Now that we have discussed the nitty gritty details of consciousness research design, application, and significance, I thought it would be fitting to address what issues exist in the field of consciousness research and what gaps are to be addressed. One of the main issues in consciousness research is that researchers, both from the philosophy and the psychology / neuroscience end, argue over what the true definition of consciousness is. As I covered in the first blog post, philosophy still struggles with this task. I mean, what is the purpose of us being self-aware? In other words, why be conscious at all? And what does it even mean to be conscious, and what are the mechanisms that give rise to it? In neuroscience, there is lots of controversy on the best method to qualitatively and scientifically assess and measure consciousness as well as discover neural correlates of consciousness. Working memory, as we discussed earlier, has been the longstanding sign of consciousness since it involves temporarily and consciously retaining information; however, many other studies have suggested that working memory can also be an unconscious process. Such studies have shown that stimuli that participants are not aware of perceiving can still be retained in working memory for some amount of time.
So, if consciousness cannot be defined as working memory, then what can it be defined as? Researchers often tackle this question, as we know, by attempting to identify Neural Correlates of Consciousness (NCC). Remember, NCC are the minimal neural activation needed for a specific state of consciousness, such as sleep versus awake, or for a specific content of consciousness, such as visual consciousness. However, while consciousness can be associated with different brain structures, there is contention in the field about NCC’s ability to actually
scientifically observe, categorize, and define the philosophical concept of consciousness from a neuroscience perspective. Again, why does it exist, and what content makes up consciousness? Finding the source of consciousness may not exactly provide answers to these questions or even tell us what mechanisms in the brain give rise to consciousness. However, even taking a step back from the NCC approach and simply studying neural processes in depth, such as the mapping of a sensory input to a motor output, will not exactly explain why we have conscious experiences. For example, why not carry out these neural processes without being fully conscious of it? A solution to these issues in addressing these specific questions may be to focus on studying cortical processing instead, especially visual processing which has been a longstanding popular model and example of consciousness to study. Studying cortical processing can be really helpful in defining consciousness form a neural standpoint and explaining its mechanisms. By making these discoveries, we can start to understand the need and reason for consciousness. Now, by no means am I saying the NCC approach is ineffective; the NCC approach is one of the most booming methods of consciousness research right now. I am just bringing to light issues that experienced researchers have pointed out about how this approach may not answer all our questions about consciousness nor be particularly helpful for some of the deeper questions regarding consciousness.
Besides just issues with the NCC approach, there are some concerns about the populations selected for consciousness research. Since there is no reliable measure for consciousness, researchers often develop these by focusing on studying unconscious patients. However, some difficulties with studying unconsciousness are ensuring that participants have complete and true unawareness and distinguishing which information is perceived consciously. Drawing the line between consciousness and unconsciousness can be difficult, as we saw from a clinical standpoint especially. Also, what if an unconscious patient does not understand the commands, due to hearing issues, confusion, etc.? No one would know the patient is incapable of understanding the response anyway due to their lack of behavioral responses, therefore from a neuroimaging standpoint they would be labeled as completely unconscious based on that research study paradigm. Finally, while such research on unconscious patients using
neuroimaging has been very successful in deriving more definitive measures to assessing consciousness, how can we in the future measure exactly and holistically what a nonresponsive patient is conscious of? How can we best understand what the conscious experience of a patient with a disorder of consciousness truly like if we cannot personally experience it?
Finally, the last gaps in the field to be addressed that I will discuss here concern the application of neuroimaging results from studying patients with disorders of consciousness. While I am a huge fan of such research, even I have to admit that it will take a while to implement such changes to monitoring systems within clinical institutions based on consciousness research, not due to any issues with the research itself but more due to the technical expertise required to observe and analyze neuroimaging results. Also, there could be a risk of false negatives in such monitoring systems for numerous reasons, including the one we discussed before about a patient potentially not understanding the commands. Lastly, consciousness still remains a niche topic within the larger field of cognitive neuroscience; since consciousness relates to many fields of cognitive neuroscience, such as studies of memory and perception, it is imperative to integrate it within the larger field of neuroscience.
How can you get involved?
