As a study with endeavors at investigating and understanding human behavior and the mental processes that work collectively and determine human action, the study of consciousness is not a new phenomenon of psychology. The very nature of consciousness is a question as old as the study of psychology, pervading the field from the times of the founding father of modern psychology, Wundt (Schultz & Schultz, 2012). From this, it is clear that the question of consciousness is old, but even with its age; no standard definition of consciousness exists, given the existence of different definitions by different psychologists over time and today (Velmans, 2009). In an attempt to define consciousness, however, several philosophers and psychologist lent their idea to the very nature of consciousness, and although none of these ideas is universal, they help in the definition and understanding of the nature of consciousness as it were.
Given the existence of different definitions of consciousness, it is safe to reiterate that no single universal definition of consciousness exists. This is shocking given the availability of data on the feeling of being conscious or not having consciousness sufficient to build upon an agreed definition of consciousness (Velmans, 2009). Tentatively, however, consciousness can be defined as the state of awareness of external events, sensations within oneself, the self and thought about current experiences.
In addition, the uncertainty in the very definition of the word, as well as its nature emanates from the intrusions of the theories of consciousness, and perhaps the even the theories on the nature of the universe (Velmans, 2009). Early psychologists and scientists, however, lent their ideas on the nature of consciousness through their own definitions and measurement of consciousness. Wilhelm Wundt also referred to as the father of modern psychology, was among the most influential in opening up the field of psychology. Wundt, originally trained as a physiologist, forayed into psychology, outlining his ideas on psychology in the book titled Contributions to the Theory of Sensory Perception. The book described Wundt’s original experiments in psychology as conducted in an improvised laboratory in his house, describing methods he opined as necessary for an improved psychology, in essence, coining the term “experimental psychology.” Drawing from physiological studies, Wundt’s psychological studies and experiments had great influence from the physiological processes. Wundt studied consciousness, with influence from previous psychological systems such as empiricism and associations (Schultz & Schultz, 2012). Wundt’s view was that consciousness was a multifaceted idea, and could therefore be studied through analysis or reduction (Schultz & Schultz, 2012).
In measuring and studying consciousness therefore, Wundt considered the first step as describing the elemental features of consciousness (Schultz & Schultz, 2012). While this draws upon earlier works in the psychology of consciousness by empiricists and associationists, Wundt digresses from these earlier ideas, indicating that consciousness was indeed an active element, which was involved in the organization of its own content (Schultz & Schultz, 2012). This was a contrast to the empiricist contention that consciousness and its elements were static, and only connected passively through mechanical processes of association. With such contention, Wundt considered “the study of the elements, content, or structure of consciousness alone would provide only a beginning to understanding psychological processes” (Schultz & Schultz, 2012, p. 72).
From the idea that consciousness was active and had a fundamental role in the organization of the contents of the mind, the study of consciousness for Wundt was therefore voluntarism. The acquisition of ideas through experience therefore forms the foundation of consciousness. While Fechner (as shall be seen) saw experience as the elements shaping consciousness, and that these experiences were inherently static, Wundt saw consciousness as an active idea, which organized its own content (Schultz &Schultz, 2012). In this matter, Wundt considered the study of the elements of consciousness as only the beginning in the comprehension of psychological processes (Schultz & Schultz, 2012).
Consciousness is therefore, in its nature, far more than the experiences and sensations that produce these experiences. Instead, consciousness embraces the idea of the ability of the mind to organize its content into high-level thought processes. This ability is what Wundt defines as voluntarism; the will of the mind to organize the thought processes, but with a reliance on the different elements such as sensation and experience (Schultz & Schultz, 2012). Additionally, Wundt lends even more ideas in the measurement of consciousness, highlighting of the need for the study of the immediate rather than mediate experience (Schultz &Schultz, 2012). His argument for this is that mediate experience only provides other information and not the very important elements of experience. Immediate experience, Wundt argues, is unbiased and relates the untainted experience, which conclusively forms consciousness of the mind’s organization of the diverse elements conjoined to form the experience (Schultz & Schultz, 2012).
A discussion on the nature and measurement of consciousness must also relate to the connection amid the mind and the body. The definition following this thought accepts the idea that a definition must refer/point towards an observation or experience. The two (observation or experience) have a connection to the mind and the body, through observation (by the body) and processing the experienced (the mind). Consciousness therefore relates to the absence and presence of a phenomenon, and can be the subject of the body and mind processing what is indeed observed or experienced (Velmans, 2009).
Gustav Fechner exemplifies the contention of the connection between the mind and body. For Fechner, there is quantitative impression and material stimulus (Schultz & Schultz, 60). Fechner argues that the relationship between the mind and the body is possible through a geometric series characterizing stimulus in addition to an arithmetic series characterizing sensation (Schultz & Schultz, 60). This argument still relates to what one experiences and its influence on the mind processes. For Fechner therefore, our consciousness (mental activity) is dependent on the amount of stimulation (physical quality). This idea has therefore introduced the ability for the formulation of a quantitative relationship between the mental and physical world; ideally, it is possible to measure consciousness, although with difficulty in measuring sensation given the viability of measurement of physical properties such as light brightness (Schultz & Schultz, 2012).
The absence of the universality of a definition and measure of consciousness is visible not only in the early psychology, but even in contemporary psychology (Velmans, 2009). While definition reference as earlier mentioned points to a particular entity, either observed or experienced, the nature of consciousness encompasses the entirety of both the observed and experienced elements (Velmans, 2009). The organization of the active elements of consciousness as stated by Wundt, and the totality of the experiences through the connection between the mind and body as fronted by Fechner work as complements of each other within the study and measurement of consciousness. Wundt’s idea of the complexity and activity of the different elements of consciousness lends its ideas to the connection between the mind and body. Thus, as the body receives sensations, they are processed by the mind to form part of the experiences that humans have. These experiences form the different elements that indeed form the building blocks of consciousness. Connecting the mental and physical world as Fechner’s work indicates through experience and sensation forms the basis for which consciousness can be measured. However, it is noteworthy to state that while Fechner sees the experiences and sensations as the building blocks of consciousness, and that it is through these experiences that humans gain consciousness, Wundt considers mental elements as active and therefore organized into high-level mental processes. Wundt therefore takes a more realistic approach to consciousness, given that the experience and sensations that humans receive help in the processing of behavior and reactions towards different situations or circumstances. Wundt’s ideas thus hold more water than Fechner, who only considers the experiences and sensations, and not the organization, within the mind, of the experiences received.
Consciousness therefore is a state of awareness of not only the surrounding environment and the sensations it impales on the physical self, but also in the mental processes. At a conscious state, therefore, the mind’s processes are sequential, slower and more industrious. In addition, the states of awareness work between high and low levels of alertness, with high-levels involving the running of controlled processes for both focus and attention. The measurement of such levels of high processing is inherently possible and easier than the more subtle faster and semi-automatic processes that involve analysis and perception, where response to external sensation and stimuli are at a minimum. Therefore, while there exist different definitions of consciousness, each of these definitions is biased towards specific elements and schools of thought on consciousness. The definition of consciousness, its nature, and measurement, therefore, is only as relevant to the definition as it is to the elements and measurements under consideration.
Schultz, D. P. & Schultz, S. E. (2012). A History of Modern Psychology, 10th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth
Velmans, Max. (2009). How to Define Consciousness—and How not to Define Consciousness. Journal of Consciousness, 16(5):139-156