Consciousness – the research challenge

The nature of consciousness is mysterious.

Consciousness is something we all know. It is the essence of who we are.

It is the subjective experience of our thoughts, feelings, perception of the world around us, and our place in it – why it is like something to be us.

It is the reason we see colours the way we do or enjoy the distinctive experience of the smell of coffee. It is the feeling of elation, love or sorrow. Without it, literally nothing matters.

Yet the concept of consciousness is notoriously ambiguous and difficult to define. And the intimate, subjective and qualitative nature of consciousness presents new challenges to scientific investigation. As it stands, we don’t have a coherent framework for understanding consciousness.

Beginning to define consciousness

In normal use, the terms conscious and consciousness cover a wide range of mental phenomena.

There are many different ways an animal, person or cognitive system can be regarded as conscious. Am I conscious just because I am sensing and responding to the world, or am I conscious only when I am awake, alert and capable of response? What about when dreaming?

What is the difference in being unconscious and conscious at all? And how do we measure consciousness since it is a first-person experience and the verbal reports are not always reliable?

We talk about levels of consciousness – a notion used to describe the global states of consciousness associated with epileptic absence seizures, or anaesthesia, even sleep. Yet it is not entirely clear how levels of consciousness are supposed to stack on top of each other.

A more demanding sense of creature consciousness might define conscious experience as being aware that you are aware or having a sense of self. This tries to capture our first-person perspective on the world, the subjective narrative persisting through time, and the sense of ownership on our body.

But then what does this say about consciousness when it comes to babies? And how robust is the sense of self for patients with dementia or mental illness?

There are also a variety of ways to think of a conscious mental ‘state’. A state may be regarded as conscious if it has qualitative or phenomenal states (qualia) – and the way we see, or feel or smell something is different for each of us. How do we even know that other people experience things, such as the colour red, the way we do?

All this uncertainty carries over to the role of consciousness in decision making and how it differs depending on the type of decision being made. Or what determines experiences of free will, sense of agency and volition – why and how can we have the feeling that actions originate with us, when the brain is subject to causal powers beyond our control?

These many different concepts of consciousness reflect its rich complexity. Understanding it will require a range of conceptual and scientific tools to try and deal with all its many aspects.
But it is not just its conceptual complexity that makes a scientific understanding of consciousness so challenging.

The ‘hard problem’

Alongside philosophical discourse, a new science of consciousness has emerged over the past couple of decades.

Over this time, as the world of neuroscience rapidly changes, we have made astonishing discoveries about the brain. At the same time, the field of artificial intelligence is on a rapid trajectory, with a focus on recreating the abilities of the human brain (and giving rise to serious ethical questions).

Yet the intrigue around consciousness remains, ever present like the last guest at a party who won’t leave. This is sometimes called ‘the hard problem’ of consciousness referring to the explanatory gap of why a physical state is conscious rather than unconscious. It is the age-old mind-body problem, a persistent philosophical problem discussed at least since Descartes.

It’s the question of why all those complex brain processes feel like anything at all from inside? Or what makes it the case that we’re not mere zombies or robots, capable of processing information and responding to our external environment but with the lights out inside? Is there anything non-mysterious that can scientifically explain our inner universe?

Determining the material underpinnings of consciousness

In the scientific field focused on delivering findings on where we find consciousness, there is consensus that consciousness arises somehow in the brain – that within our brain, the combined activity of billions of neurons generates your conscious experience.

But what are the critical brain regions for consciousness and what are the structures or neuronal events minimally required for a subjective experience, or conscious percept? Is it a type of cell in the brain that fires, or is it communication between certain types of the brain?

While it is agreed that the human brain has the required ingredients for consciousness, it remains debated whether a brain is necessary. Can consciousness be supported in complex artificial systems? Could it ever ‘feel’ like something to be a robot? And what will it mean for society if the answer to that question is ‘yes’?

These are just some of the questions motivating the work within the Melbourne Monash Consciousness Research network.

With consciousness regarded as one of the ‘final frontiers’ for science to conquer it seems clear that an explanation of consciousness will have to go beyond the usual methods of science. Combining a range of expertise, our multidisciplinary group tackle these research areas from all sides, leading to creative and high impact research.

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Why does consciousness research matter?

An understanding of consciousness, and the mechanisms that create our experience of the world and our place within it, is more important than ever before. Significant to our everyday lives, consciousness research has far reaching implications for: