Toward a better understanding of human consciousness

(Medical Xpress)—What consciousness is, and why and how it exists, are some of the oldest questions in philosophy. They are also central to one of the fastest-growing areas of neuroscience.

Associate Professor Nao Tsuchiya, from Monash University's School of Psychology and Psychiatry, is using a variety of neuroscientific methods as he works towards expanding our knowledge of how and why electrochemical activity in the brain gives rise to subjective conscious experience.

"It's really critical to understand what is generating consciousness in order to better understand the meaning of life," said Associate Professor Tsuchiya, who was recently awarded a prestigious Australian Research Council Future Fellowship to investigate the neuronal bases of consciousness and attention.

Consciousness defies easy definition. In simple terms, it is everything we are aware of when we are awake. It is also central to what makes us human.

that track challenge assumptions and raise new questions. Neuronal activity can be detected even before people are conscious of deciding to act: what are the implications of that for notions of free will? And could a robot, or an , have consciousness?

As yet, no one can say why we have consciousness. One obvious suggestion – that we need it in order to function in the world – is undermined by such phenomena as "", which is observed in some people whose is damaged. They cannot see, but will still avoid furniture as they walk about a room.

"There is an alternative pathway from the retina to other areas of the brain, we know that," said Associate Professor Tsuchiya.

"But that seems to be insufficient to create this conscious sensation. These people are processing without becoming conscious of it or aware of seeing."

Even in undamaged brains, only some generates consciousness. How much of a role attention plays in that is not yet apparent, and part of Associate Professor Tsuchiya's research over the next four years will be devoted to clarifying the neuronal differences between attention and consciousness.

Although his interest is in the mechanisms of consciousness, his work has wider potential.

"All the reality we have access to is based on the brain," Associate Professor Tsuchiya said.

"And better understanding of how people with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia perceive that reality could have profound implications for improved treatments."

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

A combined method for detecting consciousness

Jan 09, 2012

The combination of transcranial magnetic stimulation and electroencephalography constitutes a new method allowing the traces of conscious activity to be revealed in brain injured patients.

Recommended for you

"Body recognition" compares with fingerprint ID

16 hours ago

(Medical Xpress)—University of Adelaide forensic anatomy researchers are making advances in the use of "body recognition" for criminal and missing persons cases, to help with identification when a face ...

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

PeterKinnon
not rated yet Sep 18, 2012
"What is consciousness" when stripped of the metaphysical baggage generated by introspection, is seen to be entirely accounted for by modern science.

In fact, it is simply the navigational facility which enables an organism to interact optimally with its environment. An evolutionary necessity!

A significant component of a creature's fitness for its environment that it subject to strong selection pressures.

The level at which it operates depends upon the degree of interaction with its environment required for optimal function.

For a bacterium, it is minuscule. For, say, a cat, it it moderate.

For our species, whose interactions with the environment (as evidenced by the billions of systems and artifacts we have generated) are beyond compare! Awe-inspiring, but certainly not mysterious.

Such considerations are considered within the broad evolutionary model outlined in "The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?", a free e-book download.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.