Conscious Beings - Picking Your Brain (And Body)

Psychology For Dummies - Adam Cash 2013

Conscious Beings
Picking Your Brain (And Body)

In This Chapter

Image Turning on the light

Image Going to bed

Image Dreaming and altering consciousness

Image Breaking through to the other side

Since the beginning of time, human beings have been trying to alter their consciousness. For some, it may seem like a way to get in touch with a reality greater than themselves. For others, it may simply be a way to escape the harsh realities of a bad home or a meaningless job. Psychologists define consciousness as our current state of awareness of external and internal stimuli. A stimulus is anything in an environment (an event, situation, or object) that triggers a psychological response.

Being conscious is like having a light on in the brain. When the light is off, you’re unconscious. Consciousness allows you to monitor yourself and your environment, giving you greater control over your actions and behaviors. But if you’ve stood on a busy street corner in a large city, you’ve realized that there’s a heck of a lot going on around you at any given time. Only so much awareness is available. Consciousness has its limits. The quantity or amount of material in your awareness, along with the content of that material, defines your state of consciousness in any single moment.

In this chapter, I introduce you to consciousness, both normal and altered states. You learn about sleep, its stages, and that ever so interesting phenomenon, dreaming. Finally, you learn how consciousness can be manipulated or altered with meditation and hypnosis.

Exploring the Horizons of Awareness

Consciousness is an elusive concept. You know it’s there, but it’s hard to put your finger on it. My consciousness exists as my inner voice and my awareness of myself, my surroundings, and my experience. But, I’m typically not aware of numerous mental processes, bodily sensations, and things going on in my mind. For example, I don’t usually hear my heart beating as I’m walking down the street, but I can hear it when I try to hear it. When I become conscious of something that I was unconscious of before, I become aware of it. I pay attention to it.

One of the best ways to think about the psychology of consciousness is to think about the absence of consciousness. For example, a person in a coma — a state of extreme unawareness or lack of consciousness — is essentially disconnected from the world around her, lacks self-awareness, cannot be roused, and exhibits no voluntary movements or behavior. She does not react to stimulation from the outside.

I once heard that the entire idea of vampires and the undead came from medieval observations of dead bodies. I don’t exactly know why people were digging up dead bodies, but when they did, they found that their hair and fingernails had continued to grow. Sometimes, the bodies would utter a deep groan when someone moved them. What was going on?

Scientifically speaking, hair and nails continue to grow for a short period of time after death, and the groaning sound could have been caused by leftover air in the body’s chest cavity passing over the vocal chords when the chest was compressed. But medieval grave robbers attributed life to the bodies based on these observations. They believed that the cause of these phenomena was the conscious action and deliberation of the dead person, not reflexive byproducts of physiology and anatomy.

As elusive as consciousness has been for scientists, there have been attempts to clarify understanding by classifying so-called “states” or levels of awareness based on the content, objects, or “stuff” of that awareness and also by looking at the behavior and responsiveness of a person.

Attempts to pin down consciousness include the following classifications and ways of measuring or determining the presence of consciousness:

Image Normal consciousness: Awake, responsive to environment in speech and behavior with some fluctuations relative to concentration and attentiveness.

Image Confusion: Atypical thinking with altered speed, clarity, and coherence, including inattentiveness and disorientation, lowered awareness of immediate environment, and distractibility, which is sometimes referred to as delirium.

Image Drowsiness and stupor: Mental and physical activity substantially reduced, with difficulty sustaining wakefulness and/or ability to be aroused only by intense and continuous effort.

Image Coma: Appearance of being asleep and incapable of responding to external stimuli.

Image Subjective experience of your own awareness: Have you ever had a dream in which you knew you were dreaming? Really, you were aware that you were asleep. Being aware of your own awareness involves realizing or being aware that you are either awake or asleep.

Image Others’ observations of deliberate actions: One of the most important features of consciousness is that it mediates our behavior. Sometimes I act impulsively and reflexively; I don’t think about what I’m doing, I just do it. Other times, there’s a step of conscious deliberation, an act of will, before acting. In that case, I am consciously analyzing what I am going to do. Willful, or voluntary, acts are a signal of conscious awareness. Consciousness is attributed to acts of deliberation and intention. When someone does something willfully, it is assumed he is conscious.

