Levels of consciousness

IT often feels that we are either conscious or unconscious. But are there, as this blog investigates, more levels of consciousness? The idea that there are varying degrees of consciousness has a long and distinguished history ranging from Plotinus to to Jung and Freud in the 20th century. Jung, for example, identified the mineral world, the plant world and the animal world as degrees of consciousness. Freud identified the oral, phallic and genital stages, while many present day psychologists probe multiple levels of consciousness. And it is in this tradition that Nathan Field lays out his fourfold hierarchy in Breakdown and Breakthrough.

Levels of consciousness

The first level is what he calls One Dimensionality, which is most apparent in very young children. Field writes: “The focus of infant awareness is located in certain physical areas: the skin, the mouth, and the inside of the body which may be comfortably full or painfully distended.” It can also be apparent in some autistic children.

Two Dimensionality is more interesting because it moves out of the Self to the acknowledgement of the Other, but at the expense of an inner life. This two dimensionality is characteristic of schizoid personalities in which ’emotions appear to be skin deep’. Field writes: “There may be a great deal of surface drama, passionate declarations, threats, violent or hysterical gestures but the observer remains strangely untouched, even alienated.”

Two dimensionality

And while there may be surface drama, it is also characterized by opposites that can switch quickly from, for example, love to hate in an instant.

As Field points out ‘politics, news and entertainment are all deeply contaminated by two dimensionality’. In the political arena, reasoned opinions readily degenerate into convictions as political theory becomes fixed in ideology and, finally, crystalized in dogma. Doubt and complexity are difficult to sustain and harden into dead certainties. Here the ‘millions passionately devoted to fundamentalist religions and political beliefs are relieved from the torments of ambivalence and indecision’. There is, however, a positive element to two dimensionality which manifests itself in ‘unwavering loyalty, uncompromising rectitude, unquestioning obedience’, although it’s not difficult to see how these positives might morph into the dark side.

Three dimensionality, says Field, ‘represents all that civilization holds dear: rationality, balance, adulthood, fairness, flexibility, restraint, the ability to listen and to respect the integrity of another’. Field continue: “The intellectual faculty combines with our primary instincts to produce the capacity for imagination, metaphor and symbolisation, which are the basic requirements of all creative endeavour.” And while two dimensionality is characterized by polarity and conviction, three dimensionality is ‘searching, reflective, ambivalent’. As people move from two to three dimensionality they become more rounded and resilient.

A more balanced approach with three dimensionality

More controversial, perhaps, is Field’s conception of Four Dimensionality, which is characterized by awareness of the movement from Self to Other of the sort that can happen between a ‘mother and her baby, between twins, members of the same family, partners, lovers, friends and, not least, enemies’. Although it is often experienced between the Self and the Other, Field stresses that it can also manifest itself as an enriched sense of Self. And he adds: “Whether shared, or experienced in solitude, the four-dimensional state is one that many people have known and tried to convey in art, music, and, most especially, in the paradoxical utterances of mystical literature.”

Spontaneity is important in all of this but Field also points out that it can also be aided by prayer, meditation or therapy.

An important aspect of Field’s theory is that the dimension incorporates the third, the third the second and the second the first, but he insists that each dimension adds something of its own.

But the really controversial aspect of Field’s thought is his interest in shamanism and his belief that it emerges out of the fourth dimension – and that Jung was a shaman: “In so far as Jung was able to assimilate his dissociative and pathological tendencies it places him, like the shaman, in the category of the ‘wounded healer’ or, more precisely, one who heals by virtue of the partial healing of his own wound, since if it had healed completely he might too easily forget how it felt to be sick and the capacity to identify with the patient would be impaired.”

While Freud saw the unconscious as being something to be controlled, Jung embraced it in the form of the collective unconscious, a vast creative force, which also tapped into his research into the medieval tradition of alchemy.

Many people might baulk at the fourth dimension and stick with the third but Field sides with Jung, insisting that the fourth ‘does in fact exist’. He concludes: “It is not a delusion, but carries with it the subjective conviction of being our true state; or at least closer to our true state than everyday consciousness.”

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  1. First may I say that I have often replied to these Berggolt postings, and put some thoughts in which I thought were worth considering, and hoping for some kind of reaction or feedback which never came. I should like to know whether it was an altogether vain hope. Could it happen?

    Today’s subject: I am so little read in psychology, but have always doubted whether Jungian ideas were really up to date ate all. Full of very pretty images and analogies, but are they useful and can they give clear insights into mental states and their clinical management.. So much advance in study of the brain must surely offer more convincing accounts of how the psyche works, and I mean physically: with synapses observed by brain-scans. One might gain more insight by examining the brain(s) of an octopus than by trailing in and out of fantasy dimesions. I am not saying these theories are meaningless, just that is creative fantasy. And miles from science.
    Doubtless most of those who read my comment will think it arrogant of me, or impertinent at the very least, to open my mouth, even though my first remark was on my own ignorance. However, I was at Professor Adrian’s lecture when he first announced how exactly electric discharge passes down the outer suface of a nerve cell and was quite impressed how a proven factual explanation clarified one’s perspective on what really happened in an event in the nervous system. You may say the brain is a different matter, and the mind-in-the-brain is different again. That is where “dimensions” might turn out to be involved, do you think? Still only speculation. C>Browne.


  2. Crystalised in dogma … a powerful phrase and suggests that all groups with principles and beliefs of which our society has many, on every level, political, religious, business, sports etc, by definition become part of the problem they look to try to resolve. Nuance, a lost tool of debate and being?


  3. Hi Christopher, and thanks for responding. Well, I have sympathy for your largely materialistic view of psychology. As you will know from previous blogs I do lean more towards materialism than immaterialism. However, there does seem to be a limit as to what science can say about psychic make-up. A brain scan maybe able to identify when we have an emotion but can it tell us what it is like to have one? Similarly, we may be able to identify when we want to fight or flee but can it tell us anything about the experience itself? As a political collectivist, and what I mean by that is that the process of individuation emerges out of the individual’s entanglement with its environment and other humans, we can talk about collective consciousness. Why not the about collective unconsciousness? If so, then it is likely that the latter is going to need science, yes of course, but also the psychological insights of people like Jung. And from an empirical point of view Jung does adduce of a lot of evidence in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious of the cross-cultural existence of archetypes like the anima and animus, the shadow and the wise old man. I certainly prefer Jung embracing the unconscious as vast creative force – as did the Surrealists of course – to Freud’s injunction that we have to control it. As you say ‘dimension’ may perform some role in our make-up as Field suggests, and maybe neuroscience will one day be able to explain all this without having to refer to Jung’s pretty mandalas. But maybe, just maybe, science can’t explain everything and that myth and mystery still has a role to play.
    Stannst, thank you as well for responding. I don’t think that on ‘every level, political, religious, business, sports etc by definition become part of the problem they try to resolve’. It’s true that there is a tendency towards this made worse by the echo chambers fuelled by social media and the expertise of digital giants to exploit our psychological weaknesses through their algorithms. But I don’t think this is inevitable and certainly not ‘by definition’. Or, maybe, I just hope this is so!


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