situation on the road, distracting
the driver). (IE: Divided Attention: Divided Attention Research participants presented with two different
games (A and B) could easily follow each game separately. When participants tried to follow the action
in the two different games simultaneously (C), they performed remarkably poorly).Error rate when
attending to two tasks was eight times greater than when attending to either task alone.
Selectivity is where only certain aspects of stimuli are brought into consciousness; you choose what to
pay attention to, including some objects but not to others. This property is shown through studies of
dichotic listening, in which people wearing headphones are presented with different messages in each
ear. Consciousness filters out some information (IE: English to German) and selectivity of consciousness
can also work to tune in other information (IE: Male’s to female’s voice). Cocktail Party Phenomenon is
when people tune in one message even while they filter out others nearby. People are more sensitive to
their own name than others’ names.
Transience is where it is difficult to keep consciousness from moving (often goes against intentionality),
the tendency to change. (IE: Where scientists want to talk to each other about concepts). Stream of
consciousness may flow in this way partly because of the limited capacity of the conscious mind.
Humans can hold only so much information in mind so when more information is selected; some of
what is currently there must disappear. As a result, our focus of attention keeps changing.
Consciousness can be understood as having levels, ranging from minimal consciousness to full
consciousness to self-consciousness. Levels of consciousness that psychologists distinguish are not a
matter of degree of overall brain activity but instead involve different qualities of awareness of the
world and of the self.
In its minimal form, consciousness is just a connection between the person and the world. Minimal
Consciousness is a low-level kind of sensory awareness and responsiveness that occurs when the mind
inputs sensations and may output behavior. Sensory awareness and responsiveness, something that
could even happen when someone pokes you during sleep and you turn over. Something seems to
register in your mind, at least in the sense that you experience it, but you may not think at all about
having had the experience.
Full Consciousness is consciousness in which you know and are able to report your mental state. When
you have a hurt leg and mindlessly rub it, for instance, your pain may be minimally conscious. After all,
you seem to be experiencing pain because you have acted and are indeed rubbing your leg. It is only
when you realize that it hurts, though, that the pain becomes fully conscious. Full consciousness involves
not only thinking about things but also thinking about the fact that you are thinking about things. Full
consciousness involves a certain consciousness of oneself; the person notices the self in a particular
mental state (“Here I am, reading this sentence”).
Sometimes consciousness is entirely flooded with the self (“Not only am I reading this sentence, but I
have a blemish on the end of my nose today that makes me feel like guiding a sleigh”). Self-
consciousness focuses on the self to the exclusion of almost everything else. Self-Consciousness is when the person’s attention is drawn to the self as an object. Most people report experiencing such self-
consciousness when they are embarrassed; when they find themselves the focus of attention in a group;
when someone focuses a camera on them; or when they are deeply introspective about their thoughts,
feelings, or personal qualities. Self-consciousness can certainly spoil a good mood, so much so that a
tendency to be chronically self-conscious is associated with depression.
The Challenges of Consciousness
Subjective phenomenology, or what philosophers call qualia. Relating to the state of what other people
feel (IE: When you see a person who is really sad, you feel sad too), it is how things seem to the
conscious person. These subjective feelings of happy, sadness and pain, the questions are whether these
qualia’s relevant and affect our behavior or are they epi-phenomenal.
The problem of other minds and the notion of theory of mind is the fundamental difficulty we have in
perceiving the consciousness of others. Consciousness is a subjective concept, and we are not sure if
they have a consciousness, but when we watch them. The theory of mind is the idea that we can form
models on how they think. (IE: Throwing a surprise party – knowing the person to know how to fool
them). This is also a source of empathy. Philosophers have called this hypothetical non-conscious person
a “zombie.” People judge minds according to the capacity for experience (such as the ability to feel pain,
pleasure, hunger, consciousness, anger, or fear) and the capacity for agency (such as the ability for self-
control, planning, memory, or thought). People appreciate that minds both have experiences and act as
agents that perform actions. The problem of other minds is a problem for psychological science.
