At the next meeting of your psychology class, take alook at that guy in the last row. You know the one—The Sleeper: slumped over the desk, forehead in palm, eyes twitching beneath heavy lids, mouth emitting a soft snore. Not surprisingly, you might conclude that your slumbering peer is wasting time and money, disrespecting the professor, and distracting his classmates. But startled awake, The Sleeper might claim that he’s actually been experiencing (and perhaps learning from) another state of consciousness.
If exploring consciousness is his goal, The Sleeper might want to try a path that wouldn’t require missing class. He might follow the lead of Buddhist meditators, Hindu yogis, and Christian ascetics, all of whom alter their consciousness through religious practices. Within the secular world, he might alter his consciousness by undergoing hypnosis or having a few beers.
But do these various activities really alter consciousness? And what is conscious-ness, anyway? The dictionary definition, “a critical awareness of one’s own situation and identity,” might seem straightforward, but, as you’ll see, consciousness is—and will probably continue to be—one of psychology’s greatest mysteries.
We’ll start with the most obvious means of studying conscious experience: simply asking people to observe and describe their state of mind. As we’ll see, there are important limitations on this research strategy, because much of our mental activity unfolds outside of our con-scious awareness, leaving us completely unable to observe it, much less recount it to others.
Indeed, because so much of our cognition proceeds without consciousness, we’ll need to ask what the function of conscious experience might be: If we can do so much without consciousness, why do we need it? Put differently, what can we—as conscious beings—do that zombies cannot?
We’ll then turn to the question of how activity in the nervous system makes consciousness possible. The puzzle here begins with the fact that the nervous system is a physical object—it has a measurable mass, a particular temperature, and a certain location in space. Our conscious awareness, in contrast, has none of these properties, and so—despite the metaphors—we don’t actually weigh more when we’re struggling with a “weighty decision,” and our temperature doesn’t go down when we have a “cool idea.” How is it possible for our biological machinery and its properties to give rise to our conscious states and their entirely different properties?
Finally, we’ll turn to a broad exploration of different “levels” and “types” of conscious experience, including what happens when we sleep and dream, the effects of hypnosis or of religious experiences, and also the altered states associated with certain drugs.
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