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Summary: Consciousness

Psychology started as the science of consciousness in the mid-1800s, but by 1920 most psychologists had abandoned introspection for behavioral techniques. Consciousness was not studied intensively again until new techniques such as brain-scanning arrived in the 1980s and 1990s.

When people are thinking about day-to-day events without focusing on any goal-directed task, a circuit of densely-connected brain areas is active. This is called the Default Mode Network (DMN).

The DMN is quieted when people have their attention drawn to a specific external task. It is also quieted during meditative states.

George Mandler, a cognitive psycho­logist, suggested that conscious thought is required when we deal with novel or unexpected events, notably learning, making judgments and troubleshooting.

Once an activity such as driving is well learned, we can do it automatically. However, when first learning how to perform such an activity, we must pay attention or devote conscious awareness to the task. Even after the activity is automatic, unusual events make us pay attention.

Acts of learning seem to begin with unconscious processes. Experi­ments on implicit learning show that people can sense a pattern (and can make correct responses based upon it) long before they can describe the pattern accurately in words.

The anterior cingulate gyrus in the frontal lobes apparently plays a role in control­ling attention and in planning. This is commonly called executive activity by cognitive scientists.

Neisser suggested in 1963 that mental processes come in two distinct varieties. One variety is conscious, step-by-step, and subject to executive control. Bruner labeled that analytic thought. The other type of mental process is passive, parallel, and harder to control. Bruner called it intuitive.

Similar proposals for two modes of consciousness have appeared numerous times in the psychology literature. Kahneman discussed the same dis­tinction in a best-seller: Thinking: Fast and Slow (2011).


Write to Dr. Dewey at psywww@gmail.com.


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