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In everyday language, the word consciousness is often used to describe being alert. However, psychologists define consciousness in a much broader sense to mean our level of awareness during various mental processes. Sleeping, dreaming, meditating and wakefulness are all states of consciousness (Morris and Maisto, 2001). Consciousness refers to the general state of being aware and responsive to external and internal stimuli. Our consciousness seems to have a mind of its own. For example, instead of focusing on a specific task like watching a movie, our mind wanders from the external world to the internal world. We start to daydream and so on. William James made the observation that our waking consciousness is seldom fixed on any one event for a period of time. Instead it seems to flow from one event to another, from past to present, and from the external world to the internal world. Our consciousness is made up of a continuous flow of awareness, a stream of consciousness (Huffman, Vernoy and Vernoy, 1997). The current definition of consciousness from Huffman (2007) is an organism’s awareness of its own self and surroundings. Finally, there are different levels of consciousness – high, middle, minimal awareness, or no awareness. For example, a person in a coma has a very low level of awareness compared to a person who is dreaming.

What is Consciousness?

Consciousness is the awareness of internal and external stimuli. Your consciousness includes: (1) awareness of external events (your boss just asked you a challenging question), (2) awareness of internal events (your heart is beating faster and your palms are sweaty), (3) awareness of yourself having the unique experience, and (4) awareness about your thoughts on the experience. In other words, consciousness is personal awareness (Weiten, 2001).

There are different levels of consciousness – high, middle,minimal, or no awareness. High level awareness is characterised by controlled process, and requires a focused attention. It refers to the level of awareness you are in when you are concentrating on solving a problem for example. Middle level of awareness are characterised by automatic processes in which you are aware, but only minimal attention is required. For example, you may be able to drive home from work without paying much attention to it because it has become an automatic process. Another example of middle level awareness is daydreaming. Finally, minimal or no awareness is characterised by the unconscious mind that was suggested by Freud. The unconscioussness or lowest level of awareness can be caused by head injuries or coma.

One typical characteristic of consciousness is that the contents of consciousness are continually changing. If you were to record your thoughts, you would find that your thoughts seem to flow, fluctuate and wander all over the place. Consciousness is very much the same. For example, even when we sleep, we continue to maintain some kind of awareness. When we sleep, consciousness moves through a series of phases. The essential nature of consciousness can be described as one that is continually changing and moving (Weiten, 2001).

Psychologists generally divide consciousness into two categories: waking consciousness and altered states of consciousness. Waking consciousness refers to our personal awareness of thoughts, feelings and perceptions that occur when we are awake and alert. Waking consciousness is very much tuned into the external world. Altered states of consciousness are different from waking consciousness in the sense that we become detached in varying degrees from the external world (Morris and Maisto, 2001). For example, sleeping, dreaming and daydreaming are altered states. Other altered states of consciousness can be induced by hypnosis, meditation and drugs.

Why do we experience consciousness? From an evolutionary perspective, it may be that consciousness evolved in order to allow our ancestors to think through different alternatives before choosing the best course of action. Otherwise, simply acting without thinking over the best course of action could lead to life threatening outcomes (Weiten, 2001).

Altered States of Consciousness

Alternate states of consciousness refers to any state of consciousness other than normal waking consciousness. The following are some of the main characteristics of alternate states of consciousness:

(i)                 Changes in perception and attention processes – sense of time may be distorted.

(ii)               Changes in memory functioning – you may not remember the dreams you had or you may not remember the party last night because you drank too much.

(iii)             Changes in higher level thought processes – decision making and judgment may be impaired (e.g. drunk driving).

(iv)             Changes in emotional feeling and self-control – you may lose your inhibitions, be more confident, or feel numb (Huffman, Vernoy and Vernoy, 1997).

Generally, it takes deliberate effort to enter an altered state of consciousness. For example, many people experiment with hypnosis, meditation and mind altering drugs in order to reach an altered state. However, daydreaming is a universal altered state of consciousness that occurs almost automatically. We usually daydream when we want to escape the demands of the external world. For example, you might start to daydream while you are in a boring staff meeting (Morris and Maisto, 2001).

Throughout time, people have looked for ways to alter their consciousness. Some of the more popular methods include taking drugs, meditation, fasting, chanting and going into a trance. Why are people so interested in altering their consciousness?

(i)                 Sacred rituals: many people from different cultures seek an alternate state of consciousness as a pathway to spiritual enlightenment. In some cultures they meditate, and in others they take drugs. For example, Rastafarians which originate from Jamaica often smoke marijuana as part of their religious rituals.

