My Four Modes of Everyday Consciousness

I’ve been trying to get a clearer view of the different ways in which my consciousness functions during a typical day. It’s like trying to catch a view of myself in the mirror in a mirror. I’m omitting here the labyrinth of my sub-conscious and looking just at the everyday workings in my head that my head is aware of. I’m including meditation and mindfulness, since I do them every day at a basic level and in different contexts.

The literature divides up consciousness in a daunting variety of ways. But I see in myself mainly four modes.

The first is Awareness. This unfocused, baseline consciousness consists of plain sensory input with little or no processing beyond basic comprehension. It is the opposite of being asleep or unconscious. “Doctor, he’s regained consciousness.” It is the state I’m in when I idly watch a car go down the street, when I watch a movie, when I pick up the remote to change the channel. It includes familiar, unthinking actions like lifting a fork or saying “Hi. How are you?” Awareness feels passive but also primed for responsiveness.

Stream of Consciousness, Gary Buhler (

Stream of Consciousness, by Gary Buhler

My second mode of consciousness is Stream of Consciousness. This is a noticeable flow of words, images, and memories that moves along on its own through my head regardless of my surroundings. Sometimes, for me, this flow gets noisy and intrusive, a kaleidoscope with little or no focus. It includes vivid flashbacks and anxious glimpses of the future. But mostly it consists of words, a sort of thinking-lite. Human consciousness must have changed a lot around 100,000 years ago as the brain began to store names for images of things and for countless abstractions and relationships. The result was that we could say or think, “Why are you doing it that way?” and such flotsam has been popping up in our mental streams ever since.

Next, after Awareness and Stream of Consciousness, there’s Mindfulness. Mindfulness is a concentrated but relaxed and wordless attention to something. I experience brief periods of it during meditation, in between the moments when my Stream of Consciousness washes everything else out of my head for a while. Mindfulness is at the core of not only meditation but also any exercise of concentration such as painting, music, dance and other types of physical exertion. We are mindful when we observe the behavior of a squirrel or, fleetingly, when we take a picture of someone. Sometimes I sit for a minute to grasp the sensation of the night or the ocean or being alive. Such mindful consciousness has the quality of stepping closer to something, allowing us to experience it with greater clarity and peace.

Finally, there’s Language—as used for thinking, talking, listening, reading, writing. Language arose as a social tool, and it is essentially social even when we’re just thinking to ourselves; an audience is implied even when it’s not present. It may pop up in the Stream of Consciousness, but it’s the mental mode for extended episodes of talking, listening, and thinking, problem-solving mood. My wife and I discuss plans for the day, I think about a question for a blog post, I try to make a point in a conversation with someone, and I read a book for pleasure. While mute Mindfulness feels like I’m taking a step closer, language use sometimes feels like I’m stepping around and away from something to see it from other perspectives.

So these are the principle states that I most often catch my conscious mind in the midst of: general Awareness, swirling Stream of Consciousness, concentrated Mindfulness, and purposeful Language use. Trying to classify the different modes of your own consciousness is difficult. Despite your familiarity with your own mind, you may realize it’s not easy to find the categories that capture the differences in what goes on in your head in sensible ways. This isn’t surprising given the brain’s complexity. But the process is enlightening nonetheless. You come out of it seeing yourself differently.

Meditation and Animal Consciousness

I’ve been meditating more regularly for the last couple of months—about 20 minutes once or twice a day. I’m still very much a novice but the experience is vivid and calming. I’ve been thinking about how it may be showing me a piece of the history of my consciousness.

I’m gradually finding it easier to stay tuned to my breathing and lengthen the quiet spaces between the word streams that seep through my head. I think those quiet moments take me briefly to a state that has elements in common with the consciousness of animals. Of course we can’t know much about what goes through the heads of a crocodile or a horse or what nuances of emotions they may feel. But we can be fairly sure that animals experience their sensory world without the complications and distractions of language and the social web that language is anchored in. I think meditation has about it a kind of withdrawal from mental complexity that takes us back to a small portion of the calm and direct sensory life of animal consciousness.

But in my meditative 20 minutes, this peaceful withdrawal doesn’t last long and soon the words come banging at the door again. No matter how earnestly but gently I try to float them away, they return like a too-friendly dog that refuses to be pushed off. This fervent activity is what our brains are good at. Even when they are idling with no particular task at hand, they crank away, replaying bits of yesterday, rehearsing bits of tomorrow. That’s how our minds protect us, that’s why they evolved: to anticipate the future on the basis of the past.

I have the image of two lines running through me, two orientations in time and place. One runs through me from back to front, from past to future. This is the calculating cognition of language and our intense social lives; we are almost always, in our heads, thinking about and talking to people. The other line runs through me sideways, in the here and now, the wordless, calm mindfulness of meditation (or any other concentrated task such as playing music). With more practice, I find this orientation growing a little more available even when I am not meditating. I can take a minute to focus on myself, relax my body, turn down the volume in my head. I think of this orientation as an outrigger, extending sideways to the immediate world, stabilizing me, with little fuss about where I’m heading.

The sages like to warn us that our imagination is too good at just the kind of of theorizing and imaging that these paragraphs are about, creating a lovely picture that distracts us from the solid realities. Still, I think about the history of consciousness that runs to us and through us. I’m moved by the notion that meditation taps into some of the serenity of animals to give us relief from the word-maker-wonder-maker-trouble-maker of our cognition.