Image Measurement of the brain’s electrical activity: Consciousness can be observed physiologically, in addition to behaviorally, through the measurement of brain activity. Different EEG (electroencephalogram — a special machine that measures the “brain waves” or electrophysiological activity of the brain) measurements of electrical activity in the brain correspond to different levels of observable consciousness.

Antonio Damasio, neurologist and neuroscience professor at the University of Southern California, considered by many to be the foremost authority on consciousness, says that emotions, feelings, and a sense of self are central to consciousness. He famously refers to consciousness as the “movie within the movie” of our life. Damasio’s classification of consciousness is as follows:

Image Consciousness of the Proto-Self: Awareness of bodily states and “here and now” moment-by-moment awareness

Image Consciousness of the Core-Self: Considered “core consciousness” including a sense of “me” or “selfness,” if being in the present

Image Consciousness of Autobiographical-Self: Awareness of a linear timeline of the core self over time in both past and future

Planes with faces, pets with agendas

Believe it or not, children’s cartoons represent a challenge of sorts to our concepts of consciousness. How? Everything in a cartoon is a conscious being — from toasters and shoes to trees and animals. One of my favorite cartoons when I was younger was about a family of airplanes: Poppa Plane, Momma Plane, and so on. Each of the planes had its own little personality. The attribution of consciousness to inanimate objects is called animism and the attribution of human traits to inanimate objects is called anthropomorphism. Most of us are pretty sure that machines and plants don’t possess consciousness, but what about animals? I know plenty of pet owners that swear that their little buddy has deep thoughts of his or her own. They get pretty upset when I suggest that little Scruffy is just a bundle of routines and reflexes, acting without conscious deliberation. He’s probably not thinking, “Should I bury this bone here or over by the garage?”

Catching some zzzzs

Sleep represents a change in consciousness. When I’m asleep, I am unconscious. Sleep is characterized by a change in brain wave activity, also called electrophysiological activity. Sleep, as a level of consciousness, can be distinguished from other levels of consciousness by measuring the electrophysiological energy of the brain with an EEG. When someone is awake and alert, his brain emits a wave with a frequency of 13 to 30 hertz (Hz), called beta activity. When awake but relaxed, the brain shows alpha activity — a frequency of 8 to 12 Hz.

Generally, sleep is divided into four stages with one substage. Each stage is characterized by specific brain activities.

Image Stage 1: When you close your eyes and begin to relax, getting into sleep mode, your brain waves are at an alpha frequency. As you drift deeper into Stage 1, your brain waves become less regular, and they have a higher amplitude. This is theta activity, 3.5 to 7.5 Hz. This stage is a transition period between being awake and asleep, and it lasts approximately 10 minutes.

Image Stage 2: During Stage 2 sleep, brain wave activity is irregular and contains spikes of very high-amplitude EEG waves called K-complexes. There are also short bursts of 12 to 14 Hz waves called spindles. You are sound asleep at this stage, but you may think you’re not actually sleeping. My wife wakes me up while I’m sleeping in front of the television set all the time to tell me that I’m snoring, but I always tell her I wasn’t sleeping. I must have been snoring while awake. I don’t know which is worse — snoring while asleep or awake!

Image Stage 3: Stage 3 is characterized by the presence of high-amplitude, low-frequency waves (3.5 Hz), which are an EEG signal of delta activity. Stage 3 lasts about an hour and a half.

Image Stage 4: This stage is signaled by the presence of more theta waves interrupting the smooth waves of delta. During Stage 4, your eyes begin to move back and forth very rapidly, which is called rapid eye movement (REM). REM sleep is characterized by the presence of beta activity. Here, part of the brain is active but disconnected from skeletal muscle systems; however, you are asleep.

You dream during REM sleep. After you reach this stage, usually about an hour and a half into the whole sleep process, the rest of the night is characterized by alternating periods of REM sleep and non-REM sleep (activity of Stages 1, 2, and 3).

