Have you ever wondered what consciousness actually is but never really found a satisfactory answer? Are you interested in basing your ideas on sound research? Then this article will help you. Here I outline three great articles that will help you understand more about consciousness, and that will give you a complete introduction to this complex topic from the fields of psychology, philosophy and neuroscience.
I’ll tell you exactly how they will help and why you’d do well to have them in your ‘favourites’ if you’re in any way serious about understanding consciousness.
Before I do that, I need to just point out a few things:
- First, these articles represent only what might be called the standard or the mainstream scientific views on consciousness. I’m not suggesting any writings here on any unorthodox positions, which I’ll cover in a future article
- Second, I’m going to give you one introductory-level resource and two advanced-level resources, for those of you who want to start going deeper or get a high-level overview of the main points and issues
- Third, I’ve focused only on what can be found on the Internet for free. There’s plenty of books you could buy, but I’ll deal with those in a future article.
The point of this short article is to help people develop their understanding of consciousness. If you’re interested in developing your own consciousness, it’s a good idea to try and know what it is, and a good starting place is what the mainstream view of it is.
So, let’s get straight to it.
Article 1: “What is consciousness?” by Very Well Mind
The first article is by Very Well Mind and its title is simply ‘What is consciousness?’. It’s very easy to read and by the end of reading it you’ll have a really good basic idea of what consciousness is. In other words, if you went to the café or the bar and a total stranger asked you what consciousness is, you would be easily able to answer them and be easily understood.
Depending on how fast you read and process information, I’d say this article can be read in anything from three and half minutes upwards. A good indicator is gained from the Hemingway App, which you gives you some quick readability statistics. It gives the reading time and reading level, suggesting this article is about reading level 9. This indicates the level of education measured in US grades a person needs to have to understand the text i.e. in this case, 9th grade or 9 years of post-kindergarten education.
The article is broken down into easily manageable chunks, and gives you the most essential information. It provides a very good and simple definition, outlines different types and states of consciousness, talks a bit about what to do if you’re unsure about any changes in your own consciousness (hint: seek advice and support), and gives you a bit of history of the study of consciousness.
It provides mainly a psychological take on consciousness, but this is not a weakness, since the other resources I’m going to give you will amply fill in the gaps. Nevertheless, it does touch on the main neuroscientific and philosophical points to follow up with. What I really like is the very simple outline and introduction to two dominant theories of consciousness: Integrated Information Theory and Global Workspace Theory. These are normally really hard to summarise, and it’s hard to find a good, quick overview, so this article does a good job.
All in all, to get a rounded, simple overview of the main points from the standard view about consciousness in under five minutes, have a look at this Very Well Mind article.
A good point to make here is that for most people who just want to get a handle on what consciousness is, this article is ideal. Most won’t want to go any further. But for those who want to go deeper, I’ve got two great articles for you.
Article 2: “Consciousness”, written by Rocco Gennaro for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
The first of my recommendations for further reading is “Consciousness”, written by Rocco Gennaro for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. According to the Hemingway app it’ll take about 1h10 minutes to read and is at 13th grade reading level. My view is that it will actually take much, much longer to read if the topic or its treatment is unfamiliar, or if you want to make notes. However, the rewards are many as by the end of reading this article you’ll have acquired a thorough introduction to all the standard philosophical ideas and positions on consciousness.
The best thing about this article is that you don’t need to be a philosopher to understand it. Much academic philosophy on consciousness and the mind would be difficult to understand for many people, but this article does a great job at making the whole topic as it is in philosophy readable and accessible.
Here’s a quick overview of this book chapter-length article:
- In parts 1, 2 and 3, you’ll find the most interesting bits, which are all about introducing you to the main philosophical terrain on consciousness. If you don’t finish the article, read these three parts at least and you’ll be in good stead
- Part 4 goes into more detail on the specific theories of consciousness only hinted at in the Very Well Mind article. However, at the time of this review the article is a bit out of date on all the latest developments (I think it was last updated in 2011/12). Still, it will give you a really good introduction to those fields so that reading the latest developments will make much more sense
- The article ends with some other issues in the science of consciousness that have generated interest from philosophers. There’s also an extensive reference list for further reading
If you want to really understand the heart of the subject of consciousness, then this article will help you navigate the field and know how to place everything you come across in your further research. It will also help you get a really good overview if you’ve been reading up on consciousness for a while and are getting a bit lost in all the detail. By the end of reading this article, especially if you’ve taken notes and felt like you’ve got a good grasp of everything, you’d be well placed to have a really good conversation about it and articulate where you generally stand in relation to the various mainstream positions on consciousness.
Article 3: Brain (A Journal of Neurology, Oxford University Press)
This final article in Brain: A Journal of Neurology by Adam Zeman gives you even more details and info about the neurological or the neurophysiological side of consciousness research. All three articles touch on the psychology, philosophy and neurobiological ideas about consciousness, but they all emphasise these differently. This one places more emphasis on the brain, so if that interests you then do have a look at it.
Again, it’s quite high-level – according to Hemingway, it takes about the same amount of time to read as the previous article, but it is more complex. It puts it at grade 16, so yes, more challenging, but with a bit of time and effort I believe anyone can understand it. It will pay off. By the end of this article, you’ll have a really good grasp of the neuropsychological basics when it comes to consciousness. Again, this article is quite old now – about twenty years, but it still ranks highly and is a great reference and starting point for further, up-to-date research.
As a quick outline of this article: it starts with another great overview of different meanings of consciousness, including definitions of self-consciousness, so you’ll get a good grounding in that sub-topic. Then a good chunk of the text is dedicated to brain anatomy, like brain electricity, and the neuroscience of awareness. So you get a good intro to things like brain waves and exciting stuff like that. It’s a really good way to improve your knowledge of what parts of the brain are involved in different aspects of conscious experience.
The article ends by talking again about different theories of consciousness and the basic philosophical positions, which you’ll already be very familiar with by now. So as you can see, this article will really supplement your knowledge on the neuroscience of consciousness, and all that important stuff about the brain. I think if you read this article, you’d be well prepared to read any of the books on neuroscience that are available out there.
So that’s it, there’s three great resources that will help you in your answer to the question ‘what is consciousness’. It’s a complex question and it’s always good to keep reading widely on the matter if you want to be more expert in knowing what’s going on up ‘there’. These articles are all top hits when you search for consciousness on Google, so even though they were written some time ago, they’ve sort of stood the test of time and the points they make are still valid. As I said, they will help you get a complete introduction to the contemporary study of consciousness, but they won’t make you an expert. You’ll know more about the mainstream psychology, philosophy and neuroscience of consciousness by reading these three articles, and this will prepare you for further research in those fields.