The mind and body problem is the issue of how the mind is related to the brain and the body,
psychological things can affect the body and vice versa – stress. (IE: Working parent making just enough
money to feed the family, and recently the boss is unhappy, everything you try to do to make your boss
happy fails, and you have the feeling that you better never school up because if you are fired your family
is in trouble. This is a prolonged psychological threat, people under chronic stress is prone to physical
illnesses). Far from the tiny connection between mind and brain in the pineal gland that was proposed
by Descartes, the mind and brain are connected everywhere to each other. Most psychologists assume
that mental events are intimately tied to brain events, such that every thought, perception, or feeling is
associated with a particular pattern of activation of neurons in the brain. The brain begins to show
electrical activity around half a second before a voluntary action (535 milliseconds, to be exact). The
brain also started to show electrical activity before the person’s conscious decision to move. Our minds
are leading our brains and bodies, but the order of events may be the other way around. (IE: The Timing
Conscious of Will: Brain activity (EEG) precedes the willed movement of the finger (EMG) but that the
reported time of consciously willing the finger to move follows the brain activity).
Human and Animal Consciousness
A student was shaving one morning in the mirror trying to think about a thesis on an essay. He then
thought about the mirror, realizing there are not a lot of mirrors in nature besides the bodies of water.
He then hung mirrors around the cages of his lab to observe the reactions of animals to the mirrors.
They initially reacted as though you have introduced another member of its species to the cage. Some
animals after a while realize that there is something wrong, it does not smell like anything. They will the
habituate and ignore it. Dogs might first bark at it, but afterwards, it will ignore it. A few animals, such as
primates will begin to examine themselves in the mirror such as open their mouths and look at their
mouths. As children grow older, they develop the sense of themselves, and only then will they realise
markings have been put on their face. Researchers painted an odorless red dye over the eyebrow of an
anesthetized chimp and then watched when the awakened chimp was presented with a mirror. If the chimp interpreted the mirror image as a representation of some other chimp with an unusual approach
to cosmetics, we would expect it just to look at the mirror or perhaps to reach toward it. But the chimp
reached toward its own eye as it looked into the mirror—not the mirror image—suggesting that it
recognized the image as a reflection of itself. The experience of self-consciousness, as measured by self-
recognition in mirrors, is limited to a few animals and to humans only after a certain stage of
One way to learn what is on people’s minds is to ask them, and much research has called on people
simply to think aloud. Experience Sampling Technique, in which people are asked to report their
conscious experiences at particular times. Experience sampling studies show that consciousness is
dominated by the immediate environment, what is seen, felt, heard, tasted, and smelled—all are at the
forefront of the mind. Much of consciousness beyond this orientation to the environment turns to the
person’s current concerns, or what the person is thinking about repeatedly. People in one study had
their Skin Conductance Level (SCL) measured to assess their emotional responses. SCL sensors attached
to their fingers indicated when their skin became moist—a good indication that they were thinking
about something distressing. Once in a while, SCL would rise spontaneously, and at these times the
researchers quizzed the participants about their conscious thoughts. These emotional moments,
compared to those when SCL was normal, often corresponded with a current concern popping into
mind. Thoughts that are not emotional all by themselves can still come to mind with an emotional bang
when they are topics of our current concern. Daydreaming, is a state of consciousness in which a
seemingly purposeless flow of thoughts comes to mind. When people are not busy, they still show a
widespread pattern of activation in many areas of the brain—now known as the default network.
Thoughts that return again and again, or problem-solving attempts that never seem to succeed, can
come to dominate consciousness. Mental Control is the attempt to change conscious states of mind. As
a result of this, a person can engage in Thought Suppression, the conscious avoidance of a thought. It
eliminates the worry and allows the person to move on to think about something else. However,
thought suppression simply didn’t work and instead produced a flurry of returns of the unwanted
thought. The Rebound Effect of thought suppression is the tendency of a thought to return to
consciousness with greater frequency following suppression. ironic effects seem most likely to occur
when the person is distracted or under stress. Ironic Processes of Mental Control proposes that such
ironic errors occur because the mental process that monitors errors can itself produce them.
Unconscious (Freud VS. Cognitive)
The Freudian idea is that we have an unconscious that leak out of our behaviour in certain ways.
