States of Consciousness

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In terms of human consciousness, we readily recognise the fundamental states of:

  • Waking consciousness (our normal state)
  • Dreaming sleep
  • Dreamless sleep

We term these separate states of consciousness.  We need daily amounts of all three states to remain alive and healthy.  Occasionally something can happen and put us into an altered state of consciousness – we are awake but not experiencing the world around us as we normally do.  This can happen through taking drugs, in the operating theatre at hospital, through a crisis or near death experience, when plunged in to cold water (mammalian diving reflex), etc.  We know that drugs can affect the Insular Cortex and TPJ in the Parietal Lobe, and that long periods of meditation can also induce similar experiences, but does this account for everything?  Are these experiences abnormal malfunctions due to a fault somewhere, or are they little snippets of a view to a wider conscious experience?

We also recognise the terms:

unconsciousiceberg.pngI have repeatedly referred to the Limbic and reptilian parts of the brain as being unconscious.  This doesn’t mean that they are dumb or stupid or not “alive“.  The unconscious brain is very much alive and absolutely vital to our health and survival.  It is the one that is really in control!  These brain structures have successfully looked after the survival of animals on this planet for millions of years before humans arrived.  The unconscious brain is living with some degree of consciousness flowing through it – exactly the same level level of consciousness used by other creatures on this planet.  In humans we call it unconscious because we have no awareness of what is going on in there from our normal waking state.  When we are sleeping this consciousness is still operating, but we aren’t aware of it.  When we are awake it is also still operating – and we still aren’t aware of it.

Basic Awareness

Firstly, what are the requirements for basic awareness?  The Ascending Reticular Activation System (ARAS) needs to be active.  There are nuclei deep within the brainstem that need to be active generating the neurotransmitters such as serotonin, glutamate, dopamine, acetylcholine, etc.  Without those the brain will not operate.  The claustrum in the Basal Ganglia seems to be the fundamental awake/sleep switch.  At this point sensory information should be flowing through the Thalamus and the centres of self-awareness and consciousness in Insular Cortex and Anterior Cingulate should be active.  The Salience Network and the Default Mode Network will be active.  We are now self-aware and can respond to external events.  Francis Crick (the same one that discovered DNA in 1953) has noted that our normal conscious awareness state seems to occur when our brain waves reach a frequency of about 40 Hz.  More on that later.


We define subconscious as that part of the unconscious with which we may have some vague awareness of something going on.  In the summary diagram (below) I have roughly defined the Temporal, Parietal, Occipetal Lobes and Insular cortex in the category of subconscious.    Falling in and out of dreaming sleep is one occasion where we may get a glimpse of what is going on in the Limbic brain.  Meditation is another activity which can help to provide insight.

overview 3

We do not have any conscious awareness of the processes going on in the brainstem or Limbic Lobe.  We cannot control it.  If some external event is causing our amygdala to get angry or express fear, we can attempt to suppress it from the Frontal lobe, but we can’t alter the programming of the amygdala at source.  The subconscious processes are ones that we may have some insight into what is going on, and therefore the possibility of consciously changing it.  That said, there is a lot of fantastic processing that goes on in the visual, auditory and sensory cortex’s that support our daily activities and that we certainly would not want to change.  The ability to immediately recognise faces, identify sounds, recognise words and symbols.  Some of these automatic subconscious processes that we may wish to improve could include:

  • Ability to filter out unwanted sensory information and focus attention
  • Recall from memory

Further discussion on the possible state of Super-consciousness.