Consciousness is one of the greatest mysteries we could ever face.  Answering the question of what it means to be human seems almost beyond our reach, but, with the advent of novel scientific techniques and growing interdisciplinary research, scientists are trying to do just that.

I was lucky enough to interview Dr. Anil Seth, a renowned expert in the science of consciousness. He is a Reader in Informatics and co-directs the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science here at Sussex. Dr. Seth is also an EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) Leadership Fellow, a Visiting Professor at the University of Amsterdam, and the overall chair for the ASSC16: the 16th Annual Meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness, which is happening this July in central Brighton (www.theassc.org; look for #ASSC16 on Twitter).

What was it that enticed you to the world of consciousness science?

Consciousness is at once the most familiar and most mysterious aspect of our existence. People have been wondering about consciousness since they’ve been wondering about anything at all, but it still seems totally mysterious how the wine of experience emerges from the water of actual physical stuff. And consciousness is absolutely central to our lives: without consciousness there would be no self, no world, nothing at all. We know it depends on the brain, and we now have the technology and intellectual framework to ask how. I honestly can’t think of a more exciting challenge to work on.

What’s your understanding of consciousness today?

I don’t think anyone would claim that the problem of consciousness is solved, but neither are we totally in the dark. For example, we know that consciousness depends on specific parts of the brain (the so-called ‘thalamocortical system’), that there is a difference between being conscious at all (for example, being awake versus being asleep) and being conscious of something (such as the experience of drinking pomegranate juice); and that even our experience of our own body and self is remarkably malleable and is probably best considered as a fantasy that happens to coincide with reality. A big challenge now is to link experimental evidence from brain imaging and the like to exciting new theories, coming from theoretical neuroscience and mathematics, which try to explain in formal terms what subjective experience is really like.

Do you think that there is a harder problem than consciousness?

The origin of the universe, a cure for cancer, how to manage environmental degradation – all of these are hard and important problems. But the problem of consciousness may be unique in being hard, fundamental to the human condition, yet ripe for major advances in our understanding thanks to a revitalised attitude and new technologies such as brain imaging. On the other hand there’s a temptation to see consciousness as ‘hard’ precisely because it’s so precious to us and because some people still think its impossible to objectively study subjectivity (which of course it isn’t).

What do you feel has been your biggest achievement?

One thing that’s gone well has been establishing the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science here at Sussex, perhaps the first of its kind, which I now co-direct with the neuropsychiatrist Professor Hugo Critchley. A measure of our success since starting up two years ago is that this year (July 2-6, 2012) we are hosting the main international conference on consciousness science, which will bring toge

ther about 500 researchers, students, media and public for a week of exciting talks and events. The conference (ASSC16) will be held in the Brighton Dome and Corn Exchange and we are hoping that it will become a true citywide celebration of consciousness science.

What is the Sackler Centre, and how did it come about?

The Sackler Centre does research that straddles the Schools of Informatics and Engineering, Psychology, and the Brighton and Sussex Medical School. It came about in 2009 thanks to a dialogue between Michael Farthing (the VC) and the Dr. Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation, a very large private philanthropic foundation. The Foundation have been very supportive of our work and fingers crossed they will continue to be so. The Centre is probably unique in bringing together mathematicians, physicists, biologists, psychiatrists, psychologists and philosophers to address the common question of the nature of consciousness. Its ultimate aim is to translate what we learn in basic science into the clinic, to help diagnose and treat disorders of consciousness following brain damage and in psychiatric conditions.

What current research is going on at the Centre?

Almost too much to keep up with. I’ll just mention a couple of exciting projects. In one (with Keisuke Suzuki), we are using off-the-shelf technologies such as Microsoft Kinect and virtual reality headsets to investigate how our conscious perception of our own body, and of the subjective reality of our environment, is constructed by the brain based on the most likely prediction of the cause of sensory inputs. In another (with Hugo Critchley and Sarah Garfinkel) we are looking at how our perception of the external world is affected by fundamental physiological processes such as the timing of our own heartbeats. And there’s plenty more: with Adam Barrett we are developing new mathematical methods for measuring the depth of anesthesia); with Dan Bor we’re developing new theories of the function of consciousness based on ‘chunking’ of information, and a number of us (led by Jamie Ward) are trying to understand synaesthesia, a fascinating phenomenon in which stimulation in one modality (e.g., hearing a sound) leads to a simultaneous experience in another (e.g., colour).

Are there any clinical applications of this work?

