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Consciousness research not dead, scientists insist

July 11, 2014
Courtesy of Northwestern University
and World Science staff

Why does a re­lent­less stream of ex­pe­ri­ences nor­mally fill your mind? May­be that’s just one of those mys­ter­ies that will al­ways elude us.

Yet, re­search sug­gests con­scious­ness lies well with­in the realm of sci­en­tif­ic in­quiry, as im­pos­si­ble as that may cur­rently seem. Al­though sci­en­tists have yet to agree on an ob­jec­tive meas­ure to in­dex con­scious­ness, prog­ress has been made on the ques­tion in sev­er­al labs around the world.

“The de­bate about the neu­ral ba­sis of con­scious­ness rages be­cause there is no widely ac­cept­ed the­o­ry about what hap­pens in the brain to make con­scious­ness pos­si­ble,” said Ken Paller, and di­rec­tor of the Cog­ni­tive Neu­ro­sci­ence Pro­gram at North­west­ern Uni­vers­ity in Ev­ans­ton, Ill.

Some brain sci­en­tists claim “con­scious­ness is nev­er go­ing to be un­der­stood” and so re­search should fo­cus on oth­er ar­eas, Paller said. “On the oth­er hand, many neu­ro­sci­en­tists are ac­tively en­gaged in prob­ing the neu­ral ba­sis of con­scious­ness, and, in many ways, this is less of a ta­boo ar­ea of re­search than it used to be.”

He added: “sci­en­tists and oth­ers ac­knowl­edge that dam­age to the brain can lead to sys­tem­at­ic changes in con­scious­ness. Yet, we don’t know ex­actly what dif­fer­en­ti­ates brain ac­ti­vity as­so­ci­at­ed with con­scious ex­pe­ri­ence from brain ac­ti­vity that is in­stead as­so­ci­at­ed with men­tal ac­ti­vity that re­mains un­con­scious.”

In a new ar­ti­cle, Paller and Satoru Su­zu­ki, al­so a psy­chol­o­gist at North­west­ern, dis­cuss what they call flawed as­sump­tions about con­scious­ness to sug­gest that a wide range of sci­en­tif­ic per­spec­tives can of­fer use­ful clues.

“It’s nor­mal to think that if you at­ten­tively in­spect some­thing you must be aware of it and that an­a­lyz­ing it to a high lev­el would ne­ces­si­tate con­scious­ness,” Su­zu­ki not­ed. But ex­pe­ri­ments don’t al­ways back this up. “Like­wise, it feels like we can freely de­cide at a pre­cise mo­ment, when ac­tu­ally the pro­cess of de­cid­ing be­gins ear­li­er,” through brain pro­cessing that doesn’t en­ter awareness, he said.

The au­thors write that un­con­scious pro­cessing can in­flu­ence our con­scious de­ci­sions in ways we nev­er sus­pect. If these and oth­er si­m­i­lar as­sump­tions are in­cor­rect, the re­search­ers say, then mis­tak­en rea­son­ing might be be­hind ar­gu­ments for tak­ing the sci­ence of con­scious­ness off the ta­ble.

Ex­pe­ri­men­tal ev­i­dence has sup­ported some the­o­ries about con­scious­ness that ap­peal to spe­cif­ic types of com­mu­nica­t­ion among brain cells, which can be de­scribed in bi­o­log­i­cal terms or more ab­stractly in com­puta­t­ional terms, the re­search­ers said. They added that fur­ther the­o­ret­i­cal ad­vanc­es can be ex­pected if spe­cif­ic meas­ures of neu­ral ac­ti­vity can be brought to bear on these ideas.

Paller and Su­zu­ki both con­duct re­search that touches on con­scious­ness. Su­zu­ki stud­ies per­cep­tion, and Paller stud­ies mem­o­ry. They said it was im­por­tant for them to write the ar­ti­cle to count­er the view that it is hope­less to ev­er make prog­ress through sci­en­tif­ic re­search on this top­ic.

They out­lined re­cent ad­vanc­es that pro­vide rea­son to be op­ti­mis­tic about fu­ture sci­en­tif­ic in­quir­ies in­to con­scious­ness and about the ben­e­fits that this knowl­edge could br­ing for so­ci­e­ty. “For ex­am­ple, con­tin­u­ing re­search on the brain ba­sis of con­scious­ness could in­form our con­cerns about hu­man rights, help us ex­plain and treat dis­eases that im­pinge on con­scious­ness, and help us per­pet­u­ate en­vi­ron­ments and tech­nolo­gies that op­ti­mally con­trib­ute to the well be­ing of in­di­vid­u­als and of our so­ci­e­ty,” the au­thors wrote.

The paper, “The Source of Con­scious­ness,” has been pub­lished on­line in the jour­nal Trends in Cognitive Sciences

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Why does a relentless stream of experiences normally fill your mind? Maybe that’s just one of those mysteries that will always elude us. Yet, research suggests consciousness lies well within the realm of scientific inquiry, as impossible as that may currently seem. Although scientists have yet to agree on an objective measure to index consciousness, progress has been made on the question in several labs around the world. “The debate about the neural basis of consciousness rages because there is no widely accepted theory about what happens in the brain to make consciousness possible,” said Ken Paller, and director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Program at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Some brain scientists claim “consciousness is never going to be understood” and so research should focus on other areas, Paller said. “On the other hand, many neuroscientists are actively engaged in probing the neural basis of consciousness, and, in many ways, this is less of a taboo area of research than it used to be.” He added: “scientists and others acknowledge that damage to the brain can lead to systematic changes in consciousness. Yet, we don’t know exactly what differentiates brain activity associated with conscious experience from brain activity that is instead associated with mental activity that remains unconscious.” In a new article, Paller and Satoru Suzuki, also a psychologist at Northwestern, discuss what they call flawed assumptions about consciousness to suggest that a wide range of scientific perspectives can offer useful clues. “It’s normal to think that if you attentively inspect something you must be aware of it and that analyzing it to a high level would necessitate consciousness,” Suzuki noted. But experiments don’t always back this up. “Likewise, it feels like we can freely decide at a precise moment, when actually the process of deciding begins earlier, via neurocognitive processing that does not enter awareness,” he said. The authors write that unconscious processing can influence our conscious decisions in ways we never suspect. If these and other similar assumptions are incorrect, the researchers say, then mistaken reasoning might be behind arguments for taking the science of consciousness off the table. Experimental evidence has supported some theories about consciousness that appeal to specific types of communication among brain cells, which can be described in biological terms or more abstractly in computational terms, the researchers said. They added that further theoretical advances can be expected if specific measures of neural activity can be brought to bear on these ideas. Paller and Suzuki both conduct research that touches on consciousness. Suzuki studies perception, and Paller studies memory. They said it was important for them to write the article to counter the view that it is hopeless to ever make progress through scientific research on this topic. They outlined recent advances that provide reason to be optimistic about future scientific inquiries into consciousness and about the benefits that this knowledge could bring for society. “For example, continuing research on the brain basis of consciousness could inform our concerns about human rights, help us explain and treat diseases that impinge on consciousness, and help us perpetuate environments and technologies that optimally contribute to the well being of individuals and of our society,” the authors wrote. They conclude that research on human consciousness belongs within the purview of science, despite philosophical or religious arguments to the contrary.