The Mind Science Foundation
117 West El Prado Drive
San Antonio, TX, 78212, USA
Tel: (210) 821-6094
Fax: (210) 821-6199
What is it like to be a child?
How does the world look to them? In spite of much research on adult correlates of consciousness, we know very little about the conscious experience of young children. Typically, philosophers have assumed that children’s consciousness must be more limited or impoverished than that of adults’. Indeed, many functional features that are correlated with adult consciousness, like executive control and focused attention, are much less apparent in children. In this project we explore an alternative hypothesis—that children’s visual experience might be different than, but not inferior too adult visual experience. In particular, we explore whether children’s consciousness might operate at a broad, more diffuse level, allowing them to appreciate the collective properties of their world (i.e. the “gist”) despite limited access to the details. This may seem surprising, since some theories of consciousness suggest that our Gestalt sense of seeing a vast and complete world is merely an illusion, and that the content of awareness is limited to the small number of details and objects to which our working memory provides us access. Recent work with adults, however, challenges this assumption, and shows that gist phenomenology relies on the operation of a dedicated visual mechanism known as ensemble coding. Ensemble coding operates parallel to, and separately from, access to the details. Here, we determine, for the first time, whether children are able to engage this important gist perception mechanism. In doing so, our work will provide novel and long-overdue evidence that children’s conscious experience is either richer or even more limited than previously thought. As such, our results should have far-reaching implications, not just for characterizing the development of ensemble coding for the first time, but also for providing new insights into the phenomenology of visual experience in childhood.
Is consciousness a binary (all-or-nothing) phenomenon or can it be present in degrees?
We can start with the assumption that awake, alert humans are conscious, but most of us assume that consciousness extends to other animals as well. What is it like to be a dog, or a bat, or a monkey, or a fly? Drs. Phillips and Sherwood suggest that we begin investigating this question by looking at some of our closest relatives, our primate cousins, chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys. These animals have brains that are remarkably similar to human brains, but may differ in some important ways. Phillips and Sherwood propose using resting state functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to study networks of brain activity involving the precuneus, a part of the parietal cortex that may play a special role in some of the mental activities that seem most uniquely human, such as curiosity, self-awareness, and self-reflection. Phillips proposes that primate evolution may have involved changes in the network of brain activity in different regions of the precuneus, and that transitions in the organization of these networks, from monkey, to ape, to human, can tell us something about the gradual emergence, in the history of primates, of the mental attributes of self-reflective consciousness, that quality of our mental life that we often think of, perhaps not entirely accurately, as most uniquely human.
Does the brain produce molecules that regulate levels of consciousness?
We know that states of consciousness are regulated by distributed brain networks and a diverse set of signaling molecules. One of the most common of these molecules is gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). We know that drugs that bind to GABA-A receptors can inactivate brain regions and turn on sleep. While many scientists predict that there is a naturally occuring substance, what pharmacologists call an "endogenous ligand," that can turn on GABA-A receptors and turn down consciousness, the molecule has yet to be identified. Dr Rye and colleagues have reported evidence that they have found the molecule. If they are correct, this finding will constitute a major advance in our understanding of the molecular mechanisms controlling states of consciousness, and suggest new possible therapeutic targets for treatments of disorders of consciousness.
Where in the brain does consciousness occur?
Neuroscientists believe that we become conscious of what we see when signals from the retina are processed in the brain. But where in the brain does consciousness occur? Maier and Cox propose a novel experimental technique to block conscious awareness, combined with brain imaging techniques, to show how the brain translates visual input into conscious percepts. This investigation will help answer the question of how and where unconscious neural activity generates conscious awareness.
The intimate relationship between consciousness and social awareness.
Animals with complex social organizations usually demonstrate complex cognitive capacities. Did consciousness evolve as a way for animals to solve social problems, such as who is a potential friend, and who is a potential enemy? Taylor Rubin and Frans de Waal propose to study the social behavior of spider monkeys in the Ecuadorian rain forest to help answer this question. They will investigate how communication patterns in monkeys predict the formation and dissolution of social groups. This research will help shed light on important questions about how the evolution of complex brains in primates mirrors the development of complex societies, culture and consciousness.
Creating a practical tool to assess levels of consciousness.
To be conscious of our world, we must be capable of combining a diverse array of sensory inputs—this is integration, and distinguishing what one set of sensory inputs means in contrast to another set—this is differentiation. Tononi and colleagues have proposed a mathematical model, integrated information theory, to account for how the representations of our conscious minds match the complexity of the world we are embedded in. Tononi and Boly propose a computer simulation to show how consciousness evolves, as simulated organisms evolve in a complex simulated world. They then propose to test this model of how conscious brains “match” input from a complex world, by predicting differences in brain activity when people look at meaningful visual scenes, in contrast to brain activity while viewing random visual “noise.”
An investigation of the hypothesis that consciousness is an emergent property produced when neurons collectively interact in special ways.
We understand many biological details of the brain, but relatively little about its most intriguing feature: it produces a conscious, self-aware mind. How does consciousness arise? A reasonable hypothesis shared by many is that consciousness is an emergent property produced when neurons collectively interact in special ways. This project will investigate emergent properties linked to consciousness in local cortical networks, and expect that such investigations will, for the first time, begin to reveal important aspects of the microstructure of consciousness.
How can we communicate with severely brain-injured patients?Continued funding on a project using EEG techniques to assess the presence of minimally conscious states in severely brain injured patients. The work was reported in the journal Lancet, and cited in a popular press account in the New York Times on November 10, 2011.