Psychologists have discovered that human beings experience several different states of consciousness during the course of a day. For example, people have times when they are especially alert and times when they are awake but not alert, often called “daydreaming.” Also, while people are asleep, they experience different stages of sleep, each characterized by different patterns of brain and bodily activity.

In a multi-paragraph essay, discuss the different states of consciousness that you have experienced in the past 24 hours, including any periods when you were asleep, alert, or “daydreaming.” Be sure to describe both the brain and bodily activity you experienced during each state of consciousness. Include information from class materials, readings, and research on states of consciousness to support your discussion.

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Consciousness is defined as a state of awareness, and while this definition allows for a range of interpretations ranging from the philosophical awareness of self to the general state of awareness, the definition most applicable to the daily changes in levels of consciousness observed in humans and animals is that of being aware of surroundings. Although people are commonly regarded as being in either a state of sleep or a state of wakefulness, further examination of any person’s level of alertness throughout a day will quickly lend evidence to the idea that there is a range of levels of awareness. Even through the process of personal observation, I can readily observe daily patterns in the focus that I give to stimuli. In order to provide examples of the variations that may often occur in any individual’s state of consciousness, I will describe the results of my self-observation for one day, as well as their relation to what neuroscientists, physicians, and psychologists have discovered about the states of consciousness’ relationships to physical and mental activities.

The process of sleeping can be understood as a cycle in which the sleeper experiences five different “stages,” or levels of consciousness identified by brain activity and sleeper behavior. While coincident occurrence and observation of a given state of personal alertness is impossible during sleep, upon waking, there are several inferences that can be made about the stages of sleep that I experienced. I typically attempt to fall asleep around ten o’ clock at night, but loud noises or changes in environment stimuli that occur during the first half hour of sleep can easily wake me. Recalling the occasions on which I have been awoken by similar disruptions in my environment, it appears that my level of consciousness is similar around one o’clock, three o’clock, and four o’clock, since these are the times at which I most frequently find myself waking up. These times, which correspond to the third, fifth, and sixth hours of my sleep, are notably similar to the typical occurrence of stage one and stage two sleep in an average sleep cycle, so the fact that my unplanned awakenings often occur near these times might be attributed to the fact that the brain seems to continue monitoring the environment during these stages as though to ensure that the body will not be endangered during its rest. By contrast, my family often tells me of phenomena such as fireworks, thunder and lightning, or noisy cars that I appear to be oblivious of during my sleep. While they offer the explanation that I am a “heavy sleeper,” it appears that there is also some regularity in the timing of these slept-through events; they usually occur at eleven o’clock and sometimes around midnight, which would again be consistent with the average sleep cycle. In this cycle, the second hour of sleep, which is eleven o’clock for me, falls in the middle of a period of stage four sleep, and the third hour of sleep comes during a brief time of stage three sleep that precedes another period of stage four. Sleep studies have found that Electroencephalogram (EEG) readings taken during these times show delta waves, which indicate deep sleep, explaining why I am significantly less aware of my surroundings at similar points in my sleep. When I naturally reawaken–almost always between four and five o’clock in the morning–it is not unusual for me to have memories of the scenarios that took place in my dreams, which is characteristic of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. During REM, EEG readings show beta waves, which indicate the a level of brain activity similar to that of the most alert, wakeful state, and examination of brain activity during sleep shows that some areas of the brain activate, including those involved in vision processing and memory, while the prefrontal cortex, the center for judgment and rational thought, remains relatively dormant, explaining the awareness of sometimes uncontrollable thoughts during this stage of sleep. Upon waking, I also notice that, though nobody has touched me, my position has changed, meaning that at some points in my sleep, my body moved without being consciously instructed to do so. Additionally, I feel physically refreshed, which corresponds to the findings in a 2000 study by Savine and Sonk-sen. The study indicated that human growth hormone, which aids in physical repair, is released during sleep (specifically during stages three and four). Generally, while my circadian rhythm may differ from that of most of my college-aged peers, the patterns and characteristics of my sleep cycle are similar to what is considered typical in terms of behavior and levels of consciousness during each of the stages of sleep.

Also unlike what is likely considered common for people of my age, I am fully alert when I wake up without the use of caffeine, alarms, or other techniques used to gain alertness. Alertness can be defined as awareness of environmental stimuli, so I try to maintain a level of high alertness while attending classes. Often, this means maintaining full control over my bodily movements and being able to exert maximal levels of focus and activity–either physical or mental–by will. However, while awareness of surroundings is important to alertness, in order to be efficient in my efforts, I must limit my attention to stimuli that I deem to be important. So while I may choose not to focus on other peoples’ conversations in the hallways, I may still be considered alert.

For most of the duration of my wakeful period, I consider myself to be highly alert, but there are times where I lapse into or intentionally enter a state of reduced consciousness. When this slip is intentionally driven, it is usually because I am trying to rest or relax, so I employ techniques that I have been taught for meditation, the practice of entering a state of minimal thought and activity, often by focusing my conscious thought on regulating breathing and reducing my reactions to external stimuli. Studies have shown that relaxation techniques such as meditation have increased alpha wave activity in the brain, which is an indication of being both relaxed and awake. At other times, I may simply be bored or tired and decide to imagine a story in my mind, which might be considered daydreaming, as I divert my attention from my surroundings and have thoughts with a low degree of complexity during these times. Unintentional occurrences of this “daydreaming” behavior most frequently occur in environments that contain few significant stimuli and are warm and comfortable. This behavior is usually experienced after lunch or dinner, so it may be that the seemingly safe, relaxing environment and the presence of nutrients are triggering the parasympathetic nervous system to initiate the body’s resting and digestive processes. Later in the evening, around ten o’clock, I experience a fatigued feeling and struggle to maintain alertness, which is probably another indication that the parasympathetic nervous system is activating to initiate rest after a day of activity. As the night approaches, these sensations increase until I decide to fall asleep, completing the daily cycle of sleeping and wakefulness.

While the timing, duration, and extent of the various states of consciousness that I experience have changed throughout my childhood and adolescent development, these changes have been gradual such that the schedule described here would be a fairly accurate representation of my levels of consciousness. Like most humans, I enter a state of minimal consciousness for several hours in sleep in order for my body to recover. For the remainder of the day, I am then largely alert to the stimuli in my environment, though I experience relatively brief periods of relaxation, reduced movement, and reduced awareness, during which I might be described as resting or daydreaming. These stages of consciousness are tied to bodily and mental needs, decreasing alertness when the body needs to recover or store nutrients and increasing alertness when the body is sufficiently prepared or when the situation makes it necessary.

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