As recently as the late 20th century, the study of consciousness was considered outside the realm of science. But today, newly developed techniques for measuring brain activity are enabling scientists to refine theories about consciousness and bring substance to the grand mystery of our existence.
In turn, an improved understanding of the physical and biological basis of consciousness has the potential to revolutionise many aspects of healthcare.
Research could positively transform:
- Clinical approaches to a wide range of psychiatric disorders – is our internal experience a true representation of our environment? Or is it framed by interpretation? Are we seeing what we expect to see, as opposed to just pure sensory data? How does this affect someone with mental illness and the way in which we experience ourselves in the world? From depression and schizophrenia to autism and Tourette’s syndrome psychiatric disorders are an area of interest for consciousness researchers. How do these states change the affected people’s own day-to-day subjective experience, their sense of self and aspirations for the future, or their personal autonomy? By investigating the neural underpinnings of consciousness, researchers could lead to improved understanding of psychiatric disorders and age-related altered mental status and improve symptom management.
- Neurology and reduced states of consciousness – traumatic brain injuries can leave people non-responsive to bed-side tests. So, how do we know if they are still conscious? Similarly, every year thousands of people wake during surgeries under general anaesthetic but are unable to move or speak. The insight to measure consciousness could make it possible for doctors to understand with certainty whether someone is having an experience when they cannot ask them directly. But what exactly would we be measuring? Are there levels of consciousness? Or should we be distinguishing modes of consciousness (such as waking, dreaming and seizures), from states of consciousness which are content specific (such as hearing or feeling pain)? By looking at where and how it forms in the brain, and where the boundary lies between being conscious and unconscious – even exploring whether we can measure consciousness – researchers can begin to use these learnings in clinical settings.
- The way we view cognitive decline and dementia – as an ageing population, we will all experience first-hand, or have loved ones with cognitive decline and dementia. How does our conscious experience of the world, and our sense of self-change and personal autonomy change as we get older? This sense of who we are at various times in our life has a profound impact on the way we treat the very young, and very late in their lives.
- Understanding epilepsy – and the use of bionics to improve the diagnosis and management of seizure-related conditions
- Our understanding of attention, memory and emotions – why do some people struggle with maintaining attention while others may have trouble regulating emotions? To what extent are these traits ‘hard-wired’ in someone’s personality or able to be changed? How can we better enable testing and individualised feedback for people to understand themselves and their relations to others?
- The benefits of meditation and the regulation of attention – what is the nature of changes in brain activity during the practice of meditation? And what are the cognitive and neural changes that occur due to long-term meditation practice? How does it affect attentional processes such as ability to control perceptual rivalry or sustained attention? What are the effects of meditation on clinically depressed patients? The investigation of states related to meditation has implications for the science of consciousness and vice versa.