Introduction (Psychology and Mental Health)
Many scientists have ignored the phenomena associated with consciousness because they deem it inappropriate for empirical investigation. However, there is clear evidence that this position is changing. Researchers in the fields of psychology, neurobiology, philosophy, cognitive science, physics, medicine, anthropology, mathematics, molecular biology, and art are now addressing major issues relating to consciousness. These researchers are asking such questions as what constitutes consciousness, whether it is possible to explain subjective experience in physical terms, how scientific methods can best be applied to the study of consciousness, and the neural correlates of consciousness.
Moreover, new methods of brain imaging have helped clarify the nature and mechanisms of consciousness, leading to better understanding of the relationship between conscious and unconscious processes in perception, memory, learning, and other domains. These and other questions have led to a growing interest in consciousness studies, including investigations of properties of conscious experience in specific domains (such as vision, emotion, and metacognition) and a better understanding of disorders and unusual forms of consciousness, as found in blindsight, synesthesia, and other syndromes.
(The entire section is 174 words.)
History of Consciousness Study (Psychology and Mental Health)
The definition of consciousness proposed by English philosopher John Locke—“the perception of what passes in a man’s own mind”—has been that most generally accepted as a starting point in understanding the concept. Most of the philosophical discussions of consciousness, however, arose from the mind-body issues posed by the French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes. Descartes raised the essential questions that until recently dominated consciousness studies. He asked whether the mind, or consciousness, is independent of matter, and whether consciousness is extended (physical) or unextended (nonphysical). He also inquired whether consciousness is determinative or determined. English philosophers such as Locke tended to reduce consciousness to physical sensations and the information they provide. European philosophers such as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Immanuel Kant, however, argued that consciousness had a more active role in perception.
The nineteenth century German educator Johann Friedrich Herbart had the greatest influence on thinking about consciousness. His ideas on states of consciousness and unconsciousness influenced the German psychologist and physiologist Gustav Theodor Fechner, as well as the ideas of Sigmund Freud on the nature of the unconscious.
The concept of consciousness has undergone significant changes since the nineteenth century, and the study of consciousness...
(The entire section is 283 words.)
Experimental Study (Psychology and Mental Health)
It was the German psychologist Wilhelm Wundt who began the experimental study of consciousness in 1879 when he established his research laboratory. Wundt saw the task of psychology as the study of the structure of consciousness, which extended well beyond sensations and included feelings, images, memory, attention, duration, and movement. By the 1920’s, however, behavioral psychology had become the major force in psychology. John B. Watson was the leader of this revolution. He wrote in 1913, “I believe that we can write a psychology and never use the terms consciousness, mental states, mind . . . imagery and the like.” Between 1920 and 1950, consciousness was either neglected in psychology or treated as a historical curiosity. Behaviorist psychology led the way in rejecting mental states as appropriate objects for psychological study. The inconsistency of introspection as method made this rejection inevitable. Neurophysiologists also rejected consciousness as a mental state but allowed for the study of the biological underpinnings of consciousness. Thus, brain functioning became part of their study. The neural mechanisms of consciousness that allow an understanding between states of consciousness and the functions of the brain became an integral part of the scientific approach to consciousness. Brain waves—patterns of electrical activity—correlate with different levels of consciousness. These waves measure different...
(The entire section is 490 words.)
Jean Piaget (Psychology and Mental Health)
Jean Piaget, the great developmental psychologist, viewed consciousness as central to psychological study. Therefore, he sought to find ways to make its study scientific. To do so, Piaget dealt in great detail with the meaning of the subject-object and mind-body problems. Piaget argued that consciousness is not simply a subjective phenomenon; if it were, it would be unacceptable for scientific psychology. Indeed, Piaget maintained that conscious phenomena play an important and distinctive role in human behavior. Moreover, he directed research to examine the way in which consciousness is formed, its origins, stages, and processes. Consciousness is not an epiphenomenon, nor can psychologists reduce it to physiological phenomena. For Piaget, consciousness involves a constructed subjective awareness. It is a developmentally constructed process, not a product. It results from interaction with the environment, not from the environment’s action on it: “[T]he process of becoming conscious of an action scheme transforms it into a concept; thus becoming conscious consists essentially in conceptualization.”
There are two relationships necessary for the understanding of consciousness. The first is that of subject and object. The second is the relationship between cognitive activity and neural activity. Both are essential to getting at the process of cognition and its dynamic nature.
(The entire section is 204 words.)
