Decoding Consciousness with Geraint Rees
University College London, UK, Wed July 4th 2012.
Everything we know about the world comes to us through our brain. Yet for each of us our own conscious mental world of thoughts and feelings is isolated and private. Despite several centuries of research on the brain, communication through language or gesture remains the only way we can discover the conscious thoughts and experiences of others. This makes it difficult to compare our conscious experiences and discover whether we all experience the world in the same way. In this talk I will discuss recent work using non-invasive brain imaging showing that not only does our conscious perception of the world differ across individuals, but also that these individual differences are correlated with the structure and function of primary visual, parietal and prefrontal cortices. I will explore the implications of these findings for both neuroscience and society.
Social Emotions from the Lens of Social Neuroscience: Modulation, Development and Plasticity with Tania Singer
Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Leipzig, Germany. Thurs July 05th 2012.
With the emergence of social neuroscience, researchers have started to investigate the underpinnings of our ability to share and understand feelings of others. After a definition of concepts, I will shortly revise the main results of neuroscientific studies investigating empathic brain responses elicited by the observation of others in pain and show how these empathic brain responses are modulated by several contextual and stimulus intrinsic factors such as perceived fairness or ingroup/outgroup membership. Furthermore, I will present data from a novel paradigm on empathy for pleasant and unpleasant touch allowing the investigation of the neural mechanisms underlying affective egocentric bias in adults. These data will be complemented with developmental findings showing age-differences in egocentric bias, social emotions such as envy and Schadenfreude as well as strategic decision making during childhood. Finally, I present evidence of affective brain plasticity based on mental training of social emotions. These data will be discussed in lights of their relevance for recent models of social cognition.
Infants’ Sensitivity to Others’ Belief: Unconscious Theory of Mind? with Josef Perner
University of Salzburg, Austria. Fri July 06th 2012
At Sussex we (Clements & Perner 1994) discovered a dissociation. A majority of three year old children anticipate in their looking that an agent, who didn’t witness an object’s unexpected transfer to a new location will mistakenly return to the object’s original place. In contrast, when these children are asked where the agent will go to get the object, they adamantly claim that she will go to where the object actually is. Subsequent studies indicated that the dissociation is not one of explicit considerations between certain and uncertain possibilities (Ruffman et al 2001) and that not one between verbal and nonverbal measures. It also affects action responses that are given spontaneously and those that are given hesitantly. These results provided an analogy to the availability of unconscious (implicit) and conscious (explicit) knowledge in studies with blindsight patients and healthy adults with illusory stimuli and, thus, evidence for unconscious knowledge of a mistaken agent’s future action.
This dissociation has gained new relevance with reports that infants as young as 14 months (Onishi & Baillargeon 2005, and many studies since) or even 7 months (Kovács et al 2010) show similar sensitivity to belief in their looking and other spontaneous responses. Although the dissociation between spontaneous and deliberate responding has affinity with the distinction between unconscious and conscious knowledge, we have no good understanding what leaves the one un- and makes the other conscious. I will elaborate the idea that spontaneous responding is based on abstraction of behavioural regularities, which may be causally shallow (behaviour rules) or deep (belief formation), while deliberate responding is based on understanding the agent’s reasons for acting.
Studying the Murine Mind using Large Scale Observatories with Christof Koch
Caltech, Wed July 04th 2012
Mice are a promising model system for studying the neuronal correlates of consciousness. Their brain structure is similar to that of the human, they display complex behavior, their underlying neuronal responses can be measured using optics and silicon probes at cellular level of resolution and the underlying neuronal networks can be modeled. In contrast to the blunt and edentate tools available to probe the human brain, optogenetics allows scientists to delicately, transiently, and reversibly control defined events in defined cell types at defined times in mice with millisecond resolution. That is, unlike the vast majority of human studies, experiments in mice move from correlation to causation, from observing that this circuit is activated whenever the subject is perceiving something to inferring that this circuit is necessary for a particular behavior or a conscious perception. I shall report on the ten year, large-scale (several hundred scientists and engineers) and high throughput efforts to build brain observatories to understand the mouse visual system that are ongoing at the Allen Institute.