“There’s No Natural Selection For Happiness”

“Like evolution, history disregards the happiness of individual organisms” (p. 243) writes Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harari analyzes early human history for its indifference to personal well-being and its drive toward population growth—the same features that mark the forward motion of evolution. It is only in the modern era that civilization may be doing more for individual happiness, and the price we pay for that shift may be that we leave nature further behind.

It’s a provocative view. I, like many Americans, carry around a vague and positive sense of the “progress” of history— as I sit here with my computer, with food and water nearby in the kitchen, in a peaceful town. But Harari vividly sees the costs as well as the gains.

He looks at three “revolutions”: the Cognitive Revolution about 70,000 years ago, when we attained language and our current intelligence level; the Agricultural Revolution 10,000 years ago, when food gathering slowly gave way to food growing; and the Scientific Revolution of the last 500 years.

In between the Cognitive Revolution and the Agricultural one, intelligent foragers led healthy, mobile, and interesting communal lives. Their diet was varied, labor was not arduous, and members of the small communities were closely connected. But as they took up growing a very few crops, raising animals, and settling down, they gave up such lives in exchange for towns, cities, and elites. The food supply and the farmers themselves became susceptible to drought and disease, and daily labor became exhausting and monotonous. Agriculture led to larger populations but not happier ones. And it did so in small steps, as each new luxury—food storage, land ownership, cities—became a necessity that no one wanted to give up.



The process of irreversible steps towards a growing population is also the footprint of  successful evolution. Variation and reproduction are partners in trying to make a growing number of DNA copies, while along the way “There’s no natural selection for happiness” (386).

Since the Scientific Revolution 500 years ago, the ambivalence of cultural progress has deepened. Sapiens, Harari writes, have attained more control over nature while destroying a growing number of species. We have reduced extreme poverty and illness and raised global population numbers, but we’ve also raised material expectations and have raised individual discontent along with them. We Sapiens are on our way to becoming god-like in prolonging and even designing life itself, yet we remain in the dark about what we want to become in the future.

As we modify the human body more drastically, through surgery and genetics, will we even remain human? The “Brief History” in Harari’s title refers not only to the length of the book but also to the question of the duration of Sapiens as a distinct species.

I found the first half of Sapiens, about the foraging era and the Agricultural Revolution, more compelling than the second part about recent trends. I don’t think we can effectively judge the deepest shifts in the era that we are still living in, and we are generally poor prophets. But the book is a fascinating application of evolutionary thinking.

I’ll conclude by letting Harari speak for himself, especially about language, the growing power of human “fictions,” social groups, and the foraging and agricultural cultures.

The new linguistic skills that modern Sapiens acquired about seventy millennia ago enabled them to gossip for hours on end. Reliable information about who could be trusted meant that small bands could expand into larger bands and Sapiens could develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation…. Yet the truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all….Legends, myths, gods, and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution….Fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate in large numbers. (21-25)

Sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals….Below this threshold, communities, businesses, social networks and military units can maintain themselves based mainly on intimate acquaintance and rumour-mongering….But language enables us to create fictions, myths that could unite hundred of millions of people….Churches…States…Judicial systems are rooted in common myths….There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings… [So-called “primitive” people] cement their social order by believing in ghosts and spirits. What we fail to appreciate is that our modern institutions function on exactly the same basis. Modern business-people and lawyers are, in fact, powerful sorcerers. (26-28)

Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google. (32)

Sapiens did not forage only for food and materials. They foraged for knowledge as well. To survive, they needed a detailed mental map of their territory. To maximize the efficiency of their daily search for food, they required information about the growth patterns of each plant and the habits of each animal….Each individual had to understand how to make a stone knife, how to mend a torn cloak, how to lay a rabbit trap, and how to face avalanches, snakebites,or hungry lions….The human collective knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skillful people in history. (48)

On the whole foragers seem to have enjoyed a more comfortable and rewarding lifestyle than most of the peasants, shepherds, labourers and office clerks who followed in their footsteps. …The forager economy provided most people with more interesting lives than agriculture or industry do….In most places at most times, foraging provided ideal nutrition… The foragers‘ secret of success , which protected them from starvation and malnutrition, was their varied diet. Farmers tend to eat a very limited and unbalanced diet….Ancient foragers also suffered less from infectious diseases. Most of the infectious diseases that have plagued agricultural and industrial societies (such as small pox, measles and tuberculosis) originated in domesticated animals and were transferred to humans only after the Agricultural Revolution….Average life expectancy was apparently just thirty or forty years, but this was due largely to the high incidence of child mortality. Children who made it through the perilous first years had a good chance of reaching the age of sixty, and some even made it to their eighties. (51)

[About 10,000 years ago,] Sapiens began devoting almost all their time and effort to manipulating the lives of a few animal and plant species. From sunrise to sunset humans sowed seeds, watered plants, plucked weeds from the group and led sheep to prime pastures.…  Scholars once proclaimed that the agricultural revolution was a great leap forward for humanity. They told a tale of progress fueled by human brain power. Evolution gradually produced ever more intelligent people. Eventually, people were so smart that they were able to decipher nature’s secrets, enabling them to tame sheep and cultivate wheat. As soon as this happened, they cheerfully abandoned the grueling, dangerous, and often Spartan life of hunter-gatherers, settling down to enjoy the pleasant, satiated life of farmers.

       That tale is a fantasy. There is no evidence that people became more intelligent with time. Foragers knew the secrets of nature long before the Agicultural Revolution, since their survival depended on an intimate knowledge of animals they hunted and the plants they gathered. Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease. The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure….The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud. (79)