Psychology, at its core, is a study of how the mind works. Not the physical brain - the mind. The mind that has an internal monologue, that makes split-second decisions or judgments, that is conscious of our existence.
The conscious mind, along with the unconscious mind, has directed many fascinating discussions and fields of study within the larger world of psychology. Not every theory within the world of consciousness can be proved, but the few voices that have paved the way in these fields have been greatly lauded or seen as dangerous figureheads.
Still, curious minds continue to discuss, research, and debate issues surrounding consciousness. Are you one of these curious minds? We have plenty of content for you to explore.
What Is Consciousness?
Consciousness is, simply, the awareness of existence. When you look around and see your chair, the walls, and your computer, you know that you are conscious.
That’s about as much as scientists, psychologists, and philosophers can agree upon. The true nature of consciousness, including when it starts, when it ends, and how it might be connected to other states of being, is heavily debated among experts. A religious leader may think one thing; a psychologist another.
Fields of Study that Focus on Consciousness
Debates surrounding questions of consciousness have encouraged people to study consciousness since the days of the ancient philosophers. Plato equated consciousness to power. Socrates believed that consciousness was eternal, and not one with the body. Artistole’s work is not directly translated to consciousness, but some of his ideas have been interpreted as related to this concept.
The earliest psychologists also studied consciousness, from wanting to break it down to wanting to study the other side of consciousness: unconsciousness.
The earliest psychologists were known as the “structuralists,” as they wanted to bring structure to the study of the mind. Other scientists had an easy go of categorizing and organizing concepts. Biologists could characterize a creature as an animal, plant, or fungi - chemists could categorize an element or a substance. Why couldn’t psychologists do the same with consciousness?
Although structuralism was short-lived, we continue to recognize it for its role in early psychology.
Psychodynamics is what really put consciousness and unconsciousness on the map. This approach is an umbrella term that covers the work and idea of Sigmund Freud and all that follow him. A long list of psychologists both worked with Freud and broke away from Freud to study their own views of the conscious and unconscious mind. The world wouldn’t know the ideas of Carl Jung, Erik Erikson, use dream interpretations, word association, or even the modern version of talk therapy without Sigmund Freud and psychodynamics.
Stoicism is an approach to psychology that appears in both ancient works and modern treatments. The early Stoics looked at ways that we perceive and deal with emotions: Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Our life is what our thoughts make it.” That sounds like a pretty up-to-date view on consciousness and psychology, right?
That’s why Aaron Beck was so influenced by those ideas as he developed the theories now known as cognitive psychology and cognitive behavioral therapy. When you go into a therapist’s office today, they are less likely to ask you about your dreams from the previous night and more likely to ask you how you perceive your divorce, the loss of a friendship, or the thing that your boss said to you at work the other day. For that, we can thank the Stoics.
Theories About Consciousness
The Psyche, not surprisingly, is the center of “psychology.” This term refers to what you may casually refer to as “the mind.” All of the thoughts that you are thinking right now, all of the times you have experienced intrusive thoughts or made split-second decisions all come from the psyche.
Plato was the first person to really introduce the ideas of the psyche. In his early works, this is also translated as “the soul.” The philosopher believed three things about the psyche:
“The rational soul seeks the truth through logic, facts, and reason.
The spirited soul uses emotions to make decisions and take action.
The appetitive soul covers physiological needs, like food and sex.”
If you are familiar with Freud’s views on the psyche, these ideas might seem familiar. Other psychologists in psychodynamics also had similar, but not identical, views on the psyche and how it influenced the way we think, behave, and live.
Ego, Id, and Superego
Freud went so far as to give specific names to the three parts of the psyche that he identified. Not only that, but he also theorized on the drama that occurs among the trio.
The “Id” is similar to the appetitive soul, as it is focused on our most primitive needs. This part of the psyche is motivated by the sex instinct and the death instinct. This is the part of the psyche that often leads people astray in modern society.
The “SuperEgo” isn’t entirely the rational or the spirited soul, but rather follows a moral code set by society. This is the part of the psyche that follows the rules of “no shirts, no shoes, no service” despite any primitive urges to walk around barefoot or shirtless.
The “Ego” is the force that aims to reconcile between the two. It wants to make decisions, like the spirited soul, but isn’t devoid of logic and reason. If the compromise between our primitive urges and the rules of society tells us to use logic and facts, the Ego is on board with that idea.
The Ego, in addition to being a great mediator, is a goal-setter. The Ego sees an ideal self that we strive to be. As we are faced with choices, we either make decisions that are Ego Syntonic (which are aligned with our self-image) or Ego Dystonic (not aligned with our self-image.)
