Mind and brain

Unravelling the mystery of consciousness

Taking a unique, integrated scientific approach to study conscious experience

Brian with disection showing inner

The mind and brain research theme is helping to unravel the mind, brain and consciousness, from a cellular level to self and personal identity.

Understanding how consciousness arises from underlying physiology and brain activity stands out as one of the core scientific challenges of the 21st century. A unique new research centre at Sussex has brought together an interdisciplinary team to study the complex brain mechanisms that give rise to conscious experience.

Unravelling the mystery of consciousness has long been considered to lie beyond the realm of scientific study. However, a unique interdisciplinary group of researchers at the new Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science (SCCS) are taking an integrated approach to the study of consciousness, hoping to shed new light on this age-old problem.

Founded with the help of a generous donation from the Dr Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation, the SCCS brings together expertise in neuroscience, informatics, psychology, cognitive science, artificial intelligence and neuropsychiatry. The Centre is co-directed by Dr Anil Seth in the School of Informatics, and Professor Hugo Critchley, the Chair of Psychiatry at Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS). Its research is focused on two complementary areas: using a basic science approach to understand the neural mechanisms that generate consciousness; and studying clinical applications with the ultimate goal of improving diagnosis and therapy.

Getting a complete picture of 'consciousness'

Many recent research approaches to studying consciousness have involved identifying neural correlates; that is, changes in brain activity that occur in response to a specific stimulus. Such an approach does not, however, necessarily explain why a particular conscious experience occurs. Every conscious experience that we have is unique, and each is a very precisely integrated whole that is informed by a multitude of sensory stimuli, as well as our own physiological and emotional responses. To begin to understand such fundamental yet complex properties of consciousness, one basic science approach being taken by Dr Seth and theoretical physicist Dr Adam Barrett is the use of large-scale computational modelling and new mathematics to identify the distinct neural mechanisms that account for such complex integration of information. Another approach to understanding conscious experience in the normal' brain is through the study of unusual perceptual states. Synaesthesia is a remarkable condition where external stimuli such as letters or numbers are perceived by the affected individual as specific and consistent conjunctions of colours. Working with Dr Seth and Dr Jamie Ward from the School of Psychology, DPhil student Cass Gould is using fMRI brain imaging and a novel Granger causality analysis (originally used in economics) to study the neural networks that underlie this unusual phenomenon and how this can improve our understanding of conscious perception in normal subjects.

Clinically, the work of the SCCS focuses on the pathology behind disturbances in normal consciousness that exist in neuropsychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia, and the neurological deficits that occur in patients with severe brain injury. In one project, Dr Nick Medford, working with Professor Critchley, is using fMRI to test the idea that we feel less real' when the brain fails to properly integrate external sensations with perceptions of our own bodily state. Aside from its own considerable clinical value, the study of clinical conditions characterised by altered states of consciousness generates data that can feed back to inform and advance basic science. Ultimately, it is hoped that this synergy between basic science and clinical research will allow the development of new methods of diagnosis and treatment for clinical conditions.

Cass's perspective

Cass Gould

It's really exciting to be involved in a field that draws on the expertise of so many disciplines. Everyone's background is so diverse that we can cover all bases when addressing a scientific question. At the same time I've come to recognise that developing and defending my own perspective is essential, as no one has had exactly the same experience as me. I also feel very privileged to be working in an area in which there is still so much to discover. It is testament to the researchers at Sussex that we are investigating under the heading of 'Consciousness Science', when even 20 years ago it was a taboo topic. My own work in synaesthesia will give us an insight into what it's like to have a conscious experience that is very different from the norm. Through a combination of philosophy, psychology, neuroscience and informatics, we'll not only find out what it is like to have synaesthesia but we will also try to understand what causes this amazing experience. In the process I have the opportunity to help develop a number of tools that can be applied in many areas of research, so I'm convinced that our contribution will extend into many fields.

Cass Gould
DPhil student