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: the 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. The 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 one and 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.
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