Chapter 5 – Consciousness
Consciousness is a person’s subjective experience of the world and the mind.Although you
might think of consciousness as simply “being awake,” the defining feature of consciousness is
experience, which you have when you’re not awake but experiencing a vivid dream.
Psychologists hope to include an understanding of phenomenology, how things seem to the
conscious person, in their understanding of mind and behavior. Let’s look at two of the more vexing
mysteries of consciousness: the problem of other minds and the mind/body problem.
One great mystery is called the problem of other minds, the fundamental difficulty we have in
perceiving the consciousness of others.There is no clear way to distinguish a conscious person from
someone who might do and say all the same things as a conscious person but who is not conscious.
Philosophers have called this hypothetical non-conscious person a “zombie,” in reference to the living-
yet-dead creatures of horror films.
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).
Another mystery of consciousness is the mind/body problem, the issue of how the mind is
related to the brain and body. French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes (1596–1650) is
famous for proposing, among other things, that the human body is a machine made of physical matter
but that the human mind or soul is a separate entity made of a “thinking substance.” We now know that,
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. In other words, “the mind is
what the brain does” (Minsky, 1986, p. 287).
One telling set of studies, however, suggests that the brain’s activities precede the activities of
the conscious mind. As a rule, the brain begins to show electrical activity around half a second before a
voluntary action (535 milliseconds, to be exact). This makes sense since brain activity certainly seems
to be necessary to get an action started.Although your personal intuition is that you think of an action
and then do it, these experiments suggest that your brain is getting started before either the thinking or
the doing, preparing the way for both thought and action. Quite simply, it may appear to us that our
minds are leading our brains and bodies, but the order of events may be the other way around.
Researchers examining people’s descriptions suggest that 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:
- The first property of consciousness is intentionality, the quality of being directed toward an object.
- The second basic property of consciousness is unity, or resistance to division.
- The third property of consciousness is selectivity, the capacity to include some objects but not others.
This property is shown through studies of dichotic listening, in which people wearing headphones are
presented with different messages in each ear. How does consciousness decide what to filter in and
what to tune out? The conscious system is most inclined to select information of special interest to the
person. For example, in what has come to be known as the cocktail party phenomenon, people tune in
one message even while they filter out others nearby.
- The fourth and final basic property of consciousness is transience, or the tendency to change. Mind is
a stream, it flows, not a chain.
Consciousness can also be understood as having levels, ranging from minimal consciousness to
full consciousness to self-consciousness. In its minimal form, consciousness is just a connection
between the person and the world. When you sense the sun coming in through the window, for
example, you might turn toward the light. Such minimal consciousness is consciousness that occurs
when the mind inputs sensations and may output behavior (Armstrong, 1980). This level of consciousness is a kind of 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.
The critical ingredient that accompanies full consciousness is that you know and are able to
report your mental state.Full consciousness involves not only thinking about things but also thinking
about the fact that you are thinking about things (Jaynes, 1976).
Self-consciousness focuses on the self to the exclusion of almost everything else. William James
(1890) and other theorists have suggested that self-consciousness is yet another distinct level of
consciousness in which the person’s attention is drawn to the self as an object (Morin, 2005). 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 development.
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. Amore systematic approach is the experience sampling technique, in
which people are asked to report their conscious experiences at particular times.
But 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. The study by Mason et al. (2007) revealed that this
network became activated whenever people worked on a mental task that they knew so well that they
could daydream while doing it.
Thoughts that return again and again, or problem-solving attempts that never seem to succeed,
can come to dominate consciousness. When this happens, people may exert mental control, the attempt
to change conscious states of mind.Whenever this thought comes to mind, the person engages in
thought suppression, the conscious avoidance of a thought. This may seem like a perfectly sensible
strategy because it eliminates the worry and allows the person to move on to think about something
The rebound effect of thought suppression, the tendency of a thought to return to consciousness
with greater frequency following suppression, suggests that attempts at mental control may be difficult
indeed. The act of trying to suppress a thought may itself cause that thought to return to consciousness
in a robust way. The theory of ironic processes of mental control proposes that such ironic errors occur
because the mental process that monitors errors can itself produce them. In the attempt not to think of a
white bear, for instance, a small part of the mind is ironically searching for the white bear.
Freud’s psychoanalytic theory viewed conscious thought as the surface of a much deeper mind
made up of unconscious processes. Far more than just a collection of hidden processes, Freud described
a dynamic unconscious—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. According to
Freud’s theory, the unconscious is a force to be held in check by repression, a mental process that
removes unacceptable thoughts and memories from consciousness and keeps them in the unconscious.
Without repression, a person might think, do, or say every unconscious impulse or animal urge, no
matter how selfish or immoral. With repression, these desires are held in the recesses of the dyn