Dynamic Unconscious is an active system encompassing a lifetime of hidden memories, the person’s
deepest instincts and desires, and the person’s inner struggle to control these forces. Repression is a
mental process that removes unacceptable thoughts and memories from consciousness and keeps them
in the unconscious. Freud looked for evidence of the unconscious mind in speech errors and lapses of
consciousness, or what are commonly called “Freudian slips.” Unlike errors created in experiments such
as this one, many of the meaningful errors, Freud attributed to the dynamic unconscious were not
predicted in advance and so seem to depend on clever after-the-fact interpretations. Freud attributed
great intelligence to the unconscious, believing that it harbors complex motives and inner conflicts and
that it expresses these in an astonishing array of thoughts and emotions, as well as psychological
disorders. Cognitive Unconscious is the mental processes that give rise to a person’s thoughts, choices, emotions,
and behavior even though they are not experienced by the person. One indication of the cognitive
unconscious at work is when the person’s thought or behavior is changed by exposure to information
outside of consciousness. Subliminal Perception is when thought or behavior is influenced by stimuli
that a person cannot consciously report perceiving. Subliminal influences might be worrisome because
they can change behavior without our conscious awareness but not because they are more powerful in
comparison to conscious influences. The unconscious processes that underlie the perception of
subliminal visual stimuli do not seem able to understand the combined meaning of word pairs, although
they can understand single words. To the conscious mind, for example, a word pair such as enemy loses
is somewhat positive—it is good to have your enemy lose. However, subliminal presentations of this
word pair make people think of negative things, as though the unconscious mind is simply adding
together the unpleasantness of the single words enemy and loses
Unconscious minds seemed better able than conscious minds to sort out the complex information and
arrive at the best choice (IE: “going with your gut”).
Consciousness is a mystery of psychology because other people’s minds cannot be perceived
directly and because the relationship between mind and body is perplexing.
Consciousness has four basic properties: intentionality, unity, selectivity, and transience. It can
also be understood in terms of levels: minimal consciousness, full consciousness, and self-
Conscious contents can include current concerns, daydreams, and unwanted thoughts.
Unconscious processes are sometimes understood as expressions of the Freudian dynamic
unconscious, but they are more commonly viewed as processes of the cognitive unconscious
that create our conscious thought and behavior.
The cognitive unconscious is at work when subliminal perception and unconscious decision
processes influence thought or behavior without the person’s awareness.
Habits: Formed by Repetition
Unconscious behaviours that have been over learned; Habits are often resulted from indoctrination, and
not from rational (conscious) thought. Being born into a situation and adopting the behaviour of those
surroundings (peer pressure).
Imagine you are a long-term Pepsi drinker, and Michael Jackson has been paid a lot of money to do an
ad, and this ad somehow offends you, and you decide to drink Coca Cola instead. Walking up to a
vending machine, at that point in time there is an oppositional situation where your habit may be
pushing you to do one thing – putting in money and pressing Pepsi (capture error), but if you remember
your goal, then you may overcome your habit and choose Coca Cola. 24 October 2012
Altered States of Consciousness
Forms of experience that depart from the normal subjective experience of the world and the mind. Our
previous discussion of consciousness was focused on the “normal” conscious experience of an awake,
sober, self-controlled individual, but “normal” consciousness can be altered by sleep, hypnosis, drugs
and sensory deprivation. Dream consciousness involves a transformation of experience that is so radical
it is commonly considered an altered state of consciousness— a form of experience that departs
significantly from the normal subjective experience of the world and the mind.
We spend a third of our life asleep – state of defencelessness. There are two evolution theories: Firstly,
some people make the argument that if we are lying prone for a third of our lives, sleep must be playing
a critical function or we would have evolved not to do it. Secondly, that when people are hunting and
gathering, we expend energy to obtain food which returns us energy, but compared to other species,
our sense of smell is weaker than other organisms and at night and because our senses are weakened, it
is dangerous for us to go hunting or gathering; thus giving the theory of staying inside a cave, and
because we are expending energy and not gaining any back, we should simply conserve it by sleeping.
Pre-sleep consciousness is called the hypnagogic state (IE: Hypnic jerk, a sudden quiver or sensation of
dropping, as though missing a step on a staircase). Glimmerings of waking consciousness return again in
a foggy and imprecise form as you enter post-sleep consciousness called the hypnopompic state.
Stages of Sleep
There were some breakthroughs when EEG (Electroencephalograph), a device that measures general
electrical activity in the brain. You cannot get an idea of where things happen in the brain because the
skull tends to diffuse electrical signals, what you get is just the general hum of the brain. One system
uses sensors attached to the person’s head and gives readings on a scale from 0 (no electrical activity
signaling consciousness in the brain) to 100 (fully alert), providing a kind of “consciousness meter.” EEG
recordings revealed a regular pattern of changes in electrical activity in the brain accompanying the
circadian cycle. During waking, these changes involve alternation between high frequency activity (called
beta waves) during alertness and lower-frequency activity (alpha waves) during relaxation. The largest
changes in EEG occur during sleep. Circadian rhythm is a naturally occurring 24-hour cycle. The first stage of sleep, the EEG moves to frequency patterns even lower than alpha waves (theta
waves). In the second stage of sleep, these patterns are interrupted by short bursts of activity called
sleep spindles and K complexes, and the sleeper becomes somewhat more difficult to awaken. The
deepest stages of sleep are 3 and 4, known as slow-wave sleep, in which the EEG patterns show activity
called delta waves. The fifth sleep stage, REM sleep, a stage of sleep characterized by rapid eye
movements and a high level of brain activity. Electrooculograph (EOG) An instrument that measures eye
movements during sleep, researchers found that sleepers wakened during REM periods reported having
dreams much more often than those wakened during non-REM periods. During REM sleep, the pulse
quickens, blood pressure rises, and there are telltale signs of sexual arousal. At the same time,
measurements of muscle movements indicate that the sleeper is very still, except for a rapid side-to-side
movement of the eyes.
