States of Consciousness

by Dr. Lorin Bradbury

Question: Are we conscious of what is going on around us at times other than when we are wide-awake?

“States of Consciousness” is a whole area of study within the field of psychology. Consciousness is defined as “a state of awareness.” The most well known state of consciousness is Normal Waking Consciousness, and the reason people are most acquainted with this state is because it occurs while we are awake.

However, there are three types of waking consciousness that most have never thought of as Waking Consciousness—Directed Consciousness, Daydreams, and Divided Consciousness.

Directed Consciousness is directed and orderly awareness. It is when you are fully focused on a topic, such as listening to a lecture, or even while reading this article. Some people have extreme abilities to focus on a topic. For example while reading or watching a movie, these individuals seem to have the ability to shut everyone and everything else out.

You might find that calling that person’s name is insufficient to distract that person from the topic on which he or she is focused. In contrast, there are those who are field dependent (sometimes referred to as field sensitive).

If you were carrying on a conversation with a field sensitive person, you might find that person appearing to be distracted by everything else going on in the room. You might feel as though that person is not listening to you, because his eyes are darting around the room, taking in all present stimuli. That person’s consciousness is still directed, but it encompasses more than your conversation.

The second form of directed consciousness is Daydreams. Daydreams are relatively focused thinking about fantasies. Everyone daydreams, whether you want to admit it or not. Freud believed that daydreams reduced the tension left by our unfulfilled needs and wishes. Many believe that instead of reducing tension, daydreams may be merely a slightly distorted reflection of our current concerns and emotions.

A third form of directed consciousness is called “Divided Consciousness.” Though it may seem contradictory to refer to divided consciousness as directed consciousness, divided consciousness is still very directed.

Divided consciousness is when two conscious activities are occurring simultaneously. Consider how many times you have driven from home to work and cannot remember the drive, but remember the things you were thinking about on the way.

However, if the car ahead of you puts on its breaks, you are very much aware of the braking action occurring a few feet in front of you and you apply your breaks or take action to avoid an accident. If you safely braked, you may have returned to the things you were thinking about prior to seeing the braking taillights ahead of you. That’s divided consciousness.

A less obvious state of consciousness is sleeping and dreaming. Throughout the night, dreams are incorporating sounds of the night, the touch of sheets and nightclothes, odors, and etc. into your dreams.

Altered states of consciousness occur through meditation, hypnosis, and the use of consciousness altering drugs. There are many different types of meditation. The simplest form can occur while a person is in a sitting or lying position and breaths deeply, slowly, and rhythmically. This is often used by clinicians to help clients reduce stress. Individuals more experienced with meditation are able to reach a state known as transcendental.

Another form of altered consciousness is a hypnotic state, reached through hypnosis. Hypnosis is defined as “an altered state of consciousness in which the individual is highly relaxed and susceptible to suggestions.”

Today, hypnosis is used for hypnotic analgesia (pain reduction), relief of phantom limb pain, smoking cessation, and weight loss. Those who practice hypnosis emphasize that hypnosis cannot make you do something that you would not ordinarily be able to do, and cannot make you do something that you did not want to do.

Various forms of medication and drugs also can alter consciousness. Two major categories of consciousness-altering drugs are stimulants and depressants. Stimulants are drugs that increase the activity of the central nervous system, providing a sense of energy and well being.

The most common stimulant is caffeine, and many reading this article experienced a sense of energy and well being from that cup of coffee you had earlier today.

Depressants, on the other hand influence conscious experience by depressing parts of the central nervous system (CNS). Probably the most common depressant is alcohol. So when people drink alcohol, they really don’t get “high.” In reality, they get “low.”

Lorin L. Bradbury, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Bethel. For appointments, he can be reached at 543-3266. If you have questions that you would like Dr. Bradbury to answer in the Delta Discovery, please send them to The Delta Discovery, P.O. Box 1028, Bethel, AK 99559, or e-mail them to [email protected].

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