Levels of Consciousness
Before you can begin to understand the different levels of consciousness, you need to have a firm grasp of just what consciousness is. The easiest way to understand consciousness is to think of it as awareness: It is your awareness of your thoughts, memories, feelings sensations, and environment. There are varying degrees of how aware you are of materials and things going on within your body and your environment; these varying degrees determine the levels of consciousness and include conscious, preconscious, unconscious, subconscious, and nonconscious. Let's take a look at each in detail.
Conscious is the term used to describe your active awareness. For example, if you stub your toe on your way to answer the door, you are actively aware of the coffee table that you just ran into. You are aware of the pain shooting up from your injured toe. You are aware of the swear word escaping your mouth. You are aware of the sound each time the doorbell rings. You are conscious of all these things.
The preconscious stores memories that you do not have a use for at the present moment but that you can retrieve in the future if needed. You are aware of these memories, but it is not an active awareness until a trigger requires you to retrieve a memory and put it to use, thus becoming conscious of it. For example, you know when your birthday is, but you aren't actively aware of that information until you need to retrieve it. It stays within your preconscious, and then when someone asks you when your birthday is, you activate that memory, bring it to your conscious, and answer the question.
The subconscious handles the information and mental processes needed to perform routine activities that do not require conscious thought. For instance, let's say you are writing a paper for a psychology class. While you are conscious of the words you are typing, your subconscious handles the typing itself. You have already learned how to type and that information was stored in your subconscious, so your fingers can find the appropriate keys in an automatic response to the words you want to type.
The unconscious stores those memories you are unaware of. You may be wondering how the unconscious is even known to exist if the information stored there is unknown to the individual. Often, these memories can be brought to the surface when a person is taken into an altered state of consciousness, such as in hypnosis. During hypnosis, an individual can recall unconscious memories, such as a conversation that the individual heard but was unaware of hearing while under anesthesia in an operating room.
The unconscious was a subject of primary interest to psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. He thought that the unconscious stored all memories, thoughts, and emotions that were too troubling to allow into the conscious. He considered it a realm of secrets that held the key to unlocking an individual's true identity, desires, and personality.
The nonconscious part of your mind stores information that you are not aware of but is necessary for you to live out your daily life. For example, you get up every morning, carry out your daily activities, and sleep at night, and all the while your heart is beating. You are not aware of the information being mentally processed within your body to maintain that heartbeat, but you don't have to be, as your nonconscious handles that.