Normal Waking Consciousness (NWC) & Altered States of Consciousness (ASC)

There are two main types of consciousness: normal waking consciousness (NWC) and altered states of consciousness (ASC). They can be compared in terms of level of awareness, content limitations, controlled and automatic processes, perceptual and cognitive distortions, emotional awareness, self-control and time orientation.

Normal waking consciousness (NWC)

Normal waking consciousness refers to states of consciousness when an individual is awake and alert to both internal and external stimuli, including thoughts, feelings and perceptions.

Altered states of consciousness (ASC)

Altered states of consciousness refer to any state of consciousness which is not normal waking consciousness. They are characterised by differences in awareness, emotions and perceptions. Sleep is an example of an altered state of consciousness.

Types of altered states of consciousness

As altered states of consciousness are merely states of consciousness which are not normal waking consciousness, they come in numerous forms:

  • Naturally-occurring ASC: such as daydreaming, illness and sleep
  • Manually-induced ASC: such as alcohol, other drugs and meditation

Using the same parameters as below, we can compare two types of ASC: daydreaming (natural) and alcohol-induced (manual).

Level of awareness

Daydreaming: lowered
Alcohol: lowered
(Meditation: lowered)

Content limiations

Daydreaming: less restricted
Alcohol: less restricted
(Meditation: more restricted)

Controlled and automatic processes

Daydreaming: more difficult
Alcohol: more difficult
(Meditation: almost impossible, depending on type of meditation)

Perceptual and cognitive distortions

Daydreaming: understanding lessened, distortions increased
Alcohol: understanding lessened, distortions increased
(Meditation: restricted)

Emotional awareness

Daydreaming: can improve or worsen mood, depending on type of daydream
Alcohol: can provide a false sense of confidence
(Meditation: often improved)

Self-control

Daydreaming: lessened
Alcohol: lessened
(Meditation: improved)

Time orientation

Daydreaming: lessened
Alcohol: lessened
(Meditation: lessened)

Comparison of NWC and ASC

Level of awareness

In NWC, an individual will be aware of their external surroundings, and of internal events (such as perception and emotions). They will have an accurate sense of reality. Conversely, in ASC, an individual’s awareness will either be markedly greater or lesser than in NWC. Generally, awareness is lesser in ASC, however in some instances, such as when an individual is under the influence of some drugs, they may experience greater awareness toward particular stimuli.

Content limitations

In NWC, an individual will be capable of selectively processing various stimuli, filtering what they want to take in, in a controlled manner. Conversely, in ASC, content limitations are not controlled. Subsequently, an individual in ASC will experience fewer limitations on content in conjunction with a reduced ability to process information.

Controlled and automatic processes

In NWC, an individual will be capable of performing automatic tasks and dividing attention between various stimuli. Conversely, an individual in ASC is likely to be less capable of performing controlled tasks automatically (they will require greater attention than usual), and will likely be not as capable of dividing attention between tasks. That is, they will only be capable of doing one thing at a time.

Perceptual and cognitive distortions

In NWC, an individual’s thought processes will be clear, meaningful and structured, and they will be capable of analytical thinking within regular limits. Conversely, an individual in ASC may lose touch with reality, and their thinking may be confused, non-sensical and disjointed.

Emotional awareness

In NWC, an individual will have control over their emotions within regular limits. Conversely, an individual experiencing an ASC will have less (or more, on occasion) control over their emotions. They may become very emotive, or appear to over-react to particular stimuli.

Self-control

In NWC, an individual will have regular self-control over their behaviours within regular limits. Conversely, an ASC may result in a loss of self-control of behaviours, emotions and thoughts.

Time orientation

An individual in NWC should have a structured and logical sense of time, including all tenses: past, present and future. Conversely, in ASC, an individual may experience a distorted sense of time. For example, if an individual is very ill, they may think that only one day has past when, in fact, they have been ill for a week.