(ii)               Social interactions: many cultures induce an alternate state of consciousness as an integral part of their social gatherings. For example, in the West, it is common to serve alcohol in various types of social gatherings such as weddings, funerals and business meetings.

(iii)             Individual rewards: people seek an alternate state of consciousness on an individual level because it provides a pleasurable escape from reality (Kalat, 1990).


Have you ever wondered why some people like waking up early in the morning, while others like to sleep till noon? Let us discuss biological rhythms next to find out more.Biological rhythms are partly responsible for shaping our variations in consciousness. In fact, rhythm encompasses all of nature. For example, the four seasons, night and day all resemble rhythms present in nature. In the same way, we also experience biological rhythms. Biological rhythms can be defined as periodic fluctuations in physiological functioning (Weiten, 2001). Circadian rhythms help to regulate our sleep patterns. For example, if you are used to going to sleep at twelve every night, then you will most likely automatically feel sleepy at this time everyday. Sleep occurs in rhythms.

Human behaviour is affected by four basic biological rhythms: (1) the yearly or seasonal cycle, which is related to depression; (2) the monthly or lunar cycle which also corresponds to the female menstrual cycle; (3) the 24 hour daily cycle (circadian rhythms); and (4) the 90 minute rest-activity cycle, which is related to variations in alertness and daydreaming (Hufman, Vernoy and Vernoy, 1997).

Flying across several time zones can disrupt your circadian rhythms. After a long flight, our sleep patterns are disrupted and we experience what is known as jet lag. We may feel tired, irritable and sluggish for the first few days following the flight. Similarly, people who work on shifts experience the same problem.

What controls the circadian rhythms? Essentially the hormone levels of epinephrine and melatonin determine when we feel alert and when we feel sleepy. The hormon epinephrine causes our body to stay alert. Whereas melatonin causes us to feel sleepy. Epinephrine levels reaches its peak in the late morning, then consistently decreases until around midnight where it suddenly drops to a very low level and remains there until morning.

How do scientists study sleep and dreaming? They use the electroencephalogram (EEG) – electrodes are attached to the scalp to measure brain wave activity.

Why do we sleep? There are two main theories.

(i) Repair/restoration theory: sleep helps us to recover from physical tiredness, mental fatigue and also from emotional demands (Weiten, 2001).

(ii) Evolutionary/circadian theory: sleep is part of the biological rhythm and evolved as a means of conserving energy. This theory helps explain why different species have different sleep patterns. For example, cats sleep about 19 hours a day because they are relatively safe in their environment (they are not hunted) and are able to find food easily. On the other hand, horses sleep about 3 hours a day because their diets require constant foraging for food (Kalat, 1990).

Ocassionally all of us face some problems with our sleeping patterns. There are nights where we just cannot seem to fall asleep. If you have experienced this for a period of time, you would have realised how it can impair your normal functioning throughout the day. You may not be able to concentrate properly and may make careless mistakes while driving and so on. People who suffer from sleep disorders have similar disturbances in their sleep patterns. Insomnia is a sleep disorder characterised by difficulty in falling asleep or remaining asleep throughout the night. Insomnia may be caused by stressfull life events and may be temporary, or they may be more persistent when caused by deeper psychological problems such as depression. Insomnia patients often resort to taking sleeping pills to help them sleep, however sleeping pills lose their effectiveness after a while, and also have negative side effects including memory loss and anxiety.

Apnea is another sleeping disorder characterised by difficulty in breathing during the night and feelings of exhaustion during the day. People suffering from apnea typically feel exhausted during the day because they are disturbed by breathing difficulties at night. They are shaken to a state of arousal close to waking consciousness hundreds of times a night when the level of carbon dioxide in the blood increases to a certain point.

People suffering from insomnia and apnea both suffer from a lack of sleep and often crave for more sleep. However, too much of sleep can also also disturb normal funtioning. People suffering from narcolepsy may sleep off without warning in the middle of a conversation or meal. They often experiece a sudden loss of muscle tone following moments of emotional excitement such as anger or sexual arousal. One symptom of narcolepsy is when you immediately enter the dreaming stage when you fall asleep. Narcolepsy is caused by a defect in the central nervous system.

Stages of Sleep

As we now know, sleep occurs in rhythms. When you are sleeping, you go through a series of five stages. Let us discuss the changes that happen during each of these stages.

Before we enter into stage 1 of  sleep, we experience  a state of wakefulness and alertness.  The wave pattern of EEG recording will show  patterns  associated with normal wakefulness, beta waves.  Then it will move to the slower alpha waves which indicate drowsy relaxation (relaxed presleep period).

