Sussex neuroscientist wins €2.43 million grant to probe mystery of human consciousness
By: Neil Vowles
Last updated: Thursday, 22 April 2021
Neuroscientists at the University of Sussex will attempt to answer one of the oldest questions into human experience, having won a substantial research grant.
The CONSCIOUS project, led by Professor Anil Seth, has been awarded a €2.43 million Advanced Investigator grant over five years from the European Research Council to explore how conscious experiences depend on the brain.
The new research project aims to progress beyond existing methods of establishing correlations between patterns of brain activity and aspects of consciousness towards developing and testing explanations of properties of consciousness in terms of neural mechanisms.
One strand of the CONSCIOUS project will explore the nature of specific conscious perceptions, including the influential idea of the brain as a ‘prediction machine’. Here, the team will develop novel machine learning models to investigate how particular conscious experiences can be understood as arising from the brain’s best guesses of the causes of its sensory inputs.
The project’s study of conscious experiences will also involve developing new theoretically principled and practically applicable measures of the concept of emergence and applying them to neurophysiological data that reflect different global states of consciousness.
The multidisciplinary project will incorporate aspects of cognitive neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, statistical physics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.
Prof Seth, Professor of Cognitive & Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex and Co-Director of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science, said: “I’m delighted to have been selected for an ERC Advanced Investigator grant. This five-year award will allow me and my team to develop exciting new lines of research into the brain basis of consciousness and perception.
"I’m also honoured to be joining the prestigious community of ERC Investigators across Europe, helping to ensure that European research remains central to what we do here at Sussex.”
In total the European Research Council Advanced Grants 2020 competition will see €507 million of research funding go to 209 leading researchers across Europe to investigate a broad range of subjects, including the links between obesity and pancreatic cancer, threats from wildlife viruses, brain-inspired neural network computer chips, and new ways for architects to design the buildings of the future.
UK institutions enjoyed the greatest success from this round of funding, receiving 51 of the grants available.
ERC President Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon said: “For this last ERC call under Horizon 2020, over 200 researchers will be funded to follow their scientific instinct and dreams. Still, the great increase in demand led to a very fierce competition: only 8% of candidates were successful.
“We look forward to seeing what major insights and breakthroughs will spring from this investment and trust.”