Oh yes, and this is one of the defining missions of the Sackler Centre. We have already rolled out a new method for detecting consciousness in severely brain-injured patients (led by Ryan Scott), and we are about to embark on a series of neuroimaging studies to determine what happens during early stages of Schizophrenia. Another clinical target (and a focus of Nick Medford’s research) is a relatively understudied condition called ‘depersonalization disorder’ in which patients’ experience of themselves and the world loses its sense of ‘reality’.

I’ve noticed that you’ve collaborated with artists in the past. What you do think about the dichotomy between science and art?

I think art has an important role to play, not only in communicating and exploring challenging concepts, but actually in helping us understand what it is like to have conscious experiences. Collaborating with artists has helped me think differently about what I am trying to explain, as well as to think of new kinds of experiments to do. I’m currently collaborating with animation artist Kate Genevieve, exploring issues of presence and the experience of body ownership. In the end art and science are not that different; science is distinguished by its methodology rather than by its objectives, and both can be beautiful.

Can you envisage a point in the future when we will really understand what consciousness is?

It’s too soon to tell, but science has a useful habit of unraveling apparently intractable mysteries, so I’m hopeful.

Find out more at www.anilseth.com, www.sussex.ac.uk/sackler, and follow the Sackler Centre’s work at www.facebook.com/sacklercentre. Dr. Seth also recently recorded a podcast and wrote an article for The Guardian on the key questions in consciousness science (www.guardian.co.uk/science/audio/2012/feb/27/science-weekly-podcast-consciousness; www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/mar/01/consciousness-eight-questions-science). He talked about consciousness at The Royal Institution in London on the 7th of March and will be doing so again on the 26th of April.

See the next issue of the Badger for a review of “Its Make Your Mind Up Time”: an event in the Brighton Science Festival with speakers from the Sackler Centre, as well as other notable researchers, tackling the question “how much of our world is a figment of our imagination?”.

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  • Podcast Science Weekly ; Can science ever explain consciousness?
    I have been interested in the concept of consciousness and my feelings of “I” and “self identity” for some time now and found the Science Weekly podcast “Can science ever explain consciousness” fascinating.
    This interest in my consciousness of self identity really started when I retired and found sufficient free time to devote to the thought. I have also wondered where the thoughts I have and the statements I utter go. I am aware of the chemical and electric processes of thought and the wonderful complexity of the brain to generate the commands necessary for my existence and functioning. Although a layman not fully or rather barely able to understand the learned articles on neuroscience, quantum mechanics, philosophy and psychology I find them very thought provoking.
    My question is, what is the “essence” of though. Within the material world does it posses a substance in it’s own right or does it just evaporate into nothing, unlikely as all is changed and recycled into some other form. Is thought “stored” in some way other than physical archival? Thought exists for we all experience it, some thoughts put out to public domain changed our world, sometimes dramatically after the author is long gone. I’m not alluding to the process of knowledge through experience and rational conclusions, I mean original ideas, or is there a difference?
    The ponderings on consciousness is of a similar nature I think. As was put forward in the podcast there are many consciousnesses and the neuroscientist elaborated on this but the consciousness of “self” and dare I say it “original thought” remains “the hard problem”.
    Physicists are uncovering for us the complexities of our material environment within the macro cosmos and the nano spheres, to which they suggest is no end. They also try to explain the existence of multi dimensions of the holistic picture of which our material world is a part. Our material world environment is a confinement within which we exist four dimensionally, but they are also detecting echoes or shadows of fifth dimensional elements.
    I’m not surprised that you did not want to pursue the podcast discussion on consciousness involving quantum mechanics as our understanding of it is still embryonic however my thoughts are that perhaps it is there where we may find some answers.
    Our material world is not apart from the holistic multi dimensional whole, it is a part of it and what we perceive is not all what is all around and within us.
    If this should be the case then we may be subject to and indirectly aware of the shadow influences of the other dimensions. Our physical existence limits our capabilities of open mindedness on aspects of multi dimensions and time. If the physicists are right then phenomena of flash reception, by some individuals, from beyond our four dimensional material world could be accepted as a probability. It could be that the influences of these other folds of dimensions are far greater upon us than we have yet uncovered.
    It’s a long way to go yet, and the sequential stepping stones of discovery of what and where we are is inevitably slow. It is through the pooling of knowledge between the research disciplines that has given such a spurt to our understanding of our position and status within the whole. Through this awareness we are evolving, this could lead to the development of these other dimensional sides within us which we feel but do not yet have full knowledge of. We research and analyse from within us outwards, a that them and us/me mentality not always allowing the comprehension that, that them and us are really the same, infinite holistic thing.
    People of the past did not have the scientific knowledge we now possess but had a built in affinity with their environment. Where did that come from? Instinct, something we attribute to animals, is that solely a genetic coding, or is it a consciousness of intrinsic laws?