Stage 1 Stage 2 Stage 3 & 4 REM
  • Transition point between wakefulness and sleep that usually lasts only one to seven minutes.
  • Heart rate decreases as body temperature and muscle tension decline.
  • Brief muscular contractions called hypnic jerks occur.
  • Lasts about 10-25 minutes
  • Brain waves gradually become higher in amplitude and slower in frequency as you fall deeper into sleep.
  • Consists of slow-wave sleep, during which high amplitude, low frequency waves become prominent in EEG recordings.
  • Usually, we reach slow-wave sleep in half and hour and stay there for about the same length of time as well.
  • Then, the cycle is reversed, and we begin to gradually move back into stage one of sleep again. This is when things start to get interesting.
  • When you reach stage one of sleep again, you go into the fifth stage of sleep also known as REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.
  • This stage is known as REM sleep because of the movements that happen beneath your eyelids when you are sleeping.
  • Irregular pulse rate and breathing.
  • All muscles are very relaxed.
  • Even though REM is a deep stage of sleep, our brain waves during REM are similar to that of when we are awake and fully conscious (high frequency, low amplitude brain waves).
  • Dreaming happens most often and vividly during REM sleep.

Table 4.1: Stages of sleep.

Source: Weiten, 2001.

Although REM sleep is important for our biological functioning, non-REM sleep is even more important. When you have not slept for a long time, the deep sleep you fall into or your recovery sleep consists mainly of non-REM sleep. Only when our need for non-REM sleep is satisfied, we fall into REM sleep. Even normally, we usually spend more time in non-REM sleep (stages 1-4) compared to REM sleep (Kalat, 1990) Typically, people who sleep longer, dream more.


People have long speculated about dreams. Dreams are mental experiences that we experience during REM sleep. What do people dream about? People mostly dream about themselves instead of public affairs and current events. Although dreams seem to come from a world of their own, there is often an obvious and observable link between our dreams and our waking life (Weiten, 2001). For example, we often dream about events and people in our life. Freud made this observation a long time ago. He said that contents from our waking life often spill into our world of dreams. Freud termed it day residue.

Experiments have shown that the content of our dreams can be affected by external stimuli experienced while you are dreaming. In one experiment, subjects were sprayed with water while they were in the REM stage of sleeping (Kalat, 1990). Some subjects woke up at this point, while others continued to sleep, and were woken up by the experimenter a short time later.  42% of the subjects had dreams related to water. For example, dreams about floods, rain and rivers. The integration of external stimuli into dreams shows that there is link between dreams and waking life.

Why do we dream? Sigmund Freud believed that we seek to fulfill our unmet needs and desires from waking life through wishful thinking in dreams. Hence, for Freud, the main purpose of dreams is wish fulfillment (Kalat, 1990). For example, if your sexual desires are not met in waking life, you may dream about sex more often.

According to Rosalind Cartwright (1991), the purpose of dreams is to provide us with an opportunity to solve everyday problems through engaging in creative thinking about problems because dreams are not restrained by logic and reason. For example, Cartwright found that women going through divorce often dreamed about their relationship problems. The main criticism of Cartwright’s theory is that just because people dream about their problems; it does not mean that they are dreaming up solutions to their problems as well.

Hobson and McCarley (1995) argue that dreams are a product of explosions of brain activity. Their activation-synthesis model suggests that dreams are the side effects of the brain activity produced during REM sleep. According to this model, neurons firing in the brain send random signals to the cerebral cortex. The cortex constructs a dream to make sense of the signals. The main criticism of the activation-synthesis model is that the model cannot be used to explain dreams that occur outside of REM sleep and that the content of dreams is more meaningful than what this model suggests.

All of these theories about dreams are just that – theories. There is not enough solid evidence to back-up these theories, and none of them have been tested properly due to the subjective nature of dreams, which makes it difficult to test the theories empirically. Hence, the purpose of dreams remains a mystery.


Sleep and dreams are familiar to everyone because we all experience it, however not all people have experiences with hypnosis. Hypnosis involves deliberate efforts to temporarily alter consciousness. Hypnosis is often used in psychoanalytic therapy to bring back past memories – bring unconscious memories or thoughts into consciousness again. Hypnosis is also often used to overcome addictions such as smoking ciggerates and gambling through the power of suggestion.

Hypnosis typically produces a heightened state of suggestibility through a systematic procedure. The typical procedure of hypnosis is: the hypnotist will suggest to the subject that he or she is relaxing. The hypnotist repeatedly and softly tells the subject that he or she is getting sleepy or tired. Then, the hypnotist describes in detail the bodily sensations that the subject should be experiencing. For example, their eyelids are getting heavy; every part of the body is totally relaxed and so on. Gradually, most subjects give in and become hypnotised. However, not everyone can be hypnotised. Different personality traits and the subject’s own beliefs about hypnosis may be the reason why some people are easily hypnotised and others not.

