A decade of consciousness science at Sussex
By: Neil Vowles
Last updated: Tuesday, 28 April 2020
On April 21st 2010, the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science held its opening event at the Chowen lecture theatre in the Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS). This event inaugurated a decade of leading research, clinical application, teaching, and public engagement – and to the recognition of Sussex as the go-to place for multidisciplinary consciousness research anywhere in the world.
Ten years on, the Centre remains firmly at the international forefront of consciousness science and its clinical application. Their researchers have published more than 400 research papers across a variety of fields and in high-profile journals. The Centre has pioneered a dedicated doctoral training programme supporting 10 Ph.D. students since 2010, 7 of which have now graduated. Recognising the world-leading contributions of researchers in the Centre, co-directors Anil Seth and Hugo Critchley were both listed in 2019 Web of Science Highly Cited Researchers List for having made sustained contributions in the top 1% of their field over the past decade.
Research in the Sackler Centre is distinguished by its interdisciplinary nature. Spanning the Schools of Engineering and Informatics, Psychology, Philosophy, and Medicine (BSMS), the Centre brings together outstanding neuroscientists, engineers, philosophers, and clinicians. Together they develop theory, advance research methods, and apply technological innovations to understand the mechanisms that underpin healthy and disordered states of consciousness.
Over the last ten years, Centre researchers have made many high-impact discoveries, ranging from new mathematical measures of conscious ‘level’ to demonstrations that subjective experiences can be altered through extensive cognitive training. A core theme throughout is that conscious perception is constructed for each of us by our brain’s predictions about what’s out there in the world – and in the body.
Clinical research in the Centre is closely integrated with these advances in the basic science of consciousness. Over the last decade, this research has evolved from computational, experimental and neuroimaging studies of healthy individuals and patients with clinical disorders to clinical trials of novel interventions. By focusing on the core mechanisms of altered perception, cognition and emotion, clinically-oriented consciousness science delves beneath the symptoms to address the causes of psychological variation and psychiatric disorders across many conditions including depression, autism, anxiety, dissocation, Tourette syndrome, and schizophrenia. At the same time, this deeper understanding of psychiatric conditions sheds fresh light on biological mechanisms of conscious experience in general.
Accompanying these high-profile research contributions, the Sackler Centre has played a leading role in the wider community of consciousness researchers, as well as in public engagement and outreach. There have been many highlights over the last decade.
In 2012, the Centre hosted the 16th annual meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness (ASSC16) at the Brighton Dome, which is still remembered as one of the most successful in the history of this international society. This event also saw its dedication to public engagement take flight. Alongside the academic programme Centre researchers put on a one-day public-engagement ‘expo’, which attracted more than 1800 people.
This focus on public outreach remains a core strength of the Centre. In 2015, the Centre’s researchers produced a year-long exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, London: States of Mind: Tracing the Edges of Consciousness, showcasing perspectives from artists, psychologists, philosophers and neuroscientists on conscious experience. In 2017, Anil Seth gave a highly successful TED talk - Your brain hallucinates your conscious reality - which has now received more than 9.5 million unique views – bringing the Centre’s research to a truly global audience. Many other Centre members contribute to strong public presence across the airwaves, and digital and print media, as well as at public events such as New Scientist Live and the British Science Festival.
Looking ahead, although much progress has been made, there is still much to be done.
Co-director Anil Seth says: “Deciphering the brain basis of consciousness remains a key challenge for 21st Century science, and its application in psychiatry and neurology is becoming ever more important. At the Centre, we are proud of what we have accomplished already, and we are as excited as ever to continue the journey. Our future success depends on attracting and retaining the best minds – and our reputation at the forefront of consciousness science leaves us ideally placed to do just this.”
Hugo Critchley adds: "Consciousness science, and the tools it brings, is profoundly reshaping how we approach our functional neuroscientific understanding of the mind, the self, mental health and psychiatric disorders. This new detailed, often mathematically informed understanding of the mind and psychological dysfunction is informing fresh approaches to treatment. A next stage for the field is to build further bridges between consciousness neuroscience and advances in molecular neuroscience. A comprehensive account of thoughts, feelings and behaviours would be impoverished without a robust multilevel model of conscious selfhood and subjective experience ”
Since its inauguration, the Centre has been generously supported by the Dr. Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation, among many other sources of high-level competitive funding (including ERC, CIFAR, EPSRC, MRC, Wellcome Trust, MQ, ARUK). We are very grateful to all these funders, without whom its work would not have been possible.