What is consciousness in psychology?

Medically reviewed by April Justice
Updated January 16, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
In social psychology, consciousness refers to your awareness of both internal stimuli, such as hunger, tiredness, and feelings, and external stimuli, such as temperature and sounds.

States or levels of consciousness can vary. For example, you experience different levels of consciousness when you’re awake, asleep, preconscious, unconscious, and under the influence of alcohol or other substances.

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Theories of consciousness

Sigmund Freud developed a theory of the levels of consciousness called psychoanalytic theory, which is still used by some psychologists today. Psychoanalytic theory divides consciousness into three levels: the conscious, unconscious, and preconscious.

  • Conscious: When you're conscious of something, you can think about it logically and talk about what you're experiencing.
  • Preconscious: In preconsciousness, information is available to the consciousness of the brain, though it is not currently used.
  • Unconscious: Freud was particularly interested in the unconscious, believing that unlocking the unconscious would provide relief from neuroticism. He saw this part of the mind as a place where urges, emotions, and ideas created conflicts, anxiety, and pain. The unconscious contained fears, immoral and sexual urges, violent motives, irrational wishes, selfish needs, and shameful experiences. Freud theorized that unconsciousness strongly influenced consciousness and behavior.

States of consciousness

Consciousness exists on a continuum from a total lack of awareness, such as being in a coma, to heightened awareness achieved through meditative practice. Different levels of the continuum include:

  • Ordinary wakeful consciousness
  • Hypervigilance
  • Lethargy
  • Sleep
  • Dreaming
  • Hypnotic state
  • Drug-induced states
  • Meditative state
  • Dissociative states
  • Partial epileptic seizures
  • Coma

According to the psychologist William James, we exhibit many forms of consciousness that are highly personal, selective, active, and continuous. He coined the term “stream of consciousness” to describe the flow of our consciousness. The state of consciousness you’re experiencing can affect the ways you perceive stimuli. 

Altered states of consciousness

A person who is not unconscious experiences an altered state of consciousness when there is a change in their baseline mental state. This can result from meditation, trauma, drugs, food, a stimulating environment, sleeping, daydreaming, lack of sleep, etc. Altered states of consciousness can change:

  • Sense of self
  • Time perception
  • Mental unity
  • Volition
  • Perception of reality
  • Body image
  • Emotions

There are times when people deliberately alter their consciousness, such as by meditating or drinking alcohol. The following are more examples of altered consciousness:

Hypnotic state

Hypnosis describes a level of consciousness removed from the immediate surroundings, where people become fully integrated into their internal experiences, including feelings and imagination. Through deliberate focus on the imaginary, and through suggestion, therapists can help clients enter a hypnotic state of reality.

Hypnosis can be used in a therapeutic context to reduce anxiety, to help a person disconnect from unpleasant side effects of medications (such as chemotherapy), to reduce the experience of pain, and to help the person connect with unconscious processing. In one study, hypnotism was found to reduce pain perception by 50% and create physiological changes in parts of the brain.

Meditative state

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A meditative state is similar to the state of self-hypnosis. However, hypnosis is generally focused on achieving a specific objective, whereas meditation is often an open-ended practice.

Consciousness can be altered in several ways during and after meditation. One study revealed that the changes in consciousness were most profound when the eyes were closed for meditation. With different states of consciousness, you can feel changes in:

  • Sense of time
  • Imagery
  • Self-consciousness
  • Sense of meaning
  • Sense of unity
  • Mental clarity
  • Positive emotions
  • The sense of being in an altered state

Research consistently shows that practicing meditation can reduce stress and improve psychological and physical well-being.

Drug-induced state

Different drugs affect the brain and consciousness differently:

  • Alcohol changes levels of neurotransmitters, slows actions and reactions, causes cognitive functions to slow down, and increases dopamine.
  • Marijuana changes thoughts, memory, and the perception of pain.
  • Cocaine changes the reuptake of neurotransmitters, including norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin.
  • Ecstasy increases positive emotions, decreases inhibitions, and increases the sense of intimacy with other people.
  • Opiates reduce pain, cause euphoria, and ultimately decrease the production of endorphins in the body.
  • Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) turns on serotonin receptors and affects the central cortex of the brain, which in turn changes thoughts, attitudes, insight, and sensory perceptions. LSD can change emotions dramatically over the course of its effect.

Psychosis

Psychosis is an altered consciousness state in which it's difficult to distinguish what is real from what isn't. With psychosis, you may experience visual or auditory hallucinations that others may not see or hear. You may have delusions, which are false beliefs, and your thoughts, speech, and behavior may become disorganized.

Several disorders can cause brief or prolonged periods of psychosis. These include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, delusional disorder, psychotic disorder due to medical conditions, and schizotypal personality disorder. Oftentimes, a combination of medications (such as antipsychotic drugs and/or antidepressants) and cognitive behavioral therapy can effectively manage psychosis.

Lack of consciousness

Lack of consciousness occurs when someone does not have their normal awareness of both internal and external stimuli. Fainting, called syncope, is a loss of consciousness that typically lasts for less than a minute. When a lack of consciousness elapses for a prolonged period, it is typically classified as a coma. 

Sleep

Historically, scientists assumed that deep, non-REM sleep was in the same state as lack of consciousness. However, recent studies suggest that other altered states happen during the sleep-wake cycle. There are different functions of non-REM sleep, such as memory consolidation, and different non-REM sleep experiences, including the perception and sensations that occur during sleep.

Dreaming

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Dreaming is a type of altered state in which you experience hallucinations that have a story-like quality. Dreams often contain vivid images that come from your imagination. You may have imagined sensory perceptions, such as seeing, hearing, or touching things that are not there.

Partial epileptic seizures

Epilepsy can cause an altered state of consciousness during seizures. Studies of partial epileptic seizures have found that people can hallucinate during seizures, experience changes in thoughts and behaviors, and express feelings dissociated with reality.

Confronting challenges

Psychosis and drug-induced altered states of consciousness can make it difficult to interact effectively with your surroundings, which can be both isolating and potentially harmful for your safety. If you’re concerned about your mental health, you might seek therapy from a licensed professional with experience in cognitive psychology.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a specific type of psychotherapy that can help you learn to identify, monitor, and redirect your thoughts and feelings while building healthier coping mechanisms. Oftentimes, CBT therapists ask their clients to use evidence from the external world to challenge their thoughts and preconceptions. Behavioral therapists may also draw on principles from classical conditioning to help people change negative behaviors. A study from 2018 found that CBT significantly reduced symptoms of psychosis, particularly in those with schizophrenia. According to a 2017 study, cognitive behavioral techniques may even help reduce seizure frequency for patients with epilepsy, possibly by reducing stress.

Some people with certain mental health concerns may find it burdensome to leave home for therapy, which may make online therapy a more appealing option. For individuals with psychiatric disorders, including depression, generalized anxiety, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and bipolar disorder, a 2017 study found than online CBT was effective and typically less costly than in-person therapy.

Takeaway

Consciousness psychology is a complex topic. At its most basic level, consciousness refers to your perception of internal and external stimuli, which becomes altered under certain circumstances. 

If you are experiencing a psychiatric disorder or mental health concern that alters your state of consciousness, you don’t have to face it alone. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with an online therapist with experience implementing various psychological processes. You can connect with your therapist via audio, video chat, and in-app messaging at a time that works for you. Take the first step and reach out to BetterHelp today.

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