183 Views
1 Comments

Dr. Anil Seth: consciousness expert

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?”.

Get the best viral stories straight into your inbox!

Don't worry, we don't spam

One Comment

  1. 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?

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Join the Badger Team

Apply today!

Latest Posts

Union obliterates the debate – unwritten requirement used to shut down free speech debate
Campus News
692 views1
Campus News
692 views1

Union obliterates the debate – unwritten requirement used to shut down free speech debate

Jordan Wright - April 27, 2018

Student society Liberate the Debate’s most recent event was cancelled over a lack of compliance with the Students' Union's (USSU) requirement for a neutral chair - a…

Verve Couture – Musicality, kitsch & ignition: the beginning of a series
Arts
152 views
Arts
152 views

Verve Couture – Musicality, kitsch & ignition: the beginning of a series

Ricardo Reverón Blanco - June 17, 2018

Pictured: Zac Black At Proud Cabaret audiences were spellbound as if at night at the circus, yet this was not like Angela Carter’s magical realist novel; Verve…

Fleabag on stage at The Old Market – review
Arts
178 views
Arts
178 views

Fleabag on stage at The Old Market – review

Florence Dutton - June 11, 2018

[caption id="attachment_35513" align="alignnone" width="2400"] Fleabag at Soho Theatre[/caption] Last Monday at 8pm at Brighton’s The Old Market, I sat myself down in my theatre seat eagerly awaiting…

Fleabag preview
Arts
166 views
Arts
166 views

Fleabag preview

Florence Dutton - June 2, 2018

[caption id="attachment_35513" align="alignnone" width="2400"] Fleabag at Soho Theatre[/caption] Following the mass success of the Bafta award-winning BBC Series, DryWrite and Soho Theatre are about to hit the…

Brighton Festival: Ezra Furman at the Dome
Arts
204 views
Arts
204 views

Brighton Festival: Ezra Furman at the Dome

Georgia Grace - June 1, 2018

Having completed my final semester of university with modules on punk history and queer arts, it was fitting that I rounded off my end-of-assessment celebrations by attending…

Arts
212 views

The Tempest review

Georgia Grace - May 30, 2018

As the sun begins to set over Hove Green, tinnies of Red Stripe are cracked open, tartan blankets are strewn, and families tuck into their picnic hampers.…

A Glass Half Empty review
Arts
204 views
Arts
204 views

A Glass Half Empty review

Georgia Grace - May 27, 2018

For those of us coming to the end of another year of university study, the prospect of careers, marriages and babies may seem a long way off.…

DollyWould at The Old Market review
Arts
198 views
Arts
198 views

DollyWould at The Old Market review

Alex Hutson - May 27, 2018

Sh!t Theatre’s DollyWould is a hilarious, thoughtful and experimental performance piece. The award winning show has the Sh!t Theatre duo integrating comedy, storytelling, personal experience and music.…

UCU Launch Petition to End the ‘Hostile Environment’ at Sussex
Campus News
317 views
Campus News
317 views

UCU Launch Petition to End the ‘Hostile Environment’ at Sussex

Billie-Jean Johnson - May 26, 2018

The Sussex branch of the University and College Union (UCU) has launched a petition calling for Vice-Chancellor Adam Tickell to end the 'hostile environment' at Sussex. The…

Arts
157 views

Shakespeare in the sun – The Tempest preview

Georgia Grace - May 24, 2018

In a world of dystopian King Lears and female Hamlets, Shakespeare’s classics are constantly being reimagined for the modern day. There’s something oddly refreshing then about the…

Review: Nick Cave Double Bill at The Old Market (TOM’s Film Club)
Arts
425 views
Arts
425 views

Review: Nick Cave Double Bill at The Old Market (TOM’s Film Club)

Sophie Coppenhall - May 23, 2018

What a phenomenal contrast these two films present when watched side-by-side. In essence, together they are capable of tracing inner and outer metamorphoses of their subjects. The…

Dollywould at The Old Market preview
Arts
197 views
Arts
197 views

Dollywould at The Old Market preview

Alex Hutson - May 22, 2018

From the 22nd May - 25th May 2018 DollyWould will be showing at The Old Market. An exciting new show, presented by Sh!t Theatre, who won the…

Exhibition: Io-sono Fedilouu
Artist Focus
296 views
Artist Focus
296 views

Exhibition: Io-sono Fedilouu

Ricardo Reverón Blanco - May 16, 2018

Last week artist Fedilou made her debut exhibition in the downstairs space of Morelli Zorelli, a quaint vegan Italian restaurant in Hove, featuring a collection of intimate…

Interview with Philosophy faculty and COGS director Ron Chrisley
Interview
201 views
Interview
201 views

Interview with Philosophy faculty and COGS director Ron Chrisley

Nikolaos Manesis - May 15, 2018

Ron Chrisley is a Reader in Philosophy, on the faculty of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science, and is the director of COGS (Centre for Cognitive Science).…

Adam review
Arts
281 views
Arts
281 views

Adam review

Ketan Jha - May 13, 2018

If you have been a stranger to the stage this spring and decide to see one contemporary show, let it be Adam. This reviewer went in entirely…

Brighton Fringe Preview: Nick Cave Double Bill at The Old Market (TOM’s Film Club)
Arts
316 views
Arts
316 views

Brighton Fringe Preview: Nick Cave Double Bill at The Old Market (TOM’s Film Club)

Sophie Coppenhall - May 13, 2018

In celebration of iconic Brighton local, legendary alt-rock musician (and episodic actor) Nick Cave, TOM’s Film Club are hosting a double-bill screening of his films at The…

Whimsical fairy-tale meets class war – Standard: Elite review
Arts
358 views
Arts
358 views

Whimsical fairy-tale meets class war – Standard: Elite review

Georgia Grace - May 11, 2018

Meta-theatricality and interactivity are becoming all the more vogue in contemporary theatre, and in a world where the arts are becoming increasingly open and democratised, I find…

A Year of Art Society: The Best Picks
Artist Focus
256 views
Artist Focus
256 views

A Year of Art Society: The Best Picks

Alex Leissle - May 9, 2018

  [gallery type="slideshow" ids="35385,35386,35387,35388,35389,35390,35391,35392,35393,35394,35395,35396,35397,35398,35399,35400,35401,35402,35403,35404,35405,35406,35407,35408,35409,35410,35411"]

More Brit(ish) than ever: A review of Afua Hirsch at Brighton Festival
Books
267 views
Books
267 views

More Brit(ish) than ever: A review of Afua Hirsch at Brighton Festival

William Singh - May 9, 2018

Afua Hirsch’s 2018 book - part memoir, part polemic - provokes mixed feelings. So too did her discussion of the topic at this year’s Brighton Festival. Don’t…

Ethnic-bioweapons: between conspiracy and reality
Science
347 views
Science
347 views

Ethnic-bioweapons: between conspiracy and reality

Luke Richards - May 8, 2018

Bioweapons exist, while ethnic-bioweapons are whispered conspiracies. Pandemics can fairly hazardous to human life, the 1918 Flu Pandemic killed 20-50 million people. A man made pandemic could…

Breaking: Spring referenda results announced
News
327 views
News
327 views

Breaking: Spring referenda results announced

Jessica Hubbard - May 4, 2018

Students have voted to support the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, reject Prevent and adopt new Gender Equality policies. Results for the Students' Union referenda were…