Memory and Altered States (Psychology and Mental Health)
A variety of studies and experiments have explored the effects of certain variables on consciousness. For instance, it is important to ascertain the way in which variables that increase memorability in turn influence metamemory. Results have been inconsistent. However, it was found that when experimenters directed subjects to remember some items and forget others, there was an increase in recalling those items that experimenters were directed to remember. There was, nevertheless, no effect on the accuracy of what was remembered.
Sleep and dreams, hypnosis, and other altered states have provided another intriguing area of study for those interested in consciousness. The relationship of naps to alertness later in the day has proved of great interest to psychologists. In one study, nine healthy senior citizens, seventy-four to eighty-seven years of age, experienced nap and no-nap conditions in two studies each. Napping was for one and one-half hours, from 1:30 to 3:00 p.m. daily. The no-nap condition prohibited naps and encouraged activity in that period. Various tests were used to measure evening activity as well as record sleep. Aside from greater sleep in the twenty-four-hour period for those who had the ninety-minute nap, there was no difference on any other measure.
The threat simulation theory of dreaming holds that dreams have a biological function to protect the dream self. This dream self behaves in a...
(The entire section is 427 words.)
Imagery (Psychology and Mental Health)
Imagery is associated with memory, perception, and thought. Imagery occurs in all sensory modes. However, most work on imagery has neglected all but visual imagery. Concerns with imagery go back to the ancient Greek philosophers. Plato and Aristotle, for example, compared memory to a block of wax into which one’s thoughts and perceptions stamp impressions. Aristotle gave imagery an important place in cognition and argued that people think in mental images. Early experimental psychologists, such as Wundt, carried on this notion of cognition.
Around 1901, Oswald Külpe and his students at the University of Würzburg in Germany challenged these assumptions. However, these experiments employed introspective techniques, which Wundt and others attacked as being inconclusive. The controversy led to a rejection of mental imagery, introspection, and the study of consciousness itself. In the twentieth century, a movement toward seeing language as the primary analytical tool and a rejection of the old dominance of imagery came into fashion. The phenomenology of French philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre also led to a decline of interest in imagery.
A revival of research on imagery followed the cognitive science revolution of the 1960’s and 1970’s, contributing greatly to the rising scientific interest in mental representations. This revival stemmed from research on sensory deprivation and on hallucinogenic drugs. Studies in the...
(The entire section is 229 words.)
Conclusion (Psychology and Mental Health)
As the concept of a direct, simple linkage between environment and behavior became unsatisfactory in the late twentieth century, the interest in altered states of consciousness helped spark new interest in consciousness. People are actively involved in their own behavior, not passive puppets of external forces. Environments, rewards, and punishments are not simply defined by their physical character. There are mental constructs involved in each of these. People organize their memories. They do not merely store them. Cognitive psychology, a new division of the field, has emerged to deal with these interests.
Thanks to the work of developmental psychologists such as Piaget, great attention is being given to the manner in which people understand, or perceive, the world at different ages. There are advances in the area of animal behavior stressing the importance of inherent characteristics that arise from the way in which a species has been shaped to respond adaptively to the environment. There has also been the emergence of humanistic psychologists, concerned with the importance of self-actualization and growth. Clinical and industrial psychology have demonstrated that a person’s state of consciousness in terms of current feelings and thoughts is of obvious importance. Although the role of consciousness was often neglected in favor of unconscious needs and motivations, there are clear signs that researchers are interested in...
(The entire section is 228 words.)
Sources for Further Study (Psychology and Mental Health)
Brann, E. T. H. The World of the Imagination: Sum and Substance. Savage, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1991. This work discusses the role of imagination in cognition.
Carter, Rita. Exploring Consciousness. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. Using information derived from recent discoveries about the brain, Carter considers whether consciousness is an illusion—a by-product of our brain—or a property of the material universe.
Chalmers, D. The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. This study presents a clear summary of various theories of consciousness.
Greenfield, S. A. Journey to the Centers of the Mind. New York: W. H. Freeman, 1995. This is a study of biological influences in cognition.
Libet, B. Neurophysiology of Consciousness: Selected Papers and New Essays by Benjamin Libet. Boston: Birkhäuser, 1993. This work clearly presents the role of neurophysiology in conscious thought.
Ramachandran, V. S. A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness: From Impostor Poodles to Purple Numbers. New York: Pi Press, 2005. Neuroscientist Ramachandran explains the physical structures of the brain and how they relate to psychological disorders and how they illuminate the connection between the brain and the mind.
Weiskrantz, L. Consciousness Lost and Found. New York:...
(The entire section is 218 words.)
Consciousness (Encyclopedia of Psychology)
Awareness of external stimuli and of one's own mental activity.
