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The Difference Between Being Awake and Being Conscious

Do an experiment on yourself demonstrating the nature of consciousness

I want to explore the notion that one can be awake without being conscious. Normally, most of us think that to be awake is also to be conscious. That is a natural thought. We wake up in the morning and we appear to be immediately conscious of our surroundings and ourselves. The two seem to turn on simultaneously. At first, we might be a bit groggy but we are conscious. When we fall asleep, we appear to lose consciousness along with our waking state. So what is the difference between being awake and being conscious? I have argued previously that consciousness is best defined as wakefulness plus content. Wakefulness is a state of the brain in which it is able to receive input from the external environment and from the self (internal environment). Let us see if we can dissect that out the difference between wakefulness and consciousness by providing some evidence that one can be awake without being conscious.

There is a long history in medicine of people doing experiments on themselves. I want to ask readers of this blog to do a series of experiments. Go to bed early so that you are likely to awaken early in the morning when it is still dark. Keep the shades drawn so that the room will remain as dark as possible in the early morning hours. Then, make sure you make a mental note of the exact moment you become conscious in the morning darkness. You can do that by deciding simply to say the word, "conscious", out loud the moment you realize that you are conscious. Now, at that moment try and decide if you are already fully alert or whether you are still a bit groggy. I would suggest that if you feel fully alert at that moment, you have been awake but not conscious for some time before you became conscious. If you are a bit groggy at that moment, then it is more likely that you have become awake and conscious simultaneously, at the moment you detected your own consciousness.

If you do this experiment a number of times, I will predict that at times you will detect consciousness appearing simultaneously with awakening and at other times it will seem that you were awake for some time before you became conscious. This provides evidence that consciousness is content added to wakefulness. It separates the two. You can also try to do a control experiment by setting an alarm clock to awaken you. I will predict that most times, if you a awakened by an alarm, you will still be a bit groggy for at least a few moments afterwards. This suggests to me that the alarm awakens you and makes you conscious simultaneously. If you try to do this experiment, let me know the outcome. I will tally the results and report back in a future blog.

About the Author
Jacob Sage M.D.

Jacob Sage, M.D., is Professor of Neurology at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. His latest book is Mind, Brain, and Consciousness.

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