Levels of Awareness

In 1957, a marketing researcher inserted the words “Eat Popcorn” onto one frame of a film being shown all across the United States. And although that frame was only projected onto the movie screen for 1/24th of a second—a speed too fast to be perceived by conscious awareness—the researcher reported an increase in popcorn sales by nearly 60%. Almost immediately, all forms of “subliminal messaging” were regulated in the US and banned in countries such as Australia and the United Kingdom. Even though it was later shown that the researcher had made up the data (he hadn’t even inserted the words into the film), this fear about influences on our subconscious persists. At its heart, this issue pits various levels of awareness against one another. On the one hand, we have the “low awareness” of subtle, even subliminal influences. On the other hand, there is you—the conscious thinking, feeling you which includes all that you are currently aware of, even reading this sentence. However, when we consider these different levels of awareness separately, we can better understand how they operate.

Low Awareness

You are constantly receiving and evaluating sensory information. Although each moment has too many sights, smells, and sounds for them all to be consciously considered, our brains are nonetheless processing all that information. For example, have you ever been at a party, overwhelmed by all the people and conversation, when out of nowhere you hear your name called? Even though you have no idea what else the person is saying, you are somehow conscious of your name (for more on this, “the cocktail party effect,” see Noba’s Module on Attention). So, even though you may not be aware of various stimuli in your environment, your brain is paying closer attention than you think.

Similar to a reflex (like jumping when startled), some cues, or significant sensory information, will automatically elicit a response from us even though we never consciously perceive it. For example, Öhman and Soares (1994) measured subtle variations in sweating of participants with a fear of snakes. The researchers flashed pictures of different objects (e.g., mushrooms, flowers, and most importantly, snakes) on a screen in front of them, but did so at speeds that left the participant clueless as to what he or she had actually seen. However, when snake pictures were flashed, these participants started sweating more (i.e., a sign of fear), even though they had no idea what they’d just viewed!

Although our brains perceive some stimuli without our conscious awareness, do they really affect our subsequent thoughts and behaviors? In a landmark study, Bargh, Chen, and Burrows (1996) had participants solve a word search puzzle where the answers pertained to words about the elderly (e.g., “old,” “grandma”) or something random (e.g., “notebook,” “tomato”). Afterward, the researchers secretly measured how fast the participants walked down the hallway exiting the experiment. And although none of the participants were aware of a theme to the answers, those who had solved a puzzle with elderly words (vs. those with other types of words) walked more slowly down the hallway!

This effect is called priming (i.e., readily “activating” certain concepts and associations from one’s memory) has been found in a number of other studies. For example, priming people by having them drink from a warm glass (vs. a cold one) resulted in behaving more “warmly” toward others (Williams & Bargh, 2008). Although all of these influences occur beneath one’s conscious awareness, they still have a significant effect on one’s subsequent thoughts and behaviors.

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In the last two decades, researchers have made advances in studying aspects of psychology that exist beyond conscious awareness. As you can understand, it is difficult to use self-reports and surveys to ask people about motives or beliefs that they, themselves, might not even be aware of! One way of side-stepping this difficulty can be found in the implicit associations test, or IAT (Greenwald, McGhee & Schwartz, 1998). This research method uses computers to assess people’s reaction times to various stimuli and is a very difficult test to fake because it records automatic reactions that occur in milliseconds. For instance, to shed light on deeply held biases, the IAT might present photographs of Caucasian faces and Asian faces while asking research participants to click buttons indicating either “good” or “bad” as quickly as possible. Even if the participant clicks “good” for every face shown, the IAT can still pick up tiny delays in responding. Delays are associated with more mental effort needed to process information. When information is processed quickly—as in the example of white faces being judged as “good”—it can be contrasted with slower processing—as in the example of Asian faces being judged as “good”—and the difference in processing speed is reflective of bias. In this regard, the IAT has been used for investigating stereotypes (Nosek, Banaji & Greenwald, 2002) as well as self-esteem (Greenwald & Farnam, 2000). This method can help uncover non-conscious biases as well as those that we are motivated to suppress.

High Awareness

Just because we may be influenced by these “invisible” factors, it doesn’t mean we are helplessly controlled by them. The other side of the awareness continuum is known as “high awareness.” This includes effortful attention and careful decision making. For example, when you listen to a funny story on a date, or consider which class schedule would be preferable, or complete a complex math problem, you are engaging a state of consciousness that allows you to be highly aware of and focused on particular details in your environment.

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An actual screenshot from an IAT (Implicit Association Test) that a person might take to test their own mental representations of various cognitive constructs. In this particular case, this is an item testing an individual’s unconscious reaction towards members of various ethnic groups. [Image: Courtesy of Anthony Greenwald from Project Implicit]

Mindfulness is a state of higher consciousness that includes an awareness of the thoughts passing through one’s head. For example, have you ever snapped at someone in frustration, only to take a moment and reflect on why you responded so aggressively? This more effortful consideration of your thoughts could be described as an expansion of your conscious awareness as you take the time to consider the possible influences on your thoughts. Research has shown that when you engage in this more deliberate consideration, you are less persuaded by irrelevant yet biasing influences, like the presence of a celebrity in an advertisement (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986). Higher awareness is also associated with recognizing when you’re using a stereotype, rather than fairly evaluating another person (Gilbert & Hixon, 1991).

Humans alternate between low and high thinking states. That is, we shift between focused attention and a less attentive default sate, and we have neural networks for both (Raichle, 2015). Interestingly, the the less we’re paying attention, the more likely we are to be influenced by non-conscious stimuli (Chaiken, 1980). Although these subtle influences may affect us, we can use our higher conscious awareness to protect against external influences. In what’s known as the Flexible Correction Model (Wegener & Petty, 1997), people who are aware that their thoughts or behavior are being influenced by an undue, outside source, can correct their attitude against the bias. For example, you might be aware that you are influenced by mention of specific political parties. If you were motivated to consider a government policy you can take your own biases into account to attempt to consider the policy in a fair way (on its own merits rather than being attached to a certain party).

To help make the relationship between lower and higher consciousness clearer, imagine the brain is like a journey down a river. In low awareness, you simply float on a small rubber raft and let the currents push you. It’s not very difficult to just drift along but you also don’t have total control. Higher states of consciousness are more like traveling in a canoe.

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Meditation has been practiced for centuries in religious contexts. In the past 50 years it has become increasingly popular as a secular practice. Scientific studies have linked meditation to lower stress and higher well-being. [Image: Indrek Torilo, https://goo.gl/Bc5Iwm, CC BY-NC 2.0, https://goo.gl/FIlc2e]

In this scenario, you have a paddle and can steer, but it requires more effort. This analogy applies to many states of consciousness, but not all. What about other states such as like sleeping, daydreaming, or hypnosis? How are these related to our conscious awareness?

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Table 1: States of Consciousness

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

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