Understanding tired brains, slipping minds

I don’t necessarily know why other people sleep, but I usually sleep because I’m tired. For the most part, researchers still don’t know why people sleep, but some believe that sleep has a restorative function. Research that looks at the effects of a lack of sleep, or sleep deprivation, suggests that people engage in sleep so that the body can restore what was lost or damaged during waking hours.

When people have difficulties sleeping, they may be suffering from a formal sleep disorder in which there are abnormalities in the amount, timing, or the mental activity or behavior of the sleeping person. There are two broad categories of sleep disorders: dyssomnias and parasomnias:

Image Dyssomnias consist of difficulties in the amount, quality, or timing of sleep. Insomnia is a common type of dyssomnia in which people have difficulty either falling to sleep or staying asleep. Hypersomnia is a condition of excessive sleepiness. Anybody with infants or young children at home? Can you say “hypersomnia”? Narcolepsy involves repeatedly falling fully asleep just out of nowhere. It can be in the middle of driving, during a conversation, or in the middle of lecture. Quite inconvenient!

Image Parasomnias consist of the activation of bodily actions at the wrong time. For example, nightmares are a type of parasomnia that involve the inappropriate activation of cognitive process or thinking during sleep characterized by extremely frightening dreams in which a person feels threatened or in danger. Sleepwalking disorder is another parasomnia that involves getting out of bed during sleep, walking around, having a blank stare on one’s face, looking awake but being unresponsive, and being extremely difficult to awaken. I used to get out of bed, unlock the door, and walk down the street. Still other people have been known to engage in some pretty sophisticated behavior while sleepwalking — ranging from making a sandwich to driving to the next town. There are even famous court cases where defendants have claimed that they committed murder while sleepwalking. In 1994, for example, Michael Ricksgers claimed that he accidently killed his wife while sleepwalking. The jury didn’t buy it. Sleep apnea, a parasomnia characterized by abnormal pauses in breathing or abnormally low breathing rates, has been shown to have important health consequences such as high blood pressure and heart attacks.

Sleep deprivation is a big problem in today's do-more, fast-paced, and stimulation-packed 24-hour lifestyle. And the consequences of sleep disorders can be significant, ranging from slowed thinking, low alertness, poor work performance, and irritability. This does not mean that people who are sleep deprived are akin to zombies or the "walking dead." It's not quite that dramatic, but sleep deprivation has been related to an experience of feeling brain dead or having impaired thinking and cognition, feeling mentally more slow, and of being in a mental fog. So get to sleep! After you finish reading, of course! Ultimately, the long-term health effects of sleep disorders are only now being appreciated. A good source of information on sleep disorders is the National Center on Sleep Disorder Research website at

Arriving at Work Naked: Dreams

I once had a dream that I told a group of attractive women that my name is “Lion’s Den.” Maybe there’s meaning behind it, or maybe it was just mental gibberish. I think if you ask most people, they would tell you they believe that dreams have either symbolic or prophetic importance. Dreams represent another altered state of consciousness, and some psychologists have postulated that dreams have meanings that can be interpreted. I’m not sure what my Lion’s Den dream meant or what my dream persona was trying to convey, but perhaps he thought it was impressive to be a place where lions live.

Psychoanalysis has probably provided the most comprehensive look at the psychological importance of dreams and dreaming. Freud and other psychodynamic psychologists make a simple point: Dreams have deeper meanings than their surface content suggests. If I have a dream about getting a new car, it means more than I want a new car. It can mean any number of things, but the meaning is something unique to my psychological makeup, something idiosyncratic. The car may represent a repressed desire to be free; the car is a symbol of movement.

Image Psychoanalysts believe that the contents and processes of dreams represent deep, unconscious conflicts, desires, and issues. Dreams are hard to decipher; they’re often convoluted, and they don’t make much sense. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud states that dreams often represent our attempts to fulfill wishes that we’re not consciously aware of. Through the technique of dream interpretation, a psychoanalyst helps a patient get to the bottom of the meaning of his or her dreams.

