States of Consciousness

Understanding Human Consciousness

States of Consciousness
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Consciousness is a term used to describe the awareness of your physical and mental experience. As you might have already realized, not all forms of awareness are the same. There are a number of different states of human consciousness, as well as a variety of factors that can have an impact on these states of awareness.

What Are States of Consciousness?

Human consciousness is often compared to a stream—it is constantly changing, but always flowing smoothly. The way that your thoughts drift from one topic to another can feel effortless even when the thoughts you're having are dramatically different. If one moment you're thinking about this article that you are reading and the next moment you find yourself thinking about your childhood pet, you can thank your current state of consciousness.

Two common states of awareness exist: conscious and unconscious. Where the term unconscious represents of a lack of awareness, consciousness itself can present with varying levels of awareness. This is often referred to as a person's state of consciousness.

Have you ever wondered why you feel more energetic in the morning, tried to analyze your dreams, or questioned how hypnosis works? Each of these topics relates to different states of consciousness because the way your mind processes your thoughts during each is unique.

Human consciousness can be altered in a number of different ways, including through hypnosis, with drugs, and mental exercises. Reaching an altered state of consciousness can also be achieved through various types of meditation and mind-body practices.

States of Consciousness and Level of Awareness

A person's state of consciousness is interconnected with their level of awareness. For example, if someone is in a half-asleep or drowsy state, they will typically experience a lowered level of awareness. Conversely, when exposed to a stimulant, a person can experience a heightened level of awareness.

Low Awareness

Although you may not feel as if you are aware of every single detail of what is happening around you, even in a state of consciousness where you have a low level of awareness, your brain is still capable of processing the signals it receives.

Think about the way a person who is asleep in bed may instinctively grab a blanket when they feel cold. Although they are not actively thinking about being cold because of their current state of consciousness during sleep, their brain received a signal that their body feels cold.

High Awareness

A person who experiences a high level of awareness tends to be more in control of their thoughts. The ability to pay attention to detail and analyze the activity around you comes with heightened awareness, but this can typically only be achieved during certain states of consciousness.

The practice of mindfulness is one example of how heightened awareness of a person's thoughts can be achieved by focusing on the present moment. Meditation is often used to reach this type of awareness because the practice can help individuals achieve an altered state of consciousness.

Factors That Affect States of Consciousness

States of consciousness play an important role in our everyday experiences. In order to see how consciousness works, it helps to understand how consciousness can be influenced by different factors.

For example, many people begin the day full of energy but then start to feel run-down by mid-afternoon. Other people struggle to plod through the morning routine only to finally feel energetic in the evening. The daily fluctuations of energy levels are known as the circadian rhythm and play an important role in human consciousness. 

Sometimes referred to as the body's "clocks," these daily rhythms have a major impact on your consciousness because they determine the level of awareness or alertness your body is able to achieve.

Whether prescribed or illicit, chemical substances that impact a person's mental state can also affect their level of awareness. Different types of drugs work by altering your state of consciousness in various ways.

  • Stimulants: Heightened awareness can create feelings of euphoria.
  • Depressants: Lowered awareness can create feelings of relaxation.
  • Hallucinogens: Altered perception of reality can create feelings of paranoia.

3 States of Consciousness

People can be in many different states of consciousness. Three states of consciousness to consider are sleeping, dreaming, and hypnosis.


Sleep has fascinated researchers, scientists, and scholars for thousands of years. Technological innovations during the last century allowed scientists to study sleep in ways that simply weren't possible in the past, which has helped lead to a number of theories of sleep.

Sleep creates a unique state of consciousness because while you experience a lowered level of awareness during sleep, your brain is still active. Your brain's ability to cycle through different stages of sleep with both rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM sleep is proof of this activity.

When the sleep cycle is disrupted, it can wreak havoc on a person's body clock and impact their state of consciousness during both sleep and waking periods. If you're not sleeping well, common sleep disorders could be to blame for the drowsiness, irritability, and brain fog that comes from disrupted sleep.


REM sleep is the part of the sleep cycle most often associated with the dreams that you can remember when you wake up. During this time, your brain is active in a way that is similar to when you are awake, but your state of awareness is lowered.

At some point in your life, you have probably had a truly baffling dream that left you wondering, "What did that dream mean?" Research on dream characteristics, theories, and interpretations links your ability to dream to your state of consciousness.


The phenomenon of hypnosis involves hyper-awareness which leads to an alteration of a person's state of consciousness. During hypnosis, a person will often appear as if they are asleep. Although, in reality, they are actually processing their thoughts through a deep, focused awareness.

Hypnosis has been used for a number of purposes including pain management and weight loss. Research also shows that hypnosis can be an effective treatment for different types of anxiety and pain.

There is no real consensus as to how many states of consciousness exist. This is, in part, because consciousness is multifaceted, and assessing levels of consciousness can be difficult.

12 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.