When we say that we are “conscious,” we mean that we are aware of “something.” Is there ever a time in our lives when we are not aware of something? Perhaps when we are in a deep coma or perhaps when we faint. In both cases, we experience a condition in which the average level of brain activity is very low.
Most of the time, however, we seem to be conscious of many external and/or internal events. Even when we are asleep and dreaming, we are aware of internal (mental) events such as noises or smells coming from the environment around us. In fact, these external events may be incorporated into a dream or they may awaken us, as when an alarm clock going off causes you to dream about a police siren or to wake you up. On the other hand, even when we are awake, many mental events occur of which we are unaware, such as the mental processes involved in producing rapid and highly coordinated habitual movements (for example, typing on a computer keyboard). In order to explain why we so often are unaware of what is going on in our own minds, nineteenth- and early-twentieth century investigators of the mind, especially Sigmund Freud (Esterson, 1993) distinguished three levels of awareness: the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious levels.
The Conscious Level
The conscious level of awareness contains cognitions1 and emotions to which a person currently is attending. For example, you probably are aware of the words you are reading and perhaps one or two other things going on around you, such as sounds coming from the next room or an itch on your back. But your attention is constantly shifting, which means that what you are aware of also is constantly changing. Teachers, for example, may repeat important points several times because they realize that, at any one time, a student’s attention may be focused elsewhere. In fact, it is virtually impossible to keep one’s attention focused on one thing for more than a short period of time. This can be even more difficult to do when people suffer from mental disorders associated with problems involving anxiety, mood, hallucinations, attentional difficulties, and so on.
The Preconscious Level
The preconscious level of awareness contains cognitions and emotions to which a person is currently not attending, but could easily do so. For example, your memory of what you had for breakfast this morning is probably at the preconscious level: you should be easily able to shift your attention to this memory and recall what you did or did not eat for breakfast. Or the set of tactile (touch) sensations involving your left big toe are at the preconscious level, at least until you shift your attention to them while reading these words thereby bringing them to the conscious level.
The Unconscious Level
The unconscious level of awareness contains cognitions and emotions to which it is very difficult or impossible for a person to attend. For example, when you have a word on the “tip of your tongue,” you feel as if the word exists somewhere in your mind but you simply cannot get to it. You may even remember the word’s first letter and number of syllables, but the rest of the word remains outside the reach of your attention. Nevertheless, the word eventually may “pop” into your consciousness, even when you no longer were trying to remember it. This means that unconscious cognitive processes must have continued to search for the word the entire time; and, when it finally was “found,” these unconscious cognitive processes brought it to awareness.
Attention may be thought of as the mental process that transfers information from the preconscious and unconscious levels of awareness to the conscious level. Attention can be directed very easily towards some mental events and processes, those at the preconscious level, but not as easily or not at all to other mental events and processes, those at the unconscious level. In addition, we can think of the three levels of awareness as existing on a continuum, with mental content/processes currently within awareness at one end of the continuum, and mental content/processes that could never be brought into awareness at the other end (see Figure 1). In between these two extremes are mental content/processes that vary in how difficult it is to bring them into awareness.
Of great interest to those psychologists who study how we come to know what we know about the world around us is the fact that we are constantly processing information about external events not only at the conscious level but also at the preconscious and unconscious levels. This can be demonstrated by considering a common experience that has been dubbed the cocktail-party phenomenon (Moray, 1959). When you are at a party conversing with someone, your attention generally is focused on that conversation, not on the conversations around you. Nevertheless, if something important occurs in one of those other conversations — let’s say that someone in a group across the room mentions your name and they all laugh — it’s very likely that you will shift your attention to that conversation. This shows that, although you were not consciously aware of doing so, you were mentally processing the other conversation at either the preconscious or unconscious level and, when something important happened in it, your attention shifted to that conversation.
Another way to think about attention and awareness is to picture the mind as a large but unlighted warehouse, and of attention as a flashlight that is anchored somewhere in the middle of the warehouse. The flashlight is able to shine a very bright but narrow beam of light wherever it is pointed (see Figure 2). The farther an object is from the middle of the warehouse, the more difficult it is to see it with the flashlight. Objects in the corners and against the outer walls may be impossible to see (analogous to the unconscious level).
Study Questions for Section 2-1
- What are some examples from your own life of information that originally was at the preconscious or unconscious level but that eventually was brought — perhaps with much difficulty — to the conscious level?
- How are the conscious and preconscious levels similar to, and different from, one another?
- How are the conscious and unconscious levels similar to, and different from, one another?
- How are the preconscious and unconscious levels similar to, and different from, one another?
- How is the mental process of attention related to the three levels of awareness?
- What is an example of the cocktail-party phenomenon from your own life? (Note: The example does not need to have happened at a party.)
Practice Quiz for Section 2-1
See answers to the study questions for this section here.
1 In this course, a cognition will be defined as any mental process involved in knowing the world around us, such as those mental processes involved in perception, learning, memory, and evaluating.
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