This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 03 table of contents.

When is Consciousness Helpful?

Consciousness is arguably one of the best things about being human. We not only get to exist as living creatures: we get to know we exist, think about it, and savor it. But what purpose or function is served by consciousness or the physical processes that correlate with it? As psychologists cautiously began to address the issue again in the early 1980s, experimental psychologist George Mandler suggested one set of answers. In his Presidential Address to Division 1 (General Psychology) of the American Psychological Association in 1983, Mandler suggested three functions of the human mind that resulted in conscious processing:

What was Mandler's theory about the role of conscious thought?

1. Learning. People typically concentrate their awareness on something when trying to learn it. Not until a skill is well practiced does it become automatic.

2. Making judgments. People think consciously about alternatives and choices.

3. Troubleshooting. People use conscious mental processes when dealing with an unexpected situation that cannot be handled with automatic, well-learned routines.

How does the example of driving an automobile illustrate Mandler's points?

Mandler used driving an automobile as an example. A person first learning to drive must concentrate on the workings of various controls, paying full attention to every action. This is the learning phase. Later, after much experience, driving becomes familiar and no longer requires full attention. An experienced driver can "drive on auto-pilot," letting the mind wander. Driving on autopilot is a fine example of automaticity (auto-ma-TISS-ity).

Consciousness returns to the act of driving when the driver must make a decision such as which way to turn at an intersection. This is what Mandler called making judgments. Mandler's third category is trouble-shooting. Even when one is driving on autopilot, if something surprising happens, attention will be drawn to it. For example, if an animal appears at the side of the road, one will pay attention to it. Full consciousness returns to the task at hand when there is an important problem to be solved.

The fact that one can snap out of the automatic driving state whenever something unusual happens—for example, when an animal appears at the side of the road—shows that unconscious processes are monitoring the situation. Something in the brain notices unusual events that might require intervention by conscious control. Not only are we capable of driving while absent-minded; we are able to recognize when a situation is unusual. This implies great complexity under the surface of the conscious mind. In fact, the more psychologists study conscious processes or attention, the more respect they have for unconscious processes.

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