Awareness as Consciousness

It is helpful to know a little about awareness, which is usually considered to be the same as consciousness, which is part of a process we think of as mind, which goes on in the brain. In passing I should mention that it is more accurate to say that all of this goes on in the central nervous system, which includes the brain.

As portrayed in figure 1, the mind consists of a continuum that runs from consciousness to what is generally referred to as the subconscious or unconscious. There are four key qualities or values of the human mind that it is important to understand. More will be added to this list later, but for now the main concepts are unity, functional division, liminal shifting, and dominance.

conscious-subconscious mind graphic
Figure 1. Model of the human mind with its major divisions of conscious and subconscious.

Mental Unity

The concept of mental unity means that no matter how many ways we conceptually divide it up, there is just one mind. This is illustrated in figure 1. There is no discernible border in this illustration because consciousness becomes subconsciousness with no line drawn between to delineate one area from the other.

You would not say you have two houses because you have a basement and an upstairs. In the same way, even though there is a “basement” to your mind it is still just one mind from top to bottom. Consciousness is at one end and subconsciousness at the other. Our terminology sometimes causes difficulties because we refer to the conscious mind and the subconscious mind as if they were two separate entities. There are not; this is just a convenient shorthand notation to avoid a lot of extra words.

Sometimes the left side of the brain is referred to as the conscious side; the right side, the subconscious side. There definitely are left and right-side concomitants to the mind. For instance, speech is a conscious phenomenon and our speech centers are on the left side of the brain. On the other side, for example, is creativity which is more of aright-brain phenomenon. But to say that consciousness belongs entirely and exclusively to one side, and unconsciousness the other side, is too simple.

Functional Division

The functions and operational methods of the conscious and sub-conscious parts of the mind are different. Even though there is no hard and fast border delineating the conscious from the subconscious, they nonetheless function differently. You have a good idea of how your consciousness works because that is the part you are always thinking with. Or that you think you are thinking with. The real surprises in mental functioning come when we take up the subconscious part of mind in the next chapter. For now, accept the notion that conscious and subconscious processes are quite different and be prepared to be surprised if this is your first look into the subconscious part of your mind.

Liminal Shifting

The border between consciousness and subconsciousness fluctuates. The band of change from consciousness to subconsciousness is constantly moving. The width of the band changes, and so does the relative position of the band. In most cases the range of change is not great, but it does not take much change to make a noticeable difference.

To comprehend liminal shifting, take the model of the mind as ball from figure 1 and imagine it in water. Assume that the ball just barely floats so that only a small percent of it is above the surface at any time. This is represented in figure 2.

mind model showing conscious and subconscious areas
Figure 2. Model of mind showing consciousness (above water line) and subconscious mind (below water line).

Assume further that the ball maintains its basic orientation in the water—the subconscious part is always down—but the ball does roll slightly in the water. It also bobs up and down, which changes how submerged the ball is from one moment to the next. Another variable is represented by the surface of the water, which is not smooth. This further changes the ill-defined border between the conscious and subconscious parts of the mind.

If you are beginning to get the impression that it is difficult to define the differences between consciousness and subconsciousness, you’re right. It is always changing, within limits, and the ways this liminal shifting influences our mental functioning are complicated and difficult to capture in a simple example.

Certain kinds of mental performance depend on conscious processes, while others depend on those of the subconscious. Consider for instance the differences between giving a speech and painting a picture. A good speech would seem to require mostly conscious skill because language and talking are pretty much conscious phenomena. Thus a speech given on a high-conscious day will in general be better than one delivered on a low-conscious (and perhaps high-subconscious) day.

Conversely, artistic functioning like painting or sculpting involves a lot of subconscious processes. Creative functioning will be better at those times when consciousness is lower and subconsciousness is higher.

But nothing mental is ever this simple. Seemingly conscious activities like public speaking are heavily influenced by subconscious dynamics, especially as they relate to subliminal communication (next chapter). And when talking about creative production we cannot dismiss the essential role of consciousness. Most mental activities that result in higher order behavior – art, speech, sports, whatever – require both parts of the mind. It is safe to say that liminal shifting has some influence on everything we say and do. We will be able to use this to our benefit when we begin to formulate and apply suggestion.