Understanding the meaning of many dreams is oftentimes not that complex. They can simply be reflections of events, worries, or experiences that are at the forefront of our minds. Yet other times the “true” meaning of a dream is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to discover. Dreams and their meanings are very personal and subjective phenomena. But just because dreams and their symbolic meanings are difficult to analyze scientifically, it shouldn’t take away from anyone’s belief that his dreams have some deeper meaning. The process of discovering the meaning of dreams in therapy, whether factually correct or not, can be an exciting and often helpful experience.

Regardless of whether dreams have meaning or not, some psychologists propose that they serve a vital biological function. Based on the restorative theory of sleep (see the Catching some zzzzs section earlier in this chapter), dreams are the byproduct of the brain reorganizing and storing the information gathered over the course of a waking day. This explanation actually allows for the possibility that dreams can be interpreted because they relate to real events and situations; therefore, they can have meaning.

Altering Your Consciousness

People have been deliberately trying to alter their consciousness since the beginning of human history. Human beings have used meditation, medication, religious rituals, sleep deprivation, and numerous other means to alter their levels of everyday awareness.

Psychologist and author Stanley Krippner identified more than 20 states of altered consciousness. One of the more common states is dreaming, and among the more intriguing altered states of consciousness identified by Krippner are these four states:

Image Rapture: An intense feeling of overpowering emotion, experienced as pleasurable and positive. People have reported experiencing rapture after sex, ritualistic dancing, religious rituals, and the use of psychoactive substances.

Image Trance states: An alert but very suggestible state. An individual in a trance is focused on a single stimulus and oblivious to much of everything else going on around her. People in trances sometimes report that they feel “at one” with the world. Religious rituals, chanting, hypnosis, brainwashing, yoga, and even music can induce trance states.

Image Daydreaming: Rapid thinking unrelated to an individual’s current environment. Daydreaming can often result from boredom, sensory deprivation, and sleep deprivation.

Image Expanded consciousness: Increased awareness not typical of everyday experience and awareness. People try all kinds of ways to “expand” their consciousness from using drugs to sensory deprivation. There are four levels of expanded consciousness:

Sensory: An altered experience of space, time, and other sensory phenomena.

Recollective-analytic: An experience in which individuals develop novel ideas and revelations about themselves, the world, and their role within the world.

Symbolic: Identification with a historical figure or famous person accompanied by mystical symbols such as having a vision of a crucifix or an angel.

Integral: A religious and/or mystical experience usually involving God or some other supernatural being or force. The person usually feels merged with or at one with the universe. This state has sometimes been called cosmic consciousness. Krippner and other experts believe that very few people are actually capable of attaining this level of consciousness.

Mind on the mind (meditative states)

Meditative states of consciousness are considered an atypical form of consciousness but not necessarily abnormal or maladaptive. As with other states of consciousness, the focus of or object of attention differs with meditation. There is an intense concentration and focusing of attention upon a particular facet of experience, mental activity, or physical experience.

The meditative state has often been referred to as watching yourself think. The purpose or goal is to engage in the practice as a form of mental training to increase a person’s ability to concentrate, stay calm, and be aware. It’s also used as a positive coping strategy in the face of distress or adversity.

Meditation is considered to be a mental enhancement technique. There are many different forms of meditation that differ in subtle ways; the focus of meditation may be one’s own thoughts (as in mindfulness to the sensations of the body in body-scan meditation) or on a statement or phrase repeated over and over (as in religious chanting or some prayer).

Practicing meditation has been associated with positive health benefits such as reduced stress and muscle tension. It has been used in conjunction with psychotherapy for depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although historically associated with Buddhism, many consider meditation to be a nondenominational and non-religious practice and applicable to medical-, educational-, athletic-, and even business-related goals. Besides, why should the Buddhists have all the fun?

It seems that people have been trying to alter their conscious awareness since the dawn of civilization. In the next section, you explore the fascinating ways people attempt to alter or change their consciousness. For some, altered consciousness is delivered through the use of mind-altering drugs. For others it can come in the form of hypnosis.

