What is Consciousness and Different States of Consciousness?

While cooking food, your mind often wanders and thinks about different aspects of life. This may include instances that happened during the day, people you met a day before, or the conversations you undertook with your colleagues and friends.

As a consequence of such mental activity you often find yourself asking a very relevant question, ‘Did I add salt to the curry?’

It is quite common for all of us to experience such varying states of consciousness during different periods of the day. These varying states of consciousness are nothing but varying levels of awareness one has about himself, his behavior, and various other things surrounding him.

In this article, we will talk about what is consciousness, different states of consciousness, and the Indian view of consciousness.

What is Consciousness?

As per the scientific view, consciousness is purely a passive awareness of self. It is an important part of cognition and hence relies on various ways in which our brain works.

Thus, the scientific view takes the matter to be the primary reality and considers consciousness as a concept which can either be real or a subjective illusion.

However, if one considers the scientific view of consciousness he wonders as to how such concept as consciousness could be explained by the workings of a brain, which is purely materialistic in nature?

Thus, from a materialistic point of view, it is not understandable what is consciousness and why it even exists?

However, psychological knowledge that the Indian tradition has created over the ages does not face such challenges.

This is because the Indian school of thought assumes that consciousness is present throughout the universe and existed even before the existence of the universe.

Now, there are two schools of thought on consciousness within the Indian tradition.

As per the first view, pure consciousness s the primary reality of a living entity’s life. Whereas, the matter or physical world called Maya may or may not be an illusion.

The second Indian school of thought on consciousness proposes that consciousness is a primary reality whereas the matter or physical world is also equally a reality as consciousness.

This viewpoint of pure consciousness is explained quite well in the Mundaka Upanishad, which is explained in the next section.

States of Consciousness

The states of consciousness refer to varying levels of awareness that one has about oneself and the world around him. Each one of us experiences these changing states of consciousness every day.

For instance, we transit from more automatic processing like taking a shower, brushing teeth, walking, riding a bicycle to more controlled processing like reading a book, writing an article, doing office work which requires more focus either physically or mentally.

We also experience shifts in states of consciousness while we sleep or when we consume drugs. So, these states of consciousness compel us to pose questions like can we perform two activities simultaneously? Or what happens to consciousness when one sleeps or dreams?

So all these questions are answered with the help of various concepts that relate to consciousness and its varying level of states.

These include biological rhythms, waking states of consciousness, other states of consciousness like dream and sleep, concepts like hypnosis, and consciousness-altering drugs.

Following are various states of consciousness:

I. The Waking States of Consciousness

Say you go out at lunch with your friends and one of them shares her experience of a wedding in Thailand she attended two weeks back.

While she was narrating her experience, your mind wandered and you started thinking about what you would be doing when in Thailand. It seemed you were listening to your friend carefully and nodded your head to whatever she said.

But your mind was in a different world altogether. Instances like these suggest, even when we are awake, we experience different states of consciousness.

At one time, you might be focussing your attention on your friend’s wedding experience. But, in the very next moment, you are lost in the daydream. Let’s try o understand how our mind transits from one state of consciousness to another even when we are awake.

(a) Controlled and Automatic Processing

You must have experienced that we perform two tasks simultaneously at times. For example, listening to music while cleaning the house, watching a movie while binging on food, reading a book in the restroom, etc. But, you might be wondering how are we able to do this?

Well, there are two modes of thought or controlling activities that take place in the backdrop, that is, we are focussing attention on or consciously controlling our own behavior. This, we are able to do in two ways:

  • Automatic Processing

This is the first-way information is processed in our minds. Under automatic processing, the little information processing capacity of a human’s mind is utilized.

That is, under automatic processing, the information gets processed in an automatic manner with minimal conscious awareness of oneself or his actions.

Therefore, if you perform activities under automatic control, such activities can be performed simultaneously.

For instance, every time you clean your house while listening to music, you showcase automatic processing. This is because both activities automatically process information.

Why Automatic Processing Backfires at Times?

One of the most interesting facts about automatic processing relates to an individual’s effort to control his own mental processes as well as physical actions.

At times, such an effort goes wrong and leads to thoughts, feelings, or actions that such an individual doesn’t want.