There are definite limits to liminal shifting. Thus there are areas of the conscious part of the mind that are always conscious when we are awake, and there are areas of the subconscious that are never accessible to consciousness. That is, they always remain subconscious.

The ebb and flow of consciousness (or subconsciousness if you are looking at it from the other direction) occurs naturally but it is also influenced by what we do, eat, drink, smoke or breathe. And the amount of sleep we get. Lack of sleep can really make you nuts.Sleep deprivation can quite literally throw you into a psychotic state. Enforced, severe sleep deprivation was for many years a favorite method of inducing temporary psychosis in volunteers so psychologists could study mental illness. This practice ended when it was discovered that the subjects’ mental state did not immediately return to normal with a good night’s sleep. It was found that it could take weeks of normal sleep to return to mental normalcy. Keep this in mind. If you are continually shorting yourself on the amount of sleep you need, you might be driving yourself insane.

Numerous rhythms work on us to vary our conscious-to-subconscious ratio at any given time. Lunar rhythms cycle approximately monthly. Diurnal rhythms that cycle twice a day. There are shorter and longer cycling rhythms, some that may take years. All of them influence our conscious-to-subconscious ratio. Complicated as this ball-in-the-water model of mind may seem, it comes nowhere near the actual complexity of just this one aspect of mental functioning.

But let’s take one more look at the model of the mind in figure 2. Imagine that the water is not very clear and you can see only a little way down into it. The area between the water line and where you can no longer see the ball represents the liminal band between consciousness and subconsciousness. All mental events that take place below the liminal band are subliminal (subconscious; unconscious) and everything above it is supraliminal (conscious; aware).

Dominance

Most of us, most of the time, nurture the belief that we are consciously in control of ourselves and direct our lives with rational thought. The fact is we are not as much in conscious control as we like to think. It is actually the subconscious part of the mind that is dominant at all times, or at least potentially so. The subconscious does not exercise its dominance every moment of the day, but it can take control at any time and in any situation.

So what does this have to say about free will? We actually have a great deal of freedom to consciously guide our lives. There is no way to quantify this. I used to guess at about 90 percent of the time. These days, though, I have to lower my estimate to no more than 60 to 70 percent of the time that we are consciously in control. But even that lowered figment of time of conscious control is enough for us to get ourselves into plenty of trouble. It is only when we start to do something that violates subconscious values or needs that the subconscious intervenesSuicide and other forms of self-destructive behavior are cases resulting from psychopathology that is not the norm..

With this concept of conscious control we are entering the domain of the things we want to do but somehow can’t, or don’t seem to be able to. Weight loss and quitting smoking are two obvious examples. So too is the ability to concentrate on an uninteresting subject for any length of time.

Some people can quit smoking or drop pounds almost effortlessly. They are the lucky ones for whom there is only a very weak subconscious need to smoke or be overweight. At the other extreme are those people who seem unable to quit smoking or control their weight no matter how hard they try. They have subconscious needs that cannot be overcome by conscious desires or decisions. No matter how much they consciously want to do it—no matter how much so-called “willpower” they exert—they fail. The subconscious is in control. Fortunately there are ways around this. We’ll get into that later.

There is an aside I should make here before moving on. Over the past few years behavioral and social scientists have begun working with geneticists to look into the ways genomic differences among human beings are linked to differences in behavior and social outcomes. The fundamental question being investigated is this: Is there a genetic basis for the differences in levels of success and failure? Why is education difficult for some, easy for others? Or how about mental states in general—are emotionally secure people that way because they are genetically different from those who are not?

It is too soon to have definitive answers to these questions, and we have to be careful because there have been earlier claims that genetic factors lead to success or failure. It cannot now be said with any confidence that what we achieve is due in part to what we drew in the genetic lottery. I personally believe this to be the case, but we will have to wait for more conclusive evidence before going that far.

On to part 3.