Consciousness is a person's awareness of his or her inner world, the most private place where thoughts and feelings are formed and impressions and experiences are processed.
Here is a test: Try to write down all the steps you followed in getting dressed this morning. Did you put on your pants or your top first? Which shoe went on first? What steps did you take to tie your shoes? This is likely to be a tough test because getting dressed, brushing teeth, or tying shoes are automatic tasks that can be done without much thought. Other examples of automatic tasks include riding a bike, playing a sport, and dialing a phone number from memory. These tasks may seem difficult when people learn them for the first time, but the tasks soon become so familiar that individuals do not have to focus their conscious minds on them. Without even realizing it, people rely on learned routines to complete lots of tasks efficiently.
Automatic processing is not always enough for what someone needs to do. In such cases, the conscious mind takes over. Whether a person is mastering a new concept, focusing on a challenging book, writing a school paper, deciding how to spend the afternoon, or reacting to criticism from a friend, for example, that person is mindful, or conscious, of what he or she is thinking, feeling, saying, or doing. These and other tasks require the mind to be aware of the inside and the outside world, instead of relying on set automatic routines. It appears that consciousness gives human beings the awareness to be flexible in dealing with new situations and an ever-changing environment. Consciousness is a state of being aware and paying attention to thoughts, feelings, ideas, and actions at a given moment.
It is generally believed that the mechanisms of consciousness are controlled by the cerebral cortex, the upper wrinkled layer of the brain where higher functions, such as perception, memory, intelligence, and control of skilled movements, are also carried out. In 2015, scientists were still unable to explain consciousness fully as a solely physical process carried out within the brain. Whether consciousness is solely a physical process has been debated intensely. Consciousness has proved to be one of the most difficult functions to define, even though everyone experiences it.
Some researchers in the emerging field known as consciousness studies speculate that one day people will understand consciousness more fully in this way as well. They include not only psychologists * and scientists, but also some philosophers. Philosophy is the study of the nature of the mind and of the role of thought in how people experience and deal with the world around them, including ethics * , morality, decision making, motivation, and beliefs. These researchers believe that eventually people will be able to “map” the process they understand as consciousness within the brain, explaining it in terms of the connections and messaging among nerve cells of the brain. They believe that consciousness will come to be understood as the product of the sophisticated machinery of the human brain, just as emotions have begun to be understood in this way.
Other researchers disagree. They contend that the so-called hard problem of consciousness will remain something of a mystery. The “hard problem” of consciousness refers to the question of how the physical brain can give rise to the unique experiences that individuals have in relation to the external world. These experts do not dispute the brain's role in taking in, processing, and interpreting concrete information from the outside world. For example, two people at the same concert hear the same music thanks to the inner ear's auditory nerve, which sends along impulses to the brain, where they are processed in the region that controls hearing. This statement does not, however, explain the inner aspect of thought and perception or the way the music feels for each person. When listeners explain their innermost thoughts while hearing the music, they describe very different responses based on personal experiences. For this reason, some experts contend that people will never be able to locate consciousness entirely within the structures and chemical processes of the brain. For them, consciousness is too complex to explain fully in terms of gray matter and brain chemicals. Instead, they argue that consciousness also draws on experiences and thoughts that are the essence of being human (and cannot be defined or measured).
The field of consciousness studies has brought together philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists * , physicians, and other researchers to discuss this and other issues related to consciousness. Their first major gathering was held in Tucson, Arizona, in 1994, and many meetings have been occurring since then. This young field of study and research holds great promise for furthering people's understanding of the mind.
See also Memory and Amnesia • Sleep Disorders: Overview
Corballis, Michael C. The Wandering Mind: What the Brain Does When You're Not Looking. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015.
Graziano, Michael. Consciousness and the Social Brain. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Lewis, Tanya. “Scientists Closing in on Theory of Consciousness.” Live Science. July 30, 2014. http://www.livescience.com/47096-theoriesseek-to-explain-consciousness.html (accessed November 30, 2015).
Quantum Consciousness. “Overview.” http://www.quantumconsciousness.org (accessed November 30, 2015).
Center for Consciousness Studies. University of Arizona, 1501 N. Campbell Ave., Suite 5301, Tucson, AZ 85721. Telephone: 520621-9317. Website: http://www.consciousness.arizona.edu (accessed November 30, 2015).
* vegetative state is a state of extreme mental impairment in which only involuntary bodily functions are sustained.
* psychologists (sy-KOL-o-jists) are mental health professionals who treat mental and behavioral disorders by support and insight to encourage healthy behavior patterns and personality growth. Psychologists also study the brain, behavior, emotions, and learning.
* ethics is a guiding set of principles for conduct, a system of moral values.
* neuroscientists are scientists who study the nerves and nervous system, especially their relationship to learning and behavior.