Losing Track of Your Mind: Dissociations between Experiential Consciousness and Meta-Awareness

Jonathan W. Schooler

Typically discussions of consciousness assume that cognitive events are either conscious or non-conscious. However, this assumption is challenged when subjective experience is dissociated from the explicit awareness of that experience. Although it may seems that we are inevitably aware of the contents of experience, various situations illustrate dissociations between having an experience (experiential consciousness) and knowing that one is having that experience (meta-awareness). The capacity to lose meta-awareness of the current contents of thought is exemplified by the case of mind wandering while reading, in which one continues to read seemingly oblivious to the fact that their mind has drifted away from the contents of what is being read. Two types of dissociations follow from the claim that meta-awareness involves the intermittent explicit re-representation of the contents of consciousness (Schooler, 2002): Temporal dissociations occur when individuals temporarily lose track of the current contents of thought. Evidence for temporal dissociations comes from recent demonstrations that individuals can be regularly “caught” by random probes engaging in mind wandering or unwanted thoughts before they notice this themselves. Translation dissociations occur when, in the process of characterizing their experience to themselves, individuals distort or omit aspects of the original experience. Evidence of translation dissociations is suggested by cases in which motivation, verbal reflection, or ambiguity influence individuals’ appraisals of their experience, and/or lead to discrepancies between self-reports and other indicators of experience.

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