Cracking consciousness: can science explain the mystery of ourselves?

Technological and scientific advances are bringing us closer to understanding a centuries-old mystery - how your brain generates the unique experience of being you.

Consciousness head

Two complete strangers, eyes closed, sit opposite a lamp. It shines a sunrise glow onto their shut eyelids before bursting into frantic strobes of white light for a couple of minutes and then fading to darkness.

This is no ordinary lamp. This is Lucia n° 03, a state-of-the-art device made in Austria that scientists believe could help them unlock the mystery of consciousness. The specific patterns of stroboscopic light it pulses onto your closed eye can induce various unusual experiences, including vivid geometric hallucinations or feelings of being disconnected from your own body.

“As you’re having these very intense experiences, your sense of your body drifts away, until it’s really just like this pure conscious experience,” says David Schwartzman, a researcher in the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex.

Watch the video (warning - contains flashing images): David Schwartzman on how flicker stimulation can replicate the feeling of being disconnected from your body

David is part of a 25-strong team of neuroscientists, psychologists, computer scientists and psychiatrists at the Sackler Centre dedicated to cracking consciousness. Co-director Anil Seth says: “Consciousness is the last great mystery. Without consciousness there is, really, nothing at all.”

A world without consciousness would be like a show without an audience.

We all know what it is like to be conscious, to be awake and aware, to have thoughts, perceptions and feelings. It is the most familiar thing in the world to us and life would be pretty meaningless without it. As a Sackler Centre PhD student, Michael Schartner, neatly puts it, a world without consciousness would be “like a show without an audience”.

Yet we still know relatively little about how it occurs.

The rewards for finding out would be huge, both purely scientifically and for the potentially transformative impact it would have on how we understand and treat psychiatric and neurological disorders.

The mind-body problem

It is perhaps this mix of familiarity and intrigue that makes the group’s event at this year’s British Science Festival such a tantalising prospect. The Lucia experiment is just one of a number of interactive virtual and augmented reality demos being laid on for festival-goers at Brighton Dome on Saturday 9 September. Elsewhere in the room, people wearing virtual-reality headsets will find out what it’s like to ‘swap’ bodies, explore substitutional realities, and discover just how much their brains rely on prompt feedback from the eyes and ears.

Two participants experience 'swapping bodies' at In Touch With RealityTwo members of the public experience a 'body swap' using virtual reality.

The interactive event, called ‘From body to being’, is all about exploring what scientists have termed the ‘mind-body problem’ - how it is possible that your mind, and in particular the specific and unique experience of being you, arises from your brain, a lump of biological matter.

For many years this mystery was largely the domain of philosophers and spiritualists. But some scientists believe that we are now on the way towards mapping our inner mental lives to specific brain activity patterns. Michael Schartner says: “Science demystifies phenomena, as was the case with, say, electricity or temperature, to the point that we can use these insights to build technology.”

Predictive brain

Indeed, scientific theories about consciousness have existed for some time. It was the 19th-century physicist Hermann von Helmholtz who came up with the idea that the brain is a prediction engine, that the world you experience is your brain’s best guess at reality.

This idea made headline news in 2015 when a photo of a blue and black dress divided the internet (search #TheDress), with half of people seeing it as white and gold and the other half as its actual colours. It was our brain’s expectation of how objects should appear under different light sources that caused the confusion.

#thedress

This original photo of this dress (centre) caused a social-media storm with half seeing it as blue and black (correct) and half as white and gold (incorrect).

Major advances in brain imaging, stimulation and virtual-reality technologies in recent years have scratched the black-and-white top layer off Helmholtz’s theory to unveil a technicolour field of largely unexplored science.

The science of colour is in fact one area where the Sackler Centre has had some big successes. It was the first research group to show that it’s possible to train people to have new experiences similiar to synaesthetes – that is, to experience letters as having particular colours. With increased memory performance and other cognitive benefits a key feature of synaesthesia, you can see the appeal of replicating the phenomenon.

The advances being made at the Sackler Centre and elsewhere have certainly captured the public’s imagination – a TED talk by Anil, delivered earlier this year, has already been watched more than two million times, just weeks after being uploaded online.

Treating psychiatric disorders

But for the researchers involved, their excitement with the science is bound up in something far more fundamental. If we can design experiments that alter how healthy people view the world, we can not only better understand the brain mechanisms underlying conscious perception, we can also develop new approaches to treat people who have neurological and psychiatric disorders.

Indeed, that has been the raison d'être of the Sackler Centre since its formation six years ago, to gain a better understanding of conscious experience and use it to transform clinical approaches to a wide range of disorders, from coma to insomnia, from depression and schizophrenia to autism and dementia.

Already, innovative techniques such as transcranial magnetic stimulation – a bit like “banging on the brain and listening to its echo”, according to Anil – are highlighting remarkable levels of consciousness in patients in vegetative states, and there is a new study underway at the Sackler Centre to explore what happens in the brains of people with Tourette’s Syndrome.

Watch the video: Anil Seth on how the brain creates experiences

The next threshold is to find ways to measure not just the level of your consciousness but what you are actually conscious of, your conscious 'content'.

A new study at the Sackler Centre hopes to do just that, using Lucia. The intensity of the stimulation provided by the device offers scientists like Anil, David and Michael a unique opportunity to map specific conscious experiences to their underlying neural activity, without relying on having different sensory inputs.

In experiments, the range of experiences is vast. Where one person might feel disassociated from their body, another might see spirals of colour in their mind’s eye.

Therein lies the challenge. In a field of science where no two examples are the same, researchers are searching for those threads of universality that, upon testing and re-testing, eventually become scientific fact.

The last big mystery for humankind therefore promises no great eureka moment. It is instead likely to be advanced by intrepid, patient detective work by groups such as the Sackler Centre, spurred on by a steady stream of willing and, crucially, open-minded members of the public.

By James Hakner

From body to being’ takes place from 12 noon to 4pm on Saturday 9 September at Brighton Dome cafe bar.

Anil will also be delivering the Psychology Scientific Section Presidential Address  - ‘What is consciousness?’ - at 4pm on Saturday 9 September at Sallis Benney, Grand Parade.

The Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex was created in 2010 following a significant donation from the Dr Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation. Its co-directors are Professor Anil Seth in the University’s School of Engineering and Informatics and Professor Hugo Critchley in the Brighton and Sussex Medical School.