Dream sleep is a phase where our body is paralyzed and our minds have fantastic things that happen
within them. In a dream, we can be with friend A in location X and suddenly be with friend B in location
Y immediately and it would not mess with our mind. What keeps us in place in our normal lives is
because our internal experience is driven by our external world – through our senses, and it is relatively
stable. At night, the input from our minds our dream is getting is coming from our brain and those
changes constantly. From stage 1 to stage 5, it is called a cycle. Stage 1 only happens twice. Early in the
night, the first two cycles, the sleeping is more important than compared to dreaming (stage 4).
Although proper sleep seems to be tied to good health, the link may be more psychological than
physical, at least in the most simplistic terms. Habitual tasks seem to be immune to sleep disruption;
only those that require deep (conscious) thought seem to be effected by lack of sleep. In a cognitive
sense, stage 4 is somehow important to our ability to think, concentrate, and focus our mind –
therefore, for those people, poor sleep is bad. The brain must value something about REM sleep
because REM deprivation causes a rebound of more REM sleep the next night. Deprivation from slow- wave sleep (in stages 3 and 4), in turn, has more physical effects, with just a few nights of deprivation
leaving people feeling tired, fatigued, and hypersensitive to muscle and bone pain.
Sleep and Learning (Consolidation)
People who have a good night sleep will remember information better than those who were woken up
in stage 4. When you wake someone up from dreaming, they still consolidate information, what it is
important for is skills. Memories normally deteriorate unless sleep occurs to help keep them in place.
Insomnia is associated with a wide range of both cognitive impairments and health risks and often
associated with worry, guilt or stress. This can lead to addiction to sleep medications. It is the difficulty
in falling asleep or staying asleep. There are many causes of insomnia, including anxiety associated with
stressful life events, so insomnia may sometimes be a sign of other emotional difficulties. Insomnia can
be exacerbated by worry about insomnia. Participants in an experiment who were instructed to go to
sleep quickly became hypersensitive and had more difficulty sleeping than those who were not
instructed to hurry. The paradoxical solution for insomnia in some cases, then, may be to give up the
pursuit of sleep and instead find something else to do. Sleeping pills are addictive; sedatives can
interfere with the normal sleep cycle. Although they promote sleep, they reduce the proportion of time
spent in REM and slow-wave sleep.
Sleep Apnea is a disorder in which the person stops breathing for brief periods while asleep. A person
with apnea usually snores, as apnea involves an involuntary obstruction of the breathing passage.
Therapies involving weight loss, drugs, or surgery may solve the problem.
Somnambulism, commonly called sleepwalking, which occurs when a person arises and walks around
while asleep. Sleepwalking is not usually linked to any additional problems and is only problematic in
that sleepwalkers can hurt themselves.
Parasomnias (including Somnambulism aka sleep-walking) and “waking” behaviours (walking, eating,
having sex) that occur when the person is in Stage 4 sleep. This is linked to improper paralysis – motor
Narcolepsy is a disorder in which sudden sleep attacks occur in the middle of waking activities.
Narcolepsy involves the intrusion of a dreaming state of sleep (with REM) into waking and is often
accompanied by unrelenting excessive sleepiness and uncontrollable sleep attacks lasting from 30
seconds to 30 minutes. This disorder appears to have a genetic basis, as it runs in families, and can be
treated effectively with medication. Sleep paralysis is the experience of waking up unable to move and is
sometimes associated with narcolepsy. This eerie experience usually lasts only a few moments, happens
in hypnagogic or hypnopompic sleep, and may occur with an experience of pressure on the chest. Night
terrors (or sleep terrors) are abrupt awakenings with panic and intense emotional arousal.