For example, you watched a horror movie three days back and you want to think about the scary scenes that were showcased in the movie. Despite your conscious efforts, you are not able to forget about terrifying images that end up making you fearful.

Similarly while boiling milk on the flame, you do not want the milk to spill over. However, despite your conscious effort, you land up spilling the milk.

As per Daniel Wegner, a psychologist who has been researching on such effects suggests that these instances occur because our efforts to control our own thoughts or behaviors consist of a system that has two parts.

Intentional Operating Process

This is the process where your mind looks for information that will generate the state you desire to be in. Like avoiding scary images or spilling of milk. Thus, the intentional operating process involves controlled processing and hence an individual has to make a great amount of conscious effort under this.

Ironic Monitoring Process

This process looks for information within our minds that indicates our failure to achieve the desired states. Like thinking about scary scenes or spilling the milk. Thus, we can say that the ironic monitoring process involves automatic processing and hence requires a less conscious effort on the part of the individual.

Normally, both of these processes work simultaneously. One of the processes helps in maintaining those thoughts that we want in our minds. Whereas, the other process keeps unwanted thoughts out of consciousness.

However, it is important to note that if the information processing capacity gets overloaded, then the automatic processing dominates our minds, and hence we end up thinking, feeling, and performing actions that we don’t want to think, feel, or do.

Therefore, the ironic monitoring process explains why it is so challenging for certain people to focus on something like trying to understand a mathematical problem or a concept even when if they want to understand the same.

This is because the ironic monitoring process makes such individuals lose focus on the subject matter in hand and instead concentrate on signals that indicate that it is impossible to understand the subject matter at hand.

  • Controlled Processing

As opposed to automatic processing, controlled processing refers to the processing of information with comparatively high levels of conscious awareness. This type of processing involves more effort on the part of the individual to have conscious control over thought or behavior.

In this type of processing, an individual pays careful attention to the task at hand and concentrates on the same. Thus, controlled processing involves a great amount of cognitive effort on the part o the individual. Therefore, an individual can perform only one task that requires controlled processing at a time.

Attributes Controlled Processing Automatic Processing
Amount of effort More effort Less effort
Level of consciousness High conscious awareness Minimal conscious awareness
Difficulty to inhibit Low High
Commonly Used Processing Relatively less common Relatively more common
Level of Efficiency Low High
Flexibility Flexible Inflexible

(b) Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is a state of consciousness in which an individual focusses his attention inwards, upon himself. Now, there are various states of self-awareness, and accordingly an individual experiences a change in behavior.

So, let’s try to understand why we become self-aware, and what happens when we do?

Why We Become Self-aware and What Happens When We Do?

So, the first question that comes to mind when one talks about self – awareness is when does one enter this state? Primarily, there are two reasons behind it: our current situations and mood.

Control Theory

As per the first, an individual enters this state of consciousness when he is compelled to do so due to situations he is put into.

For example, when an individual needs to perform or get ready for some occasion. In situations like these, the individual is compelled to focus attention on himself.

So, when one concentrates upon himself, an intriguing process takes place in the background. This process can be explained with the help of the control theory.

As per the control theory, when an individual focusses his attention on himself, he compares his current state of feelings, thoughts, and performance to the internal standards set for the same.

That is, how he would like to feel, think, and act. If there is a little difference between his current state and such internal standards, then there is nothing to worry about.

However, if this difference is huge, then such a person has two alternatives:

  • First, he can either change his thoughts or actions in order to bring them closer to his internal standards and goals. This process is known as ‘Shape Up’.
  • The second alternative includes withdrawing from self-awareness by either distracting oneself or undertaking extreme actions, typically called ‘Shipping Out’. The distractions may include not thinking about oneself and one’s shortcomings. Whereas, extreme actions may include consuming alcohol, overeating, and more extreme actions like ending one’s life.

So, why do some people choose to shape up while others ship out? As per a research, people who believe that they can change their thoughts, feelings, and actions successfully are the ones who choose to shape up.

Such individuals focus their attention on meeting internal standards and goals as they believe that they can change for the good.

However, individuals who believe that it is impossible for them to change their feelings, thoughts, and actions may choose to escape from situations.

