Consciousness is a term used to describe a state of awareness of the human mind. A person’s ability to be aware of their own existence, not just existing, is a concept that has been studied for centuries but not easily understood by many. Consciousness has been studied by philosophers, biologists, psychologists, anthropologists, neurologists, and scientists from many different disciplines of science. One specialized area of psychology, physiological psychology, studies consciousness as it combines two different areas of science, behavior and physiology, to look deeper into a concept that has been perceived as complex and difficult to grasp.
Consciousness is a term that is used in a variety of ways, but when using this term in the area of physiological psychology, consciousness has been defined as a human’s ability to be aware of, and communicate to others about thoughts, perceptions, memories, and feelings (Carlson, 2007). Consciousness has been studied by a variety of scientific fields, but one in particular that focuses on this concept is physiological psychology. Physiological psychology is a branch of psychology that studies the interactions between physical or chemical processes in the body and mental states or behavior (Carlson, 2007). Consciousness fits into this area of study because it is a mental state and it has ties to both chemical and physical processes of the body.
Physiological psychology aids in explaining the relationship between the human nervous system and human behavior. After psychologists, physiologists, and other neuroscientists realized that the ultimate function of the nervous system is behavior, a collaborative effort evolved and the interest in this area became more widespread. Behaviors can also be called actions or movements, something the body does in response to stimuli, and movement is controlled by the brain and nervous system. Physiological psychologists contend that while the brain control simple tasks, such as movement, more complex tasks, such as thinking and remembering, evolved from the simpler ones. For example, looking at an object that a person has owned for years may conjure up some memories associated with the object. Physiological psychologists believe that the simple process of seeing and receiving this visual stimulus evolved into a memory process so that a person could enjoy the object other than just its tangible appearance (Carlson, 2007).
The human nervous system controls body movements and internal processes, such as the beating heart and the digestive system, but the nervous system is also the center of thought, memory, language, and other constructs that are difficult to measure. These “other processes” can be referred to as cognitive processes. The study of how a person thinks or how a mind works has been present for centuries, but cognitive psychology did not become a discipline until the 1800’s (Robinson-Riegler, 2008). At this point, another discipline emerged, physiological psychology, and this led to psychology being studied from a more scientific standpoint. Physiologists studied the physical body by using the scientific method in hopes to understand how it functions. They questioned how the input of information, gathered from sensory organs, is interpreted then used later to benefit a person. This question of how information is processed and used sparked the use scientific method and created an area of science that was previously dominated by behavior theories (Robinson-Riegler, 2008).
The use of the scientific method is what has made psychology more of a science and less of a philosophy or observance. The method identified by the use of observation, measuring, and the ability to repeat an experiment. The premise of behaviorism is that scientific method can be used to study it because behavior can be observed, measured, and repeated. According to Robinson-Riegler (2008), behaviorism focuses on the stimulus-response mechanism of human behavior, but is faulty because it does not concern itself with the process that occurs in between the stimulus and behavior, referred to as consciousness. Because more difficulty lies in observing, measuring, and repeating consciousness, the idea was rejected by behaviorists. But, this conscious thought process is what fuels cognitive psychology, along with many other areas of psychology. The realization that behaviorism was lacking an important aspect involved in all processes, eventually caused a decline in this practice and sparked a more intense focus on how the mind truly works, not just how it reacts.
In attempt to discover how the mind works and why humans react to various situations, research in the area of physiological psychology has been launched to unlock this mystery. As with any research, the goal is to explain natural phenomena that are being studied. To explain anything, in scientific terms, a scientist must generalize and reduce. Generalization is how the phenomena are classified, according to the basic features so that general laws can be formulated. Reduction is the description of the phenomena’s physical processes (Carlson, 2007). Physiological psychologists use both terms to explain behavior, as they use generalizations by way of the more traditional methods of psychology and physiological psychologists use reduction to explain the behaviors in terms of physiological processes within the body. In the case of physiological psychology, the nervous system is the focus of the physiological processes. Physiological psychologists use both experimental psychology and experimental physiology when researching this specialized area of psychology (Carlson, 2007).
Over the centuries, many scientists have made contributions to physiological psychology and, specifically, the study of consciousness. Consciousness has a strong connection to people’s thoughts, their inner selves, and their ideas of spiritual beings. These concepts are entirely intangible, but many of the great minds in history have attempted to create a more tangible view so that it can be more easily understood. Plato, a classical Greek philosopher and mathematician, attempted to explain this enigma by separating the soul, or psyche, from the material body (Tolson, 2006). In today’s terms, Plato would have been classified as a dualist, or one that believes that the mind and body are separate, as opposed to monists, who believe that people are one physical system that functions solely on a biological level (Carlson, 2007). Plato’s venture into understanding the mind and the body and how, or if, they are connected was the beginning of a long journey that attempts to understand this connection.
More recently, Gerald Edelman takes a more monistic approach to the study of consciousness. He is the winner of the 1972 prize for his work in immunology and is the founder and director of the Neurosciences Institute as part of the Rockefeller Institute in New York City (Tolson, 2006). What guided his groundbreaking research on antibody structures was Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection. This natural selection theory is what underlies his theory of neuronal group selection in his work on consciousness. Edelman states, "I wanted to bring Darwin's selectional process to neurons" (Tolson, 2006).
Edelman has written many books about consciousness as he explores the various ways that neuronal circuits get established. He contends that in the early stages of development of the brain, some neuronal assemblies, also called groups or maps, are formed according to genetic rules. “Experience then reinforces or weakens these assemblies-or gives rise to new ones-according to how efficiently they respond to signals from the world or the body” (Tolson, 2006). Re-entry is the last process and is the most difficult, but most important, to explain. Re-entry integrates the activities of various assemblies through what he calls "ongoing parallel signaling between separate brain maps along massively parallel anatomical connections" (Tolson, 2006). Although Edelman’s explanation about consciousness can be confusing and way over the average person’s head, his contributions to the study of consciousness have been commendable.
The study of consciousness provides a perfect example of why the field of physiological psychology has emerged as a necessary sub-field of psychology. Varying states of consciousness such as sensations, perceptions, emotions, thoughts, and memories are distinguished by the fact that they are experienced and felt. The experiences of these conscious states are what drives human behavior and what causes humans to react to certain environmental stimuli. As physiological psychology continues to explore the vast and undiscovered regions of the mind, the behaviors and reactions that are associated with the nervous system will also be scrutinized as psychologists try to unravel the mysteries that surround this complex system.
Carlson, N.R. (2007). Physiology of behavior, 9th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Robinson-Riegler, G., & Robinson-Riegler, B. (2008). Cognitive psychology: Applying the
science of the mind (2nd Ed.). Allyn and Bacon: MA.
Tolson, J. (Oct 23, 2006). Is There Room for the Soul? U.S. News & World Report. 56-63.