If you have enjoyed reading this series as much as I have enjoyed writing it, you may be wondering how you can get more involved in this topic! First of all, for all my fellow UCLA students out there, you are in the right place already. There are several amazing consciousness researchers who do super cool work at the school you literally go to! The researchers I will discuss in this article I by no means whatsoever a comprehensive list, so if you want to find more researchers, try checking out the Brain Research Institute website or other UCLA faculty pages such as the psychology department! Also, if you aren’t interested in working in one lab but rather want to just learn more about consciousness research in general, there are always many seminars that researchers give at UCLA about their lab’s work, so keep on the look out for those! They may be emailed out by the neuroscience department or you can look at different events calendars at UCLA such as on the BRI or the UCLA graduate programs in bioscience website.
Dr. Monti is one of the top consciousness researchers out there (so I am kind of fangirling that he works at UCLA), and has designed several extroardinary and widely popularized fMRI consciousness paradigms that I even discussed throughout this series! (Remember the playing tennis vs. walking around your house task?) Dr.
Monti’s work focuses on the relationship between language and thought as well as the mechanisms of cognition and consciousness within populations with disorders of consciousness (specifically vegetative state, minimally conscious state, and coma patients). His lab uses behavioral methods and fMRI to study both of these issues (lab website: https://montilab.psych.ucla.edu/).
Dr. Zaidel use behavioral, neuroanatomy, and neurophysiology (such as EEG) techniques to study consciousness from a cognitive neuroscience perspective. His lab specifically studies the unique functions of and interaction between both hemispheres of the brain regarding several cognitive functions such as perception, error-monitoring, social cognition, emotions, problem solving, and attention. The populations he studies include healthy participants and those with brain injuries, such as hemispheric lesions, or developmental issues, such as schizophrenia, ADHD, and dyslexia (lab website: https://zaidellab.psych.ucla.edu/).
Dr. Lau studies the link between metacognition, or consciousness, and perceptual awareness. He specifically uses neuroimaging (a specific type of fMRI), psychophysics, invasive electrophysiology, and psychophysics to study several neural mechanisms of consciousness, including attention, metacognition, and perception. The lab also aims to develop neurofeedback treatments to lessen issues in patients with phobias, specifically fearful memories, which is a precursor for the lab’s desire to tackle PTSD with their treatment techniques in the future (lab website: https://sites.google.com/view/hakwan-lau-lab).
Besides researchers there are also several courses on consciousness that you can take at UCLA, both in the neuroscience department and the philosophy department. Full course descriptions of what is listed here come from the neuroscience department website (http://www.neurosci.ucla.edu/course-descriptions.html) and the philosophy course listings for summer 2019 session (https://philosophy.ucla.edu/courses-schedule/summer-courses/), so maybe these philosophy course may end up being offered throughout the year or next summer.
Consciousness: Current Debates
This is a seminar that covers the current issues within the field of consciousness and cognitive neuroscience research, which is great because if you read this series you may have a head start! The seminar puts specific emphasis on the modern theories and ideas on conscious perception as well as an issue we discussed earlier which is using visual processing as a popular model of conscious perception.
Ethical, Legal, and Societal Implications of Cognitive Neuroscience
This class involves a lot of student debate on the use of data from neuroimagery for legal purposes such as mining for evidence from an individual or monitoring the likelihood of their criminal behavior in the future. Students also analyze the pros and cons of brain stimulation, brain-enhancing drugs, neural prostheses, and memory dampening techniques.
Introduction to Philosophy of Mind: Selves, Ghosts and Machines
This course delves into a discussion of the purpose of humans relative to the “natural world” and whether humans belong in this world. In considering this, students delve into topics of consciousness, self, the mind, rationality, animal cognition, and unconsciousness to dive deeper into what exactly humans are.
Topics in History of Philosophy: Relationship of the Mind and Body in Early Modern Philosophy
This class considers the mind-body relationship more intimately from the perspective of Descartes and Spinoza. By analyzing various literature and thinking within a philosophical mindset, students will contemplate how the mind and body are related, what factors are dependent on the mind-body relationship, and what it means for the mind and body to be united or not united in the first place.
Closing and Thanks:
So this concludes our five part and quarter-long journey delving into consciousness. I hope you have enjoyed learning more about this heavy, deep topic alongside me, because I have had such a fun time researching and putting together this series. Consciousness has become a newfound interest of mine, one I never really thought of before. Thank you so much for giving me this platform to discuss the neuroscience and neurotech issues that interest me, and, as always, stay curious.