Changes in Consciousness & Psychological Function

Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

In this lesson, we will review different levels of consciousness and how they can affect psychological function in terms of controlled and automatic processes, content limitations, cognitive distortions, emotional awareness, self control and time orientation.

What is Psychological Functioning and Consciousness?

When we speak of a person's psychological functioning, we are talking about how people use their senses, intuition, thinking and feelings to perceive their surroundings and the world around them. Our level of consciousness, or our level of awareness of our surroundings, can affect our psychological functioning in a variety of ways. For example, a student who is daydreaming about her crush, and not fully conscious of what the teacher is saying, may feel happy but has limited ability to think and focus on her school work.

Daydreaming is an altered state of consciousness that can heighten mood and reduce stress, but also decrease attention, focus and awareness of immediate surroundings.
Image of man daydreaming

Levels of Consciousness

To simplify, there are two categories of consciousness: normal waking consciousness (NWC) and an altered state of consciousness (ASC). NWC is when we are awake and fully aware of our surroundings. ASC is a spectrum that includes sleep, being in a coma, being on drugs/alcohol or meditating. ASC can be initiated purposefully like in the case of drugs/alcohol and meditation, or they can happen without awareness, like in daydreaming, amnesia, coma or sleep.

Meditation proves therapeutic in reducing stress because it brings the meditator to an altered state of consciousness where they can drop all negative thoughts and emotions and focus on a positive visualization or even their own breath.
Image of monk meditating

Psychological Processes and Functioning and Consciousness

Generally, our psychological functioning is at its best in higher levels of consciousness. Following are psychological processes and how consciousness affects each of them.

Controlled and Automatic Processes

Controlled processes are tasks that require great focus and attention, like taking a midterm exam. Automatic processes have been practiced and learned so much that they come naturally, like riding a bike or driving after years of driving.

In NWC, one can perform a controlled process with an automatic process. Imagine a person who makes macaroni and cheese every night so much that it becomes an automatic process. They could easily carry on a conversation on the phone with a friend (a controlled process) while making their nightly macaroni. Yet, if this person decides to venture out and make a more complicated recipe, they will need more cognitive attention directed towards cooking, and they won't be able to perform a controlled task like talking on the phone as well.

As one could imagine, one's ability to perform automatic processes might not be affected in an ASC, but their ability to do controlled processes will most likely be negatively affected by their altered state of consciousness.

Content Limitations

In NWC, our thoughts can sometimes cause negative emotions such as stress, embarrassment, guilt or shame, and content limitations are pushing this stimuli and thoughts out of the mind to avoid these negative emotions. For example, a middle-school girl fell on stage during her talent show performance. Her psychological function of thought limitations will push thoughts of this accident out of her mind so that she can stop feeling so embarrassed and ashamed.

Sometimes a person willingly enters an ASC in order to have content limitations, like in the case of meditation, use of alcohol or drugs, or positive visualization exercises. On the other hand, in the ASC of sleep, coma or amnesia, thought limitations are not possible.

Perceptual and Cognitive Distortions

When we perceive something, we are giving meaning to it. When we use cognition, we are problem solving, using logic, analyzing and organizing information. When we are in NWC (and mentally stable), we can perceive and think clearly and rationally for the most part. On the converse, ASC can make it more likely that we will experience perceptual and cognitive distortions. For example, a woman who is in an ASC because she is intoxicated may mistakingly perceive a look from a cop as being aggressive when he was really just observing her to make sure that she was okay.

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