What awareness is not

To clarify what awareness is, first a distinction has to be made between awareness and other phenomena that are easily confused with it.

Awareness is different from mental processes such as thoughts, images, sensations, emotional reactions etc. The Ancient Greeks had separate terms for awareness (psyche) and mental activity (pneuma), yet this difference is obscured nowadays. Some philosophers and neuro-scientists (e.g. G. E. Moore, Baars) have recognised though, that they cannot be treated as the same thing. Grossman, for example, writes: ‘We can introspectively discriminate between the contents of consciousness and the quality of being conscious' (in Bogen, 1998, p.237). Libet makes the same point: ‘The content of an awareness can be anything. But being aware is a unique phenomenon in itself, independent of the nature of the particular content in awareness' (2004, p.188). To preserve this distinction, the term consciousness is used throughout the text for all the mind activities (of which some comprise the materials of awareness). Awareness, on the other hand, does not refer to any specific mental processes, but to that which enables the self to relate to them. An analogy can be made with a movie projection: everything that is on the screen can be considered consciousness, while awareness would be the equivalent of the projector light that is not a part of the movie, but enables whatever is on the screen to be visible. Another parallel can be made with a torch that casts light on various objects. If what is lit by the torch comprises consciousness, awareness is the light from the torch (and like a torch, it cannot illuminate all the objects at the same time).

Awareness cannot be identified with sensory perception either. Rather, it refers to the effects that perception has on that which is aware, establishing the relation between the subject and the perceptual representations. In fact, we do not need to perceive to be aware (as, for example, in dreams)[1]. Awareness of our thoughts, emotions, feelings and other mental states is also a direct experience not mediated by the senses. By the same token, some perceptual sensations can escape awareness (e.g. we may not be aware of all the details in a picture we are looking at, although our brain receives them).

  • [1]. This was recognised a long time ago. For example, the following rhetorical question can be found in Vedanta: ‘Impressions arise from light, but during a dream no light from outside enters the body. So, what is that light that creates images that we see in dreams?'