Getting high on conscious life

Perhaps one of the most common methods for altering consciousness is the use of drugs. Drug use is an ancient phenomenon as well as a contemporary practice. Archaeologists have found traces of cocaine in mummified bodies from ancient Egypt.

Some people claim that one of the purposes of taking drugs is to gain added insight into the concept of consciousness itself. Most people who have used drugs report that they do so in order to get high or intoxicated.

Image The state of being high actually represents a change in consciousness, perhaps going from a level of awareness that induces negative feelings to a different level of awareness where an individual no longer feels “bad.” The idea that drugs are an escape rings true, if you consider that many mind- and mood-altering drugs trigger a transition from one state of consciousness to another.

Not all drugs necessarily have an impact on consciousness. I don’t recall feeling altered the last time I took an aspirin or antibiotic. Drugs whose main effect is the alteration of consciousness are called psychoactive drugs. Common psychoactive drugs and substances include LSD, PCP, marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, barbiturates, ecstasy, and alcohol.

Image Although some people consider drug use for the claimed purpose of expanding their consciousness to be a good thing, as a health professional I feel compelled to warn you of many of the negative effects of psychoactive substance use and abuse. Addiction, brain damage, mental illness, psychological distress, and social and legal problems are common consequences of psychoactive drug use. With these in mind, I strongly caution anyone considering the use of drugs to avoid them, and I argue that seeking higher states of consciousness without the use of substances is far more enlightening.

Being naturally high

Stanley Krippner defines an altered state of consciousness as a mental state that is subjectively experienced as representing a difference in psychological functioning from an individual’s normal, alert, waking state. The importance of the subjectively experienced difference can be illustrated by a story told by Baba Ram Das in his book Be Here Now (Crown Publishing Group).

Baba Ram Das’s original name was Richard Alpert. Alpert was a psychology professor at Harvard in the 1960s, where he and Timothy Leary conducted experiments with LSD. Timothy Leary’s most famous saying was “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Eventually, both Alpert and Leary were fired.

Ram Das traveled to India to seek the path of Hindu wisdom and to find out if anyone could explain why LSD seemed to have such a profound effect on consciousness. One day, Ram Das encountered a very wise and respected guru. Ram Das asked the guru if he could explain the effects of LSD. The guru asked for some LSD, and Ram Das complied. The guru took more LSD than Ram Das had ever seen a human being take, but the guru seemed completely unaffected! He didn’t have an “acid trip” at all. There was no change in his current state of consciousness; he didn’t experience an altered state of consciousness when he took the LSD. Does that mean that the guru was already on some sort of “reality trip” or “spiritual LSD”?

Falling into hypnosis

Close your eyes and relax. You are soooooo relaxed. Your breathing is slow. You’re beginning to feel sleepy. You are soooooo relaxed.

Well, did it work? Hello? Are you under my hypnotic spell? Probably not. I’m not even trained in hypnosis. It’s a special skill, and not all therapists or psychologists are trained in it. Hypnosis is a procedure in which a person called a hypnotist suggests changes in sensations, feelings, thoughts, or behaviors to a subject. Some psychologists think hypnosis is simply an increase in suggestibility that allows the hypnotist to “control” a subject’s behavior. Other psychologists propose that hypnosis is actually an altered state of consciousness in which a person dissociates (separates) from her normal or regular state of consciousness.

Image The key to understanding the mechanism of hypnosis is suggestion. A suggestion is a directive given to the subject to act, feel, or think in a particular way. A hypnotist begins the process with some pleasant suggestions and progresses to more sophisticated requests. This process is called hypnotic induction, and it’s considered a light hypnotic trance.

Hypnosis has been used for many different purposes ranging from entertainment to helping people stop smoking. The more controversial applications of hypnosis involve past-life regression and the recovery of repressed memories. There is little scientific evidence supporting the legitimacy of past-life regression through hypnosis. It’s virtually impossible to prove. Why? Anything that someone reports can only be verified through historical records, and if I can look it up for verification, the individual in question could have looked it up to fake a regression.