Thus, self-awareness impacts the behavior of an individual to a large extent.


Another factor that influences an individual to focus on himself is his current mood. As per many studies, an individual is more likely to focus attention inwards when he is in a negative mood than when he is in a positive one.

However, some recent studies indicate that there is a complex process behind moods influencing an individual to become aware of himself.

As per the studies, some moods like sadness and happiness influences an individual to think about himself and his feelings. Whereas, moods like excitement and anger influence an individual to think about other persons.

For example, an individual gets angry when he gets annoyed by the actions of other people. Thus, when one experiences anger, he thinks about another person rather than himself.

That means it’s not mandatory that negative moods influence us to focus our attention on ourselves and become self-aware. One thinks about oneself when moods are reflective in nature.

Another set of studies conducted recently proposes that when an individual experiences reflective moods like happiness and sadness, they focus their attention on inner thoughts and feelings. This is termed as private self-consciousness.

However, when individual experiences socially-oriented moods like excitement or anger, he does not experience self-awareness. Besides this, few people also focus on how they would appear to other people.

In other words, such people are conscious of their public image. This type of awareness of oneself is termed as public self-consciousness.

Huge differences exist when it comes to experiencing these three types of self-awareness among people.

Effects of Self-Awareness

In psychology, having an understanding of oneself is considered an important factor to adapt to different kinds of situations. In other words, people who have a clear understanding of themselves have a lesser chance of going through a mental imbalance.

However, research on private self-consciousness showcases a completely opposite pattern. People who are highly self-aware stand a greater chance to lose their mental balance than the ones who are relatively less self-conscious.

This is because when individuals focus their attention on themselves, they do so because of two different motives.

  • Firstly, they are inquisitive to know about themselves. This is known as reflection.
  • Secondly, they have fear of losses, injustices, shortcomings, or threats that motivate them to become self-aware. This is called rumination. Therefore, it is rumination and not a reflection that is the cause of many psychological problems in individuals.

II. Sleep

Sleep refers to a process in which significant physiological changes like slowing down of basic bodily functions, shifts in brain activity are accompanied by major shifts in consciousness.

There are four states of sleep, each with its own characteristics in terms of changes in electrical activity inside our brain. Of the four states, Slow Wave Sleep, and REM Sleep are the primary states of sleep. Let’s learn how what functions each of these states performs.

(a) Slow-Wave Sleep

Following are the functions performed by slow-wave sleep:

  • Restorative Function

Slow-wave sleep primarily performs the restorative function. That is, it allows our brain to rest and recover from overuse due to the day’s activities.

Evidence suggests that parts of the brain that experience excessive activity during the day showcase more slow-wave activity in those areas of the brain at night while we sleep.

That is, the areas of the brain that are most active during the day demonstrate high slow-wave activity during the night.

Another evidence suggests that there are certain species of marine mammals in which the two cerebral hemispheres sleep alternatively.

This indicates that sleep allows some areas of the brain to take rest. But, the reason why these mammals demonstrate this pattern of sleep is because they are not adapted to live in water as other marine organisms.

Therefore, they cannot allow both the brain hemispheres to sleep at the same time.

Lastly, other sets of studies indicate that intense physical activity may lead to increasing the slow-wave sleep. But, this happens only if these physical exercises increase the temperature of the brain.

This is because high brain temperature increases metabolism. Thus, one could conclude that slow-wave sleep may allow our brain to take rest after vigorous physical activity.

  • Relationship With Circadian Rhythms

Another function that slow-wave sleep performs is that it indicates the relationship of sleep with circadian rhythms. As per this view, sleep is one of the processes that came into existence to encourage species to slow down the activity during those times of the day when they do not perform activities that are necessary for their survival.

(b) REM Sleep

REM sleep refers to a state of sleep in which the brain’s activity is similar to the calmness while were are awake. This activity is further accompanied by muscle relaxation and eye movement.

This state of sleep plays an important role in learning as it allows an individual to recollect memories or activities undertaken a day before or eliminates unwanted memories from his brain.

As per the studies conducted on animals it was observed that animals who were trained but were not allowed to take REM sleep indicated poor levels of performance. Also, animals undertaking intense learning took more REM sleep relative to other times.

