What do we mean by "conscious" and "aware"?

Neuropsychol Rehabil. 2006 Aug;16(4):356-76. doi: 10.1080/09602010500484581.


The concepts of consciousness and awareness are multifaceted, and steeped in cultural and intellectual history. This paper explores their complexities by way of a series of contrasts: (1) states of consciousness, such as wakefulness and sleep are contrasted with awareness, a term that picks out the contents of consciousness: these range across all our psychological capacities; the scientific background of the two concepts is briefly outlined; (2) consciousness is contrasted to self-consciousness, itself a complex term embracing self-detection, self-monitoring, self-recognition, theory of mind and self-knowledge; (3) "narrow" and "broad" senses of consciousness are contrasted, the former requiring mature human awareness capable of guiding action and self-report, the latter involving the much broader capacity to acquire and exploit knowledge; (4) an "inner" conception of consciousness, by which awareness is essentially private and beyond the reach of scientific scrutiny, is contrasted with an "outer" conception which allows that consciousness is intrinsically linked with capacities for intelligent behaviour; (5) finally "easy" and "hard" questions of consciousness are distinguished, the former involving the underlying neurobiology of wakefulness and awareness, the latter the allegedly more mysterious process by which biological processes generate experience: Whether this final distinction is valid is a focus of current debate. Varied interests converge on the study of consciousness from the sciences and the humanities, creating scope for interdisciplinary misunderstandings, but also for a fruitful dialogue. Health professionals treating disorders of consciousness should be aware both of its scientific complexities and of its broad cultural background, which influences the public understanding of these conditions.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Awareness / physiology*
  • Brain / anatomy & histology
  • Brain / physiology
  • Consciousness / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography / methods
  • Humans
  • Models, Psychological
  • Wakefulness / physiology