Levels of Consciousness: Definition & Characteristics

Levels of Consciousness: Definition & Characteristics
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  • 0:03 Consciousness
  • 1:33 The Subconscious
  • 3:28 Altered States
  • 5:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The mind is an incredible thing, responsible for processing lots of information at once. In this lesson, we're going to look at the levels of consciousness that allow this to happen and see how our awareness is created.


Where are you right now? What are you doing? How can you be sure? In terms of psychology, studies of the consciousness, or of the ways we know what our bodies are experiencing, is pretty fascinating. Every single thing that we experience from the heaviest emotions to the lightest breeze has to be interpreted by the brain. However, this can be done in a number of ways, and consciousness itself actually occurs on a number of levels. So, let's take a tour through the levels of your mind and see how you're able to understand the world around you.

Our tour of consciousness begins on the ground floor: the conscious level itself. The conscious level of your mind is where information about your current situation is handled. What are you thinking about? What is your mind focused on? Hopefully, right now the conscious level of your brain is focused on understanding this lesson. If not, then- hey- pay attention.

The conscious level of thought is what's going through your mind right now. However, not all the information in your mind is relevant. For example: what did you have for dinner last Saturday? Chances are you weren't thinking about that meal until just now. Then your mind recalled it, and you were able to remember; but if that information wasn't already on your conscious mind, then where was it?

The preconscious level of thought handles information that you aren't thinking about at this exact moment, but which may need to be recalled. Memories are stored in the preconscious level once the conscious level is no longer using them, but they can return to conscious thought.

The Subconscious

Let's take this a little deeper. The subconscious level handles information occurring below your level of awareness. You never know that the subconscious is active or what it's doing, but we can tell it's there because of our physical or biological responses.

Try this: Hold out your hand, palm facing up, and imagine holding your favorite kind of candy. Did you notice how your mouth began to water? Consciously, you know that there is no candy in your hand, but thinking about it produced an involuntary reflex based on the subconscious' response to the idea of candy. Your subconscious mind has a greater degree of influence over your behavior than you may realize. When you get really good at something and your mind handles it on auto-pilot, that's the subconscious at work. When you react instinctively to someone scaring you, that reaction is controlled by the subconscious. It's not something we can control or consciously tap into, but it's part of who we are.

If the subconscious is our third level of consciousness, then in the back corner of this level under a dim light is a rusty, bolted door labeled the unconscious level. The unconscious level is where the subconscious stores urges that it knows to be socially unacceptable, including various violent or sexual impulses. The nature of this level is very controversial, as it's never been fully proven. Some psychologists think it's part of the subconscious; some think it constitutes its own level; and many don't believe it really exists at all.

Finally, we get to the last of the normal levels of consciousness: the nonconscious level. The nonconscious level is the one that regulates all of your body's systems without you having to think about it. How often do you blink? How long do you inhale or exhale? If you were consciously thinking about these things all of the time, you'd go crazy. Yes, you control them consciously, but the nonconscious level of thought is what keeps body processes running when you're not thinking about it, which is most of the time.

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