Streams of Human Awareness

Those of us in the psychological profession as well as those in closely related fields are absolutely fascinated about consciousness. In most general psychology texts we explore a range of 7 to 10 what I refer to as “streams of”. For instance, we discuss deliberate and automatic processes, as well as shifting and altered. We also explore sleep and dreams. We can add to this list: extra-sensory perceptions, out-of body experiences, and near-death phenomena. We discuss the placebo effect and phantom limb experiences. And there may be other states that I am unaware of.

The psychodynamic paradigm in psychology suggests that near 90 per cent of the time, we process our experiences at the unconscious level, which some refer to as implicit processes. In the growing endeavor of neuroscience, there is general acknowledgement that other non-human species most likely experience conscious awareness as well.

In the course Death & Dying, which I taught for several years, we explored near-death experiences — of which there is considerable support and skepticism. Here, I will discuss a case study conducted at The University of Ottawa and recently reported in the Frontiers of Human Neuroscience. The study authors are Andra Smith and Claude Messier. And I react to their findings with absolute fascination.

They report on one subject seems able to will herself to have out-of-body experiences. I recall that my son had one when he was in 5th grade. In this examination, she is subjected to neuroimaging (fMRI) during one of these episodes and during other “controlled” conditions. These researchers are well aware of this study’s limitations. I am synthesizing some of their unique observations with those states mentioned above.

The subject’s brain patterns differ than those of many other states and streams, particularly those of REM/dreaming. For one, the visual cortex, occipital lobe, is relatively inactive. And the limbic region of the brain is also relatively quiet, which is a direct contrast to dreaming streams.

They summarize her experience as being Extra-Corporeal (ECE). They contrast this to states of guided imagery and processes involving the vestibular/kinesthetic sense modality that manages our sense of balance and body orientation in physical space. Unlike near-death experiences, she feels mostly unemotional. She also experiences an integration of “both bodies”. Since they have been occurring regularly, she is amazed to discover that most of us do not have these experiences.

For me, the experience of being human and being able to manage across the many streams of consciousness, illustrates the sheer complexity of us as a species. The inner journey to describe, explain, predict, and influence ourselves continues!


Smith, A.M. & Messier, C. (2014). Voluntary out-of-body experience: An fMRI study. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8. (70). doi:10.3389/fnhum.2014.00070

Image via Spectral-Design / Shutterstock.

Richard Kensinger, MSW

Richard Kensinger, MSW, has over forty years of clinical experience in behavioral healthcare as a psychotherapist, trainer, consultant, and faculty member in the Psychology Department, Mount Aloysius College. He has also taught at Penn State, University of Pittsburgh, and Temple University. He is also a lover of "football", known in the USA as soccer. He is currently associated for over 30 years with youth "football", 26 as a referee.
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