Consciousness is a persons awareness of his or her inner world, the most private place where thoughts and feelings are formed and impressions and experiences are processed.
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Automatic Tasks Versus Conscious Choices
Here is a test: Try to write down all the steps you followed in getting dressed this morning. Did you put on your pants or your top first? Which shoe went on first? What steps did you take to tie your shoes? This is likely to be a tough test, because getting dressed, brushing teeth, or tying shoes are automatic tasks that can be done without much thought. Other examples of automatic tasks include riding a bike, playing a sport, and dialing a phone number from memory. These tasks may seem difficult when we learn them for the first time, but they soon become so familiar that we do not have to focus our conscious minds on them. Without even realizing it, we rely on learned routines to complete them efficiently.
Automatic processing is not always enough for what someone needs to do. This is when the conscious mind takes over. Whether a person is mastering a new concept, focusing on a challenging book, writing a school paper, deciding how to spend the afternoon, or reacting to criticism from a friend, for example, that person is mindful, or conscious, of what he or she is thinking, feeling, saying, or doing. These and other tasks require the mind to be aware of the inside and the outside world, instead of relying on set automatic routines. It appears that "consciousness" gives human beings the awareness to be flexible in dealing with new situations and an ever-changing environment. Consciousness is a state of being aware and paying attention to thoughts, feelings, ideas, and actions at a given moment.
Generally, it is believed that the mechanisms of consciousness are controlled by the cerebral cortex, the upper wrinkled layer of the brain where higher functions, such as perception, memory, intelligence, and control of skilled movements, also are carried out. But it is not known whether scientists will ever be able to explain consciousness fully as a solely physical process carried out within the brain. This issue has been debated intensely over the years and likely will continue to be a topic of disagreement among experts. Consciousness has proved to be one of the most difficult functions to define, even though everyone experiences it.
Philosophy, Psychology, and Neuroscience:
The "Hard Problem" of Consciousness
Scientists, physicians, and psychologists, who are specially trained to study the structure, function, and biology of the brain and nervous system, have made great strides in understanding how different brain regions and brain chemicals are involved in producing emotions such as anxiety, sadness, fear, and happiness. Using advanced brain imaging techniques, they also are gaining a better understanding of how different portions of the brain play a part in speaking, listening, processing information, and other activities.
Some researchers in the emerging field known as "consciousness studies" believe that one day we will understand consciousness more fully in this way as well. They include not only psychologists * and scientists but also some philosophers. Philosophy is the study of the nature of the mind and of the role of thought in how we experience and deal with the world around us, including ethics * , morality, decision making, motivation, and beliefs. These researchers believe that eventually we will be able to "map" the process we understand as consciousness within the brain, explaining it in terms of the connections and messaging among nerve cells of the brain. They believe that consciousness will come to be understood as the product of the sophisticated machinery of the human brain, just as emotions have begun to be understood in this way.
* psychologists (sy-KOL-o-jists)are mental health professionals who treat mental and behav-ioral disorders by support and insight to encourage healthy behavior patterns and personality growth. Psychologists also study the brain, behavior, emotions, and learning.
* ethics is a guiding set of principles for conduct, a system of moral values.
Other researchers disagree. They contend that the so-called hard problem of consciousness will remain something of a mystery. The "hard problem" of consciousness refers to the question of how the physical brain can give rise to the unique experiences that we each have in relation to the external world. These experts do not dispute the brain's role in taking in, processing, and interpreting concrete information from the outside world. For example, two people at the same concert hear the same music thanks to the inner ear's auditory nerve, which sends along impulses to the brain, where they are processed in the region that controls hearing. But this does not explain the inner aspect of thought and perception or the way the music "feels" for each person. If listeners were asked to share their innermost thoughts while hearing the music, they likely would have very different responses based on personal experiences. For this reason, some experts contend that we will never be able to "locate" consciousness entirely within the structures and chemical processes of the brain. For them, it is too complex to explain consciousness fully in terms of gray matter and brain chemicals; instead, they argue that consciousness also draws on experiences and thoughts that are the essence of being human (and cannot be defined or measured).
The field of consciousness studies has brought together philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists * , physicians, and other researchers to discuss this and other issues related to understanding consciousness. Their first major gathering was held in Tucson, Arizona, in 1994, and many meetings have been held since then. This is a young field of study and research, but it holds great promise for furthering our understanding of the mind.
* neuroscientists are scientists who study the nerves and nervous system, especially their relationship to learning and behavior.
Brynie, Faith Hickman. 101 Questions Your Brain Has Asked About Itself But Couldn't Answer … Until Now. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1998. The book contains sections on learning memory, and even music and the brain.