Dreams (Freud vs. Cognitive)
The Freudian view is that there is a distinction between Manifest Context, what you actually feel like
you saw; but Freud would say that you the Latent Context which is to have deep seeded psychological
issues playing out in disguise in your dreams. Freud proposed that dreams are confusing and obscure
because the dynamic unconscious creates them precisely to be confusing and obscure. Dreams
represent wishes, and some of these wishes are so unacceptable, taboo, and anxiety producing that the
mind can only express them in disguised form. Freud believed that many of the most unacceptable wishes are sexual, so he interpreted a dream of a train going into a tunnel as symbolic of sexual
intercourse. The manifest content of a dream, a dream’s apparent topic or superficial meaning, is a
smoke screen for its latent content, a dream’s true underlying meaning. For example, a dream about a
tree burning down in the park across the street from where a friend once lived (the manifest content)
might represent a camouflaged wish for the death of the friend (the latent content). The problem with
Freud’s approach is that there are an infinite number of potential interpretations of any dream and
finding the correct one is a matter of guesswork—and of convincing the dreamer that one interpretation
is superior to the others.
The Cognitive view is that the brain does not stay there and do nothing until something stimulates it,
and that it has constant stimulation going through it. The Activation Synthesis Model states that parts
of the brain sends random activation to other parts of the brain, and these random activations cause
certain things to enter your consciousness. What the conscious mind does is build a story out of these
random activations. It is the theory that dreams are produced when the brain attempts to make sense
of activations that occur randomly during sleep.
Freud’s theory, dreams begin with meaning, whereas in the activation-synthesis theory, dreams begin
There are five major characteristics of dream consciousness that distinguish it from the waking state:
We intensely feel emotion
Dream thought is illogical: the continuities of time, place, and person don’t apply
Sensation is fully formed and meaningful; visual sensation is predominate and you may also
deeply experience sound, touch and movement.
Uncritical acceptance, as though the images and events were perfectly normal rather than
Difficulty remembering the dream after its over
In dreams there are heights to look down from, dangerous people lurking. Brain areas responsible for
fear or emotion somehow work overtime in dreams. The amygdala is involved in responses to
threatening or stressful events, and indeed the amygdala is quite active during REM sleep. The areas of
the brain responsible for visual perception are not activated during dreaming, whereas the visual
association areas in the occipital lobe that are responsible for visual imagery do show activation. During
REM sleep, the prefrontal cortex shows relatively less arousal than it usually does during waking
consciousness. Prefrontal areas are associated with planning and executing actions, and often dreams
seem to be unplanned and rambling.
Brain areas shaded red are activated
during REM sleep; those shaded blue
are deactivated. (a) The medial view
shows the activation of the amygdala,
the visual association areas, the motor
cortex, and the brain stem and the
deactivation of the prefrontal cortex.
(b) The ventral view shows the
activation of other visual association
areas and the deactivation of the
prefrontal. IN SUMMARY
Sleep and dreaming present a view of the mind with an altered state of consciousness.
During a night’s sleep, the brain passes in and out of five stages of sleep; most dreaming occurs
in the REM sleep stage.
Sleep needs decrease over the life span, but being deprived of sleep and dreams has
psychological and physical costs.
Sleep can be disrupted through disorders that include insomnia, sleep apnea, somnambulism,
narcolepsy, sleep paralysis, and night terrors.
In dreaming, the dreamer uncritically accepts changes in emotion, thought, and sensation but
poorly remembers the dream on awakening.
Theories of dreaming include Freud’s psychoanalytic theory and more current views such as the
fMRI studies of the brain in dreaming reveal activations associated with visual activity,
reductions of other sensations, increased sensitivity to emotions such as fear, lessened
capacities for planning, and the prevention of movement.
Drugs and Consciousness: Artificial Inspiration
Psychoactive Drugs are chemicals that influence consciousness or behavior by altering the brain’s
chemical message system. They each exert their influence either by increasing the activity of a
neurotransmitter (the agonists) or decreasing its activity (the antagonists). Some of the most common
neurotransmitters are serotonin, dopamine, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), and acetylcholine. Drugs
alter these neural connections by preventing the bonding of neurotransmitters to sites in the
postsynaptic neuron or by inhibiting the reuptake of or enhancing the bonding and transmission of
Drug Tolerance is the tendency for larger drug doses to be required over time to achieve the same
effect. Self-administration of addictive drugs can also be prompted by withdrawal symptoms, which
result when drug use is abruptly discontinued. Some withdrawal symptoms signal physical dependence,
when pain, convulsions, hallucinations, or other unpleasant symptoms accompany withdrawal. People
who suffer from physical dependence seek to continue drug use to avoid getting physically ill.
