Have you ever had a fellow motorist stopped beside you at a red light, singing his brains out, or picking his nose, or otherwise behaving in ways he might not normally do in public? There is something about being alone in a car that encourages people to zone out and forget that others can see them. Although these little lapses of attention are amusing for the rest of us, they are also instructive when it comes to the topic of consciousness.


This guy is singing his heart out in his one-man mobile music studio. Have you ever done this? [Image: Joshua Ommen, Za97c3, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0,]

Consciousness is a term meant to indicate awareness. It includes awareness of the self, of bodily sensations, of thoughts and of the environment. In English, we use the opposite word “unconscious” to indicate senselessness or a barrier to awareness, as in the case of “Theresa fell off the ladder and hit her head, knocking herself unconscious.” And yet, psychological theory and research suggest that consciousness and unconsciousness are more complicated than falling off a ladder. That is, consciousness is more than just being “on” or “off.” For instance, Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939)—a psychological theorist—understood that even while we are awake, many things lay outside the realm of our conscious awareness (like being in the car and forgetting the rest of the world can see into your windows). In response to this notion, Freud introduced the concept of the “subconscious” (Freud, 2001) and proposed that some of our memories and even our basic motivations are not always accessible to our conscious minds.

Upon reflection, it is easy to see how slippery a topic consciousness is. For example, are people conscious when they are daydreaming? What about when they are drunk? In this module, we will describe several levels of consciousness and then discuss altered states of consciousness such as hypnosis and sleep.


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Introduction by Philip Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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