What Is Consciousness?

Young woman contemplating waterfall
swissmediavision / Getty Images
Table of Contents
View All

What Is Consciousness?

Consciousness refers to your individual awareness of your unique thoughts, memories, feelings, sensations, and environments. Essentially, your consciousness is your awareness of yourself and the world around you. This awareness is subjective and unique to you. If you can describe something you are experiencing in words, then it is part of your consciousness.

Your conscious experiences are constantly shifting and changing. For example, in one moment you may be focused on reading this article. Your consciousness may then shift to the memory of a conversation you had earlier with a co-worker. Next, you might notice how uncomfortable your chair is, or maybe you are mentally planning dinner.

This ever-shifting stream of thoughts can change dramatically from one moment to the next, but your experience of it seems smooth and effortless.

Types of Consciousness

There are a number of things that can cause changes or alterations in consciousness. Some of these occur naturally, while others are the result of things such as drugs or damage to the brain. Changes to consciousness can also result in changes in perception, thinking, understanding, and interpretations of the world.

Some different states of consciousness include:

There are two normal states of awareness: consciousness and unconsciousness. Altered levels of consciousness can also occur, which may be caused by medical or mental conditions that impair or change awareness. 

Altered types of consciousness include:

  • Coma
  • Confusion
  • Delirium
  • Disorientation
  • Lethargy
  • Stupor

Doctors and healthcare professionals may use different assessments to measure and assess levels of consciousness. Scores on these assessments may be used to guide diagnosis and treatment decisions.

Uses

Understanding different levels of consciousness can help healthcare professionals spot signs that someone might be experiencing a problem.

Changes in consciousness can sometimes be a sign of medical conditions or they may even be a sign of an immediate medical emergency.

For example, sudden changes in consciousness might be a sign of:

  • Aneurysm
  • Brain infections
  • Brain tumor or injury
  • Dementia or Alzheimer's disease
  • Drug use
  • Epilepsy
  • Heart disease
  • Heatstroke
  • Lack of oxygen to the brain
  • Low blood sugar
  • Poisoning
  • Shock
  • Stroke

When to Seek Help

If you thinking you are experiencing changes in consciousness, talk to your doctor. Sudden changes may be a sign of a medical emergency that requires immediate attention, such as a stroke or hemorrhage. 

Talking to your doctor right away can ensure that you get immediate treatment before problems get worse.

History of Consciousness

For thousands of years, the study of human consciousness was largely the work of philosophers. The French philosopher Rene Descartes introduced the concept of mind-body dualism or the idea that while the mind and body are separate, they do interact.

Once psychology was established as a discipline separate from philosophy and biology, the study of the conscious experience became one of the first topics studied by early psychologists.

Structuralists used a process known as introspection to analyze and report conscious sensations, thoughts, and experiences. Trained observers would carefully inspect the contents of their own minds. Obviously, this was a very subjective process, but it helped inspire further research on the scientific study of consciousness.

The American psychologist William James compared consciousness to a stream—unbroken and continuous despite constant shifts and changes. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud focused on understanding the importance of the unconscious and conscious mind.

While the focus of much of the research in psychology shifted to purely observable behaviors during the first half of the 20th century, research on human consciousness has grown tremendously since the 1950s.

Theories of Consciousness

One of the problems with the study of consciousness is the lack of a universally accepted operational definition. Descartes proposed the idea of cogito ergo sum ("I think, therefore I am"), suggested that the very act of thinking demonstrates the reality of one’s existence and consciousness. While today, consciousness is generally defined as an awareness of yourself and the world, there are still debates about the different aspects of this awareness.

Research on consciousness has focused on understanding the neuroscience behind our conscious experiences. Scientists have even utilized brain-scanning technology to seek out specific neurons that might be linked to different conscious events. Modern researchers have proposed two major theories of consciousness: integrated information theory and global workspace theory.

Integrated Information Theory

This approach looks at consciousness by learning more about the physical processes that underlie our conscious experiences. The theory attempts to create a measure of the integrated information that forms consciousness. The quality of an organism’s consciousness is represented by the level of integration.

This theory tends to focus on whether something is conscious and to what degree it is conscious.

Global Workspace Theory

This theory suggests that we have a memory bank from which the brain draws information to form the experience of conscious awareness. While integrated information theory focuses more on identifying whether an organism is conscious, the global workspace theory offers a much broader approach to understanding how consciousness works.

A Word From Verywell

While consciousness has intrigued philosophers and scientists for thousands of years, experts clearly have a long way to go in our understanding of the concept. Researchers continue to explore the different bases of consciousness including the physical, social, cultural, and psychological influences that contribute to our conscious awareness.

Was this page helpful?
Article 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.
  1. Patti L, Gupta M. Change in mental status. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing. Updated October 17, 2019.

  2. Tononi G. Integrated information theory of consciousness: An updated account [published correction appears in Arch Ital Biol. 2012 Dec;150(4):291]. Arch Ital Biol. 2012;150(2-3):56‐90. doi:10.4449/aib.v149i5.1388

  3. Baars BJ. The global workspace theory of consciousness. In S Schneider, M Velmans (Eds), The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness, Second Edition. 2017. doi:10.1002/9781119132363.ch16