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ERC

DEFCON1 Result In Brief

Project reference: 230355
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: Netherlands

A more scientific take on consciousness emerges

Five novel experiments challenge the traditional, subjective definition of consciousness, bringing a wealth of new information to the field.
A more scientific take on consciousness emerges
The idea of consciousness, beyond simplistic definitions of 'being in the present moment' or 'knowing the difference between sleep and wakefulness', is difficult to explain. Traditional testing of consciousness and its components, from sensation to awareness, has proven subjective and inaccurate, being compromised by attention, sensation, language or memory. The EU-funded DEFCON1 (A new definition of consciousness) project sought to redefine consciousness in neural terms.

Assuming that the conscious-unconscious divide is the difference between feedforward and recurrent processing in the brain, the project team hypothesised that consciousness's recurrent part induces NMDA receptor activation, and hence learning. Based on this, consciousness can be seen as independent of cognitive functions like access and attention, implying that conscious processing can exist without the subject knowing it.

Contradicting therefore traditional interpretations on consciousness, the project aimed to support its new premise on experiments in the area of vision, using electroencephalogram (EEG), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and transcranial magnetic simulation (TMS) methods, as well as on pharmacological interventions. It conducted several novel experiments to demonstrate the viability of the new definition.

One experiment found that consciousness is indeed independent of cognitive functions, and that for every cognitive function there is a conscious and unconscious version, demonstrating that consciousness and cognition are actually orthogonal. Another experiment used fMRI, EEG and TMS to examine conscious visual sensations like perceptual grouping and inference, also supporting a more neural definition of consciousness.

The project team then exploited neural measurements during inattentional blindness and through fragile visual short-term memory, confirming that unattended representations possess phenomenal properties like perceptual organisation, amodal completion and inference. This also corroborated the idea that individuals can experience conscious sensations without knowing it.

Subsequently, neural and behavioural research showed that perceptual learning is possible without attention, yet not without conscious sensation. Further work offered valuable insight related to the molecular mechanisms required for recurrent processing and conscious vision. Together, the experiments successfully paved the way for a more objective and more scientific definition of consciousness.

Related information

Keywords

Consciousness, sensation, awareness, DEFCON1, neural, cognitive functions
Record Number: 183235 / Last updated on: 2016-08-18
Domain: Biology, Medicine