The EEG patterns of people while they are in hypnosis cannot be distinguished from the EEG patterns of normal waking states. This has led some theorists to believe that hypnosis is not an altered state of consciousness. According to Barber (1979), hypnotic effects are not produced by an altered state of consciousness; rather it is the expectations of the subject which produces hypnotic effects. For example, when Orne (1951), a hypnotist regressed subjects back to their childhood and asked them to describe it, the subjects responded with detailed descriptions of their childhood. However, when Orne (1951) checked this information with information he had obtained from the subjects’ parents, he found that many of the memories were invented. This evidence suggests that hyponotised subjects are often just acting out a role.

A popular explanation of hypnosis as an altered state of consciousness was offered by Ernest Hilgard. Hilgard suggested that hypnosis produces a dissociation in consciousness. Dissociation can be defined as a splitting of mental processes into two separate, simultaneous streams of consciousness or awareness.



Other than hypnosis, meditation is also often used to alter consciousness. We will now discuss how drugs are used to alter consciousness. This is often called recreational drug use. Let us discuss the types of drugs that are most commonly used for recreational purposes.

Psychoactive drugs can be defined as chemical substances that modify mental, emotional, or behavioral functioning.

Opiates are drugs that are derived from opium. Opium is derived from the opium poppy plant. The main drugs in this category are heroin, morphine, and codeine (cough mixture). Essentially, opiates numb you and make you sleep. Morphine is often used clinically to relieve severe and agonizing pain. ‘Pink Floyd’(an English rock band) describes the experience of taking heroin in one of their songs called ‘Comfortably Numb’. Heroin provides an escape and relief from the pain and suffering in life. However, it is also one of the most dangerous and addictive drugs.

Hallucinogens are drugs that induce hallucinations or distortions in sensory and perceptual experience. The main hallucinogens are LSD, mescaline and psilocybin (magic mushrooms). Hallucinogens typically increase sensory awareness, and leads to a distorted sense of time. Some people who have used hallucinogens have described it as a spiritual experience and others as a nightmare.

Cannabis is the hemp plant from which marijuana, hashish and THC are derived. THC is the active chemical ingredient in marijuana which is used for medical purposes in some countries to relieve nausea associated with chemotherapy, for arthritis and so on. Essentially, marijuana when smoked produces a mild, relaxed euphoric effect. Negative side effects after long-term use include impaired memory and anxiety.

Psychoactive drugs work by changing the activity of neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that transfer information from neuron to neuron. Amphetamines increases the release of norepinephrine and dopamine by neurotransmitters. When used for a long period of time, both cocaine and amphetamines can eventually lead to a depletion of dopamine and norepinephrine. Abusers often experience severe depression and emotional breakdowns due to the depletion of the ‘happy hormones’.

People can become either physically or psychologically addicted to a drug. Physical addiction refers to the state when you must continue to take a drug to avoid withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms from heroin and alcohol include fever, chills, vomiting, severe aches and pains. Most other drugs with the exception of heroin and alcohol make you psychologically dependant on them (Weiten, 2001). In fact, we can get psychologically addicted to just about anything, for example, shopping, sex, and chocolate.


Barber, T.X. (1979). Suggested (hypnotic) behaviour: The trance paradigm. In E. Fromm & R.E Shor (Eds.), Hypnosis: Developments in research and new perspectives. New York: Aldine.

Cartwright, R.D. (1991). Dreams that work: The relation of dream incorporation to adaptation to stressful events. Dreaming, 1, pg. 3-9.

Hobson, J.A. & McCarley, R.W. (1995). The brain as a dream state generator: An activation-synthesis hypothesis of the dream process. American Journal of Psychiatry, 134, pg. 1335-1348.

Huffman, K., Vernoy, M. & Vernoy, J. (1997). Psychology in Action (Fourth Ed.). John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Bab 4: Consciousness.

Kalat, J.W. (1990). Introduction to psychology (Second Ed.). Wadsworth, Inc.

Bab 4: Altered States.

Morris, C.G. & Maisto, A.A. (2001). Understanding psychology (5th ed.).       Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.

Bab 4: States of Consciousness.

Orne, M.T. (1951). The mechanisms of hypnotic age regression: An experimental study. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 46, pg. 213-225.

Weiten, W. (2001). Psychology Themes & Variations (Fifth Ed.). Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Bab 5: Variations in Consciousness.


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