Every night we close our eyes and let go of everyday conscious awareness when we sleep. And every morning we wake with fully formed thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, sounds, and images that make sense to us. This process, which we experience every day of our lives, is one of those mundane, yet extraordinary things that we hardly ever think about and often take for granted.
Most experts agree that consciousness has two modes: foreground content and background awareness. Examples of foreground content are the words on a page, an image, a thought, a sound, or something that is being said. Background awareness is the conscious space that these flow through.
Like swirling particles in a shaken snow globe, our attention gets bound to the content of consciousness and caught up in its energy and momentum. And like fish, who apparently are not aware that they’re in the water, we’re often blind to the broader background of awareness. Although it’s possible to be aware of both, without knowing this distinction, we tend to experience these two modes as the same, as we focus almost exclusively on the content. Given that the evolutionary advantage of humans comes from our amazing ability to understand, represent, process, and communicate things and events in the world, our focus on content is not surprising. For instance, as hunter-gatherers, we would have told others in the group where we found the ripe fruit.
Apart from when we’re asleep, conscious awareness is there all the time in the background, whether we notice it or not. The difference is that the content of consciousness comes and goes. For instance. a thought about something we need to do arises, is noticed, and then dissolves. What’s interesting is that when we are lost in thought, we lose awareness of the here-and-now of background awareness and enter a conceptual world of content. So, we become much less aware of our bodies and senses.