Nowadays, our psychology classes tend to focus on what we are consciously thinking and perceiving. Underneath this consciousness, however, is instinct. We all have instincts that we can’t describe. Animals have instincts that keep them alive. Freud believed that part of our psyche was motivated by two instincts in particular.
Instinct Theory, for a while, looked at those unconscious urges that brought sea turtles back to their home beaches or motivated humans to engage in bizarre acts. But Instinct Theory has been replaced by other theories about what drives us. Rather than refer to the death instinct, we might look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs or Drive-Reduction Theory to assess why we might perform certain behaviors. Still, like all theories in psychology, it is helpful to consider them in our modern studies.
Is the Psyche actually the soul? Is it solely the mind, or is it one with the body? Is the mind the sum of its parts, and are the mind and body together the sum of their parts?
I know these are big questions. They speak to one of the biggest debates in psychology: the mind-body debate. The debate rages on between whether the mind and the body are one in the same, or whether they might be separate. The problem with this debate is that, as of right now, there is no real way to settle the debate. We simply can’t remove the mind from the physical body. Freaky Friday is just a movie. At the same time, we must not give up hope. There are so many things that psychologists can study now that they were not able to study in the past!
Psychologists to Know
Wiliam James is a pillar in American psychology. He was the first person in the United States to offer psychology as a course in higher education! Some of the ideas that he first shared in his early years at Harvard are still a part of psychology curricula today. There are two concepts that make William James stand out from other psychologists: the James-Lange Theory of Emotion and the “stream of thought.”
James-Lange Theory of Emotion
Consciousness, perception, emotion, and behaviors are often part of a psychologist’s “chicken or the egg” scenario. Do we perceive something first and then feel emotion? Does our emotion influence our physical reaction, or vice versa?
William James and Carl Lange attempted to answer this question with what is now known as the James-Lange Theory of Emotion. They believed that after a person perceived a stimuli, they felt a physical sensation, which was translated into an emotion. Rather than thinking that you’re having a panic attack and then feeling your chest tighten, you feel your chest tighten and then think to yourself, “I must be panicking.”
Other theories of emotion have been developed since the days of William James.
Stream of Thought
William James was also the person who coined the term “stream of thought” or “stream of consciousness.” This idea, that we are constantly thinking and jumping from one thought to the next, was a direct response to the idea of structuralism. How can we structure our mind’s thoughts when there are an infinite amount of ways to connect them? One minute, we are thinking about work. The next minute, we are asking ourselves whether the bully from third grade would remember us. The next minute, we are trying to figure out what to cook for dinner.
Like many concepts related to the broader idea of consciousness, it’s not easy to study and get definitive answers on how our stream of thought works. We can’t read minds!
Sigmund Freud is considered, by many, to be the father of modern psychology. He had a clear vision of how the psyche works, how it helps people make decisions, and why people may have developed certain quirks or even mental disorders. While very few of these musings are used in practice today, his influence is undeniable.
In addition to his work on the Id, Ego, and Superego, the following concepts were central to Freud’s work.
Stages of Psychosexual Development
The memories that we made as children and our early experiences certainly have an impact on who we become as adults - it’s hard to dispute that. But Freud’s Stages of Psychosexual Development take this idea further. Some say that this theory took things too far.
The theory describes five different stages that we begin at birth and continue experiencing throughout adulthood. At each stage, the person seeks pleasure from a specific part of the body, including the mouth and anus. If there are conflicts during each of these stages, the child will grow into an adult who has “issues” around that area.
During the work surrounding this theory, Freud also developed the idea of the Oedipal Complex. Basically, boys grow up with a sexual attraction to their mother and the urge to harm and replace their father. Once again, Greek influence is found in Freud’s work.
As strange as these ideas may seem decades later, Freud’s work was monumentally influential and encouraged a lot of psychologists to study their own theories on parenthood, childhood, and behavior.
Carl Jung was one of these psychologists. He originally worked side by side with Freud, but eventually broke away from the psychologist to pursue his own theories. Many of Jung’s theories overlap with Freud.
The Makeup of the Psyche
Freud and Jung believed in the existence of the ego as a part of the human psyche. But instead of the Id and the Superego, Jung believed that the other two parts of the psyche were the personal unconscious, and collective unconscious.
The collective unconscious is especially interesting; it is an unconscious that is innate to all humans. It really throws a wrench in the nature vs. nurture debate!
In addition to his work on consciousness, Jung also studied different types of personalities and “archetypes” that people fit into. If you have ever taken a Myers-Briggs test, you can thank Carl Jung.
The Electra Complex
Another Jungian concept influenced by Freud was that of the Electra Complex. Jung developed this idea as he worked with Freud; it is the “female version” of the Oedipal Complex. To this day, gender and sexuality are typically at the center of the critical conversations regarding Freud’s work, and is ultimately the reason why Jung and Freud parted ways.