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The term consciousness has several different meanings.
In colloquial language, it denotes being awake and responsive to one's environment; what some call reactivity. This might contrast to being asleep or being in a coma.
There is, on the view of very many philosophers, one mental function that accompanies some, or perhaps all, mental events, namely, consciousness. In a philosophical context, the word "consciousness" means something like awareness, or the fact that the mind is as it were directed at something or other. (That sounds more like a definition of that philosophical term "intentionality" often laymanified as "aboutness".) So when we perceive, we are conscious of what we perceive; when we introspect, we are conscious of our thoughts; when we remember, we are conscious of something that happened in the past, or of some piece of information that we learned; and so on.
In this philosophical sense of the word "conscious", we are conscious even when we are dreaming; we are conscious of what's happening in the dream. But sleep researchers believe there is a sleep stage that happens, called "deep sleep", in which apparently we are not conscious of anything in any sense. No mental processes that involve consciousness in an ordinary or a philosophical sense are going on. So deep, dreamless sleep would be an instance in which one is alive, and one's brain is functioning, but there are no mental events occurring in which there is any element of consciousness.
There has been some debate about the following question: Must one be conscious, in the philosophical sense, whenever a mental event occurs? For example, is it possible to have a pain that one does not feel? Some people think not; they think that, in order for something to be a pain, one has to feel it or be aware of it. Similarly, if anything is a thought, then one has to be aware of that of which one is thinking (indeed, that seems nearly a tautology); if there is no consciousness, no awareness, of anything at all, then one is not thinking. Philosophers ask: Do mental events necessarily involve consciousness?
Suppose we answer "No." Then of course what we'd be saying is that there are some mental events that do not include an element of consciousness. These events are going on even though we aren't aware of them. In other words, part of the mind is unconscious. Cognitive scientists believe that many cognitive processes are unconscious in this manner; we are aware of only some of the stuff that's going on in our minds. Some may even view consciousness as an emergent phenomenon[?], somehow arising from a hierarchy of unconscious processes. These are fairly recent views, made popular only after Freud.
(Get rid of the above incomprehensible meandering and replace it with a straightforward explanation of qualia.)
Psychological consciousness refers to a closely interrelated set of features. Julian Jaynes lists these features as:
1. spatialization - having an internal mental 'space' in which hypothetical events can 'happen'. It is impossible to think of any events occurring in time without spatializing them, usually on a timeline running from left to right. People who are not conscious (eg, in a hypnotic state) are incapable of thinking about time or putting things in a time-ordered sequence.
2. analog I - being able to see 'in' one's spatialized mind what one would 'see' if one were in a certain situation. For example, if a person comes to a fork while walking through a forest, they can 'see' 'in' their mind what they would through their eyes if they took either of the paths. It's based on this information that they can decide to take one path (perhaps more scenic) over the other.
3. analog Me - the 'I' is the subject performing actions, through whose eyes we 'see'. The 'Me' is an object 'seen' in its entirety. The 'I' is the first-person view in computer games while the 'Me' is the third-person view, behind the main character. One can often 'see' oneself performing actions 'in one's mind' as if one were 'outside' of one's own body.
4. excerption - the taking of a small aspect of something to stand for that whole thing. No one thinks of their city by imagining every house, every streetcorner and every sewer. One takes something, perhaps the skyline or city hall, and lets it stand for the whole thing. The same occurs for everything. Recalling one excerption after another by a chain of associations is what constitutes 'reminiscence'.
5. conciliation - something similar to assimilation of knowledge to fit a schema but done 'in' a conscious mind.
6. narratization - the constant unnoticed activity of thinking of one's life in terms of stories, in which one is the star character.