Wilhelm Wundt's investigations of consciousness, begun in 1879, were central to the development of psychology as a field of study. Wundt's approach, called structuralism, sought to determine the structure of consciousness by recording the verbal descriptions provided by laboratory subjects to various stimuli, a method that became known as introspection. The next major approach to the study of consciousness was the functionalism of William James, who focused on how consciousness helps people adapt to their environment. Behaviorism, pioneered by John B. Watson in the early 1900s, shifted interest from conscious processes to observable behaviors, and the study of consciousness faded into the background for almost half a century, especially in the United States, until it was revived by the "cognitive revolution" that began in the 1950s and 1960s.
The existence of different levels of consciousness was at the heart of Sigmund Freud's model of human mental functioning. In addition to the conscious level, consisting of thoughts and feelings of which one is aware, Freud proposed the existence of the unconscious, a repository for thoughts and feelings that are repressed because they are painful or unacceptable to the conscious...
(The entire section is 1029 words.)
Consciousness (International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis)
In psychology, consciousness is the subject's immediate apprehension of mental activity. Although Freud thought that conscious processes are "the same as the consciousness of the philosophers and of everyday opinion" and "a fact without parallel, which defies all explanation or description" (1940a , pp. 159, 157), he argued that they could not be considered the "essence" of mental life. Rather, consciousness has a fugitive quality and does not "form unbroken sequences which are complete in themselves" (p. 157). "The psychical, whatever its nature may be, is in itself unconscious and probably similar in kind to all the other natural processes of which we have obtained knowledge" (1940b , p. 283). Freud stressed, however, that consciousness still plays an importance role; indeed, it is "the one light which illuminates our path and leads us through the darkness of mental life" (p. 286).
The work of psychoanalysis, as Freud saw it, is "translating unconscious processes into conscious ones, and thus filling in the gaps in conscious perception" (p. 286). Consciousness is the qualitative perception of information arising both from the external world and from the internal world: an external world that is unknowable in itself and to which we have access only via subjective elements collected by our sense organs and an internal world that consists of unconscious mental processes and that we are aware of solely through sensations of pleasure/unpleasure and revived memories. According to Freud, "A person's own body, and above all its surface, is a place from which both external and internal perceptions may spring" (1923b, p. 25).
From the beginning Freud treated consciousness and perception as indissolubly linked, indeed, so much so that throughout his work he deemed them to constitute a single structure, the perception-consciousness system. Freud also drew a distinction, within nonconscious phenomena, between latent states susceptible of becoming conscious at any moment and repressed psychic processes inaccessible to consciousness. This led him to differentiate the unconscious system proper from a preconscious system, cut off from consciousness by censorship but also controlling access to consciousness. In this sense, the preconscious and the conscious are very close: both are governed by secondary processes and both draw on a bound form of psychic energy. In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), Freud spoke of the preconscious-conscious system, and in "The Unconscious" (1915e), he described the preconscious as "conscious knowledge" (p. 167), even though it provides access to unconscious contents and processes, provided that they have been transformed.
From his earliest writings on, Freud saw the link between consciousness and the ego as very close. And although by 1920 Freud viewed the ego as in large part unconscious in its defensive activities, he continued to attach consciousness to it as both the "nucleus" and the "surface of the mental apparatus" (1923b, p. 19).
By the early twenty-first century, the problem of perception had become increasingly complex. Freud's near conflation of perception and consciousness, which required him to postulate that perceptual phenomena and the laying down of memory traces are incompatible, has come in for serious reconsideration. It is worth noting, though, that Freud himself, in his last years, was given pause on this issue by the problem of fetishism, apropos of which it was apparent that perceptions and mnemic traces could be caught up in one and the same conflict. This line of thinking has led to a reevaluation of all psychopathologies where disavowal and splitting predominate, such as borderline conditions, and more generally, to a review of all states involving the relationship between perception and hallucination (see Donald W. Winnicott's notions of the subjective object and of transitionality ).
See also: Agency; Censorship; Conscious processes; Ego; Metapsychology; Mnemic trace/memory trace; "Note upon the 'Mystic Writing Pad,' A"; Perception-consciousness (Pcpt.-Cs.); Preconscious, the; Psychic apparatus; Psychoanalytic treatment; Topographical point of view; "Unconscious, The."
Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4-5.
. (1915e). The unconscious. SE, 14: 166-204.
. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 12-59.
. (1940a ). An outline of psychoanalysis. SE, 23: 139-207.
. (1940b ). Some elementary lessons in psycho-analysis. SE, 23: 279-286.
Winnicott, Donald W. (1953). Transitional objects and transitional phenomena: A study of the first not-me possession. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 34, 89-97.