Determine the Impact of Stimulus Ambiguity on Neural Mechanisms of Conscious Perception
TWCF Number
Project Duration
December 1 / 2022
- November 30 / 2024
Core Funding Area
Big Questions
North America
Amount Awarded

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Biyu He
Institution New York University Grossman School of Medicine

Consciousness is the subjective experience of the mind and the world. It’s one of the most familiar phenomena in nature, but also one of the least understood. A major question in the field of consciousness study is: What is the relationship between consciousness and the brain? Many theories have been developed in recent years, but there is no consensus about which theories are correct. Currently, a contentious point between leading theories is whether the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is central or irrelevant to conscious perception. This is a divisive question, with different theories making opposing predictions.

Motivated by recent neuroimaging and neurophysiology work, a research lab led by Biyu He at New York University Grossman School of Medicine will test a new theoretical framework with the potential to unify the field. This framework explains the PFC’s involvement in conscious perception as proportional to the amount of uncertainty that we have about the things that we experience. When this uncertainty is low, the PFC is not needed, but when uncertainty is high, then the PFC needs to communicate with visual regions.

To test this framework, this project will combine rigorous experimental design, careful behavioral analysis, cutting-edge human brain imaging technologies, and state-of-the-art analysis methods. The experiments will measure brain activity in humans as they observe stimuli with different levels of certainty. The data will be used to test predictions made by the new framework, and by extension, different leading theories of consciousness.

This framework brings a previously neglected dimension into focus. If correct, it will provide renewed clarity and a unified understanding for a large swath of neuroscientific literature on consciousness that was previously highly contentious. In addition, it will move the field beyond superficial debates about “where in the brain consciousness occurs” to a deeper level of mechanisms — the neural information processing architecture underlying conscious perception, with the specific brain regions involved, mutable depending on the circumstances.

Project Resources
Theories of consciousness are often based on the assumption that a single, unified neurobiological account will explain different types of con...
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