Psychological dependence is a strong desire to return to the drug even when physical withdrawal
symptoms are gone. Drug addiction reveals a human frailty: our inability to look past the immediate
consequences of our behavior. The immediate satisfaction associated with taking most drugs may
outweigh a rational analysis of the later consequences that can result from taking those drugs, such as
drug addiction. Rather than viewing all drug use as a problem, it is important to consider the costs and
benefits of such use and to establish ways to help people choose behaviors that are informed by this
Depressants are substances that reduce the activity of the central nervous system. The most commonly
used depressant is alcohol (IE: glue or gasoline). Depressants have a sedative or calming effect, tend to
induce sleep in high doses, and can arrest breathing in extremely high doses. Depressants can produce
both physical and psychological dependence.
Alcohol’s initial effects, euphoria and reduced anxiety, feel pretty positive. It is consumed in greater
quantities, drunkenness results, bringing slowed reactions, slurred speech, poor judgment, and other
reductions in the effectiveness of thought and action. Alcohol increases activity of the neurotransmitter GABA. GABA normally inhibits the transmission of neural impulses, so one effect of alcohol is as a
disinhibitor—a chemical that lets transmissions occur that otherwise would be held in check.
Expectancy Theory suggests that alcohol effects are produced by people’s expectations of how alcohol
will influence them in particular situations (IE: If you’ve watched friends or family drink at weddings and
notice that this often produces hilarity and gregariousness, you could well experience these effects
yourself should you drink alcohol on a similarly festive occasion).
Balanced Placebo Design, behavior is observed following the presence or absence of an actual stimulus
and also following the presence or absence of a placebo stimulus (IE: Participants are given drinks
containing alcohol or a substitute liquid, and some people in each group are led to believe they had
alcohol and others are led to believe they did not - belief that one has had alcohol can influence
behavior as strongly as the ingestion of alcohol itself).
Alcohol Myopia proposes that alcohol hampers attention, leading people to respond in simple ways to
complex situations. This theory recognizes that life is filled with complicated pushes and pulls, and our
behavior is often a balancing act. Myopia theory holds that when you drink alcohol, your fine judgment
Both the expectancy and myopia theories suggest that people using alcohol will often go to extremes.
Barbiturates such as Seconal or Nembutal are prescribed as sleep aids and as anesthetics before
surgery. Benzodiazepines such as Valium and Xanax are also called minor tranquilizers and are
prescribed as anti-anxiety drugs. These drugs are prescribed by physicians to treat anxiety or sleep
problems, but they are dangerous when used in combination with alcohol because they can cause
respiratory depression. Toxic Inhalants are vapors of glue, gasoline, or propane. Sniffing or “huffing”
these vapors can promote temporary effects that resemble drunkenness.
Stimulants are substances that excite the central nervous system, heightening arousal and activity levels
(IE: caffeine, amphetamines, nicotine, cocaine, modafinil, and ecstasy (MDMA)).
Ecstasy is particularly known for making users feel empathic and close to those around them.
Cocaine is derived from leaves of the coca plant, which has been cultivated by indigenous peoples of the
Andes for millennia and chewed as a medication.
Nicotine is inhaling smoke that doesn’t smell that great.
Tobacco use is motivated far more by the unpleasantness of quitting than by the pleasantness of using.
The positive effects people report from smoking—relaxation and improved concentration.
Narcotics come from poppy seeds, and its derivatives heroin, morphine, methadone, and codeine.
Narcotics or opiates, drugs derived from opium that are capable of relieving pain. It induces a feeling of
well-being and relaxation that is enjoyable but can also induce stupor and lethargy. The addictive
properties of narcotics are powerful, and long-term use produces both tolerance and dependence.
Danger of diseases such as HIV when users share syringes. Hallucinogens are drugs that alter sensation and perception, often causing hallucinations (IE: LSD
(lysergic acid diethylamide), or acid; mescaline; psilocybin; PCP (phencyclidine); and ketamine (an animal
anesthetic)). They are unlikely to be addictive and do not induce significant tolerance or dependence,
and overdose deaths are rare.
Marijuana, where leaves and buds of the hemp plant contain THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.
They are mildly hallucinogenic, and give heightened senses of sight and sound and the perception of a
rush of ideas. Addiction potential of marijuana is not strong.
Psychoactive drugs influence consciousness by altering the brain’s chemical messaging system
and intensifying or dulling the effects of n