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What is Consciousness?

In its basic definition, consciousness is the state of being aware of one’s internal and external existence. Even though there has been a spectrum of varied research, analyses, reports, explanations, and debates done on the topic by researchers and philosophers, this term is still as perplexing as before.

There have been several opinions on what exactly constitutes the definition of consciousness. Still, the only true notion that has been agreed upon in this context is the notion that consciousness exists. Being the most familiar, personal, and yet the most mysterious aspect of life, consciousness is similar to having a mind or a thought process and being aware of it.

Consciousness includes the semblance of one’s “inner life” as being one that is a world of introspection, with its private thought, imagination, and volitions. This definition also constitutes cognition, experience, feeling, and perception in today’s world. In fact, as it has developed and matured over the years in terms of its meaning, this consciousness has also come to include awareness, awareness of awareness, or self-awareness.

Additionally, another thing that can be debated in this context is the different levels in which consciousness exists, its various kinds, and its features. Another question that arises in these studies about consciousness is whether or not only humans experience this consciousness.

A specific range of descriptions, definitions, or explanations is available to contextualize consciousness in humans. It varies from simple wakefulness, exploration of the life within, being a symbolic stream of thoughts, being a mental state, to having the executive control system of the mind.

In terms of Etymology, the earliest use of the words “conscious” and “consciousness” in the English language can be dated back to the 1500s. The English word “conscious” is derived from the Latin conscius (con meaning “together” and scio meaning “to know”). However, the Latin word is different in its meaning from the English word. The Latin word means “knowing with,” in other words, “having joint or common knowledge with another.” This phrase is close in symbolic meaning to “knowing that one knows,” which is the origin of the modern English word “conscious” and its definition.

Types of consciousness

The term consciousness can be distinguished into two types, namely – phenomenal (P-consciousness) and access (A-consciousness). As the term suggests, P-consciousness is a simple experience on account of existence. It is the act of moving, seeing colored forms, listening to sounds, sensations, and feeling emotions in one’s body. On the other hand, A-consciousness refers to the act in which the information or knowledge present in the mind is available for dissection. This dissection may include the verbal report, reasoning, and behavior control.

Thereby, when we contact any information, a perception of the same can be termed phenomenal consciousness, and we introspect or think about the information received. It can be called access consciousness. Some philosophers have claimed that while A-consciousness is easy to understand in terms of its mechanics and subjectivity, P-consciousness, on the other hand, is much more challenging and perplexing.

Other than the primary two types of consciousness, some philosophers have argued the existence of at least eight more different types of consciousness. These types can be identified as – organism consciousness, control consciousness, consciousness of, state/event consciousness, reportability, reflective consciousness, subjective consciousness, and self-consciousness.

Additionally, another question in this context is whether A-consciousness and P-consciousness always have to correlate in order to exist or can they exist independently as separate entities. Much more research on the topic is necessary for any conclusive statements.

States of consciousness

Some states of the brain warrant a loss of consciousness. This state of being absent may include dreamless sleep or coma. These altered states of consciousness occur naturally, perhaps because of external agents such as drugs or an accident that caused brain damage to a person. These altered states generally accompany transformations in thinking, disturbances in the sense of time, feelings of loss of control, changes in emotional expression, alterations in body image, and changes in meaning.

The two most accepted forms of altered states of consciousness are sleep and dreaming. There is not much difference between dream sleep and non-dream sleep to an external observer. Still, both these states are associated with different patterns of brain activity, metabolic activity, experience, and cognition. People have reported themselves in a vague and sketchy trail of thoughts during ordinary sleep, with non-coherent narratives and experiences. While on the other hand, people awakened during dream sleep report a rich and detailed understanding of a specific order of events. These events go on in perfect progression until they are interrupted by an external source of the disturbance. These thoughts exhibit a high level of irrationality. Both dream and non-dream sleep are associated with an acute case of memory disruption, immediately refreshed after awakening.

Research has shown that partial epileptic seizures may also result in an altered state of consciousness. In partial epileptic seizures, the subject experiences an impaired or lost sense of consciousness, in which some aspects of this consciousness are temporarily lost while the others remain intact.

A spectrum of psychoactive drugs, including alcohol, is said to have a notable effect on one’s consciousness. Ranging from a simple dulling of awareness to a considerable increase in sensory qualities, these stimulants that result in an altered state of consciousness come under the class of drugs known as psychedelics. These psychedelics alter the working of the central nervous system,

thus affecting the activity of a brain and, resultantly, its consciousness. Some users have even described these experiences as mystical or spiritual in nature and quality.

Some research has also been done into physiological changes in yogis and practitioners of varied meditation techniques and spiritual activities. Some distinguishing features have been observed in brain waves during ordinary relaxation and those corresponding to meditation. Still, counting them as physiologically distinct states of consciousness is somewhat disputed because of a lack of evidence.

Nuriel Angel
Lucide Dream