Consciousness research not dead, scientists insist

  • July 17, 2014
Consciousness research not dead, scientists insist

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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