(c) Dreams

Dreams are events that take place in the brain and are often very clear and disconnected or jumbled. Dreams occurred during sleep and most of the dreams occurred during REM sleep. Certain characteristics of dreams include:

  • Everyone experience REM sleep or dream
  • The longer the dreams last, the longer such dreams really are
  • External events do become part of dreams
  • People forget or remember their dreams depending upon what they do when they wake up. If they lie down in bed quietly, they are able to recollect their dreams. However, if they jump out of the bed and start performing day-to-day activities, there is less chance that they remember their dreams.
  • There is no evidence that concludes that dreams predict future
  • There is no evidence that dreams indicate our sub-conscious wishes or desires

Since we are clear with what are dreams, let’s try to understand what are the various functions of dreams.

Functions of Dreams
  • Dreams Express Unconscious Wishes

Sigmund Freud demonstrated that dreams can be used to discover the thoughts, impulses, and desires in the unconscious mind of the individual. These impulses are not part of an individual’s conscious experience.

That is, they lie outside its realm. Freud believed that an individual can voice his impulses and desires which he finds unacceptable when he is awake in his dreams.

Thus, Freud was able to access the dreams of his patients and obtained useful information pertaining to reasons underlying their problems.

  • Physiological View of Dreams

Another perspective of dreams indicates that dreams are quite subjective an experience that pertains to the random activity taking place inside the individual’s brain.

Biological Rhythms

Biological rhythms refer to cyclic or regular changes in the bodily processes and in the level of consciousness over a period of time.

Many such changes or fluctuations occur over a single day or over a period of time, say close to a month. These biological rhythms are responsible for making an individual energetic or alert during different times of the day.

Thus, these rhythms help in explaining why some people are active during the early hours of the day. Or why some people cannot work till late at night.

As mentioned earlier, the biological rhythms also occur over longer periods. The most relevant example that explains fluctuations in the bodily processes over a period of time is the human female menstrual cycle, which occurs approximately after twenty-eight days.

Circadian Rhythms

If cyclical changes in the bodily processes and mental alertness occur over the course of a single day, such fluctuations are referred to as Circadian Rhythms.

Nature of Circadian Rhythms

The daily fluctuations in bodily processes occur in the form of production of hormones, changes in body temperature, fluctuation in the level of blood pressure, and many other processes.

For a few persons, these bodily processes reach their peak during the afternoon or late evening and they are at their lowest level during the early hours of the day.

Thus, we can say that as far as changes in bodily processes are concerned, there exists a large difference between different individuals.

Therefore, the pattern of circadian rhythms varies to a great extent in different individuals. In addition to this, these rhythms transit as an individual grows old. That is the circadian rhythms are highest during the early hours of the day when one grows old.

Why are Circadian Rhythms Important?

Now, you might be wondering why these circadian rhythms are so important in an individual’s day to day life.

As mentioned earlier, the circadian rhythms impact the level of alertness in an individual during different times of the day and hence influences the task performance of an individual to a great extent.

Typically, an individual performs all physical tasks to the best of his capability when body temperature and other internal processes are at their peak. However, high body temperature might not be appropriate to perform tasks that require much cognitive effort.

Therefore, the question arises on how the fluctuations in these bodily processes, mental alertness, and performance of the task are controlled or regulated?

How are Circadian Rhythms Regulated?

Well, a portion in the hypothalamus area of the brain, known as Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN) plays a significant role in regulating the Circadian Rhythms.

Individual cells in SCN keep track of time. This is evident from the studies conducted by Welsh and his colleagues. As a part of these studies, they removed the tissue from the SCN of rats and noticed the activity of individual cells with the Nucleus.

The study revealed that each cell showcased regular cycles of activity.

It is important to note that SCN does not only regulate the internal processes but also responds to the external world. That is, SCN responds to the morning light where the light reboots the internal body clock and harmonizes it with the world outside.

This is necessary because if our internal clock is not rebooted each day, then it will operate on a twenty-five-hour cycle. This would make our biological rhythms go out of sync with the outside world.

This fact was proved in a study where the subjects stayed in caves where no sunlight could enter. This made the persons shift to a twenty-five-hour cycle in a day.

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