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?”.