Cognitive Science: An Introduction/What Consciousness Is

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Defining Consciousness[edit]

In English we use the word "conscious" to mean several things. The simplest one describes the difference between being asleep and awake. We say that sleeping people are "unconscious" and awake people are "conscious." The other meaning refers to our general awareness of things. So we can be unconscious of our biases, or that a bird flew by, perhaps because our attention was elsewhere. Indeed, we have a form of consciousness when we dream, in that we are consciously aware of what's happening in the dream. Similarly, even people in comas, who we might normally classify as "unconscious," go through normal sleep and wake cycles, as indicated in brain scans.

We also use the word "conscious" to describe certain kinds of entities: humans are conscious creatures, but worms are (probably) not. When we ask whether a particular species (or other kind of entity, such as a running computer program) is conscious, we mean to ask whether it can feel any conscious states at all.

So we have at least three definitions of consciousness that get used on cognitive science:

  1. an agent is considered conscious if it can have some mental states that it is aware of
  2. an agent that can experience conscious states is considered conscious if it is not asleep
  3. an agent can be conscious of some mental states but not others in its own mind

The Function of Consciousness[edit]

If an unconscious process can do everything a conscious one can do (and we don't know if this is the case), then what is consciousness for? This question is hard to answer theoretically, for any conceivable agent, but is a little easier to tackle in human beings. But note that just because human beings use consciousness to do this or that does not mean that it would be necessary for any conceivable agent to require consciousness to do the same thing--creatures with different mental architectures might do it differently--or maybe that's impossible. We just don't know.

Conscious vs Unconscious[edit]

There are things we can be conscious of if we direct our attention to them, and things we cannot be conscious of. There is probably nothing we are *always* conscious of, as thoughts, plans, emotions, and even pain can be unconscious.

Conscious thought seems to allow certain kinds of thinking to take place. Because we can be conscious of some things and not others, we can think of it as a resource, or a rare commodity in the brain that the unconscious processes compete for access to.

Conscious thinking can be contrasted with other kinds of thinking, which for purposes of this chapter we will call "unconscious" or "implicit." There are a great many unconscious processes in the mind, running all the time. Consciousness feels like the most important part of our mind. Interestingly, consciously determined behavior is relatively rare. Estimates suggest that 95% of our behavior is determined by unconscious processes.[1] The conscious processing relies on the unconscious processes and their outputs, but the reverse is not true--the unconscious processes can work just fine without consciousness.[2] So even conscious creatures (such as human beings), when awake (not unconscious) are only conscious of some of their mental states.

It doesn't seem as though language would have much to do with consciousness--we feel that we are conscious of a roller coaster ride without having to put words to it. However, Helen Keller, who was born blind and deaf, said "Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no-world... When I learned the meaning of `I' and `me' and found that I was something, I began to think. Then consciousness first existed for me." [3] Now, we don't know what Keller meant, exactly, by thinking and consciousness, but her report is intriguing. What does it mean for animals, who have no language?

The Neuroscience of Consciousness[edit]

It is unknown where in the brain consciousness happens. Some suggest that it doesn't happen in any particular place, but consciousness is merely great activation of any part of the brain, or the central executive's focus on some or other functioning in the brain.[4]

The Hard Problem of Consciousness[edit]

We discussed above what consciousness seems to be for in human beings, but, hard as it is to study, it's considered "the easy problem" by philosophers. The "hard problem" is knowing whether and why a particular mental process needs consciousness or not. The philosopher David Chalmers introduced the idea of a "zombie" to help us think about it.


  1. Bargh, J.A. & Chartrand, T.L. (1999). The unbearable automaticity of being. American Psychologist, 54: 462--479.
  2. Goodwyn, E.D. (2012). The neurobiology of the gods: How brain physiology shapes the recurrent imagery of myth and dreams. New York: Routledge., kindle location 622.
  3. Jabr, F. (2014). Speak for yourself. Scientific American mind. January/February, 46—51.
  4. Levitin, D. J. (2014). The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. New York: Penguin. Page 45.