Consciousness, just in time: Methodological and experimental foundations for studying the dynamics of experience
TWCF Number
Project Duration
August 6 / 2022
- August 5 / 2024
Core Funding Area
Big Questions
North America
Amount Awarded

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Zachary Irving
Institution The Rector & Visitors of the University of Virginia

Why does the mind sometimes wander, while other times it is focused? Our conscious experience is sometimes drifting and other times directed. This has been described by William James as the stream of consciousness. It is an important feature of consciousness but scientific study in the field largely fails to explore it. This project from a team led by Zachary Irving at the University of Virginia and Samuel Murray at Providence College examines mind-wandering and other dynamics to produce new information on consciousness. Most projects study consciousness as a mental state but this project studies the transition from one mental state to another. It also develops new tools to study this question.

The research will address three questions:

  • How can we measure the dynamic qualities of consciousness?
  • How do these dynamics contribute to higher-order cognition and other concepts, such as creativity and open-mindedness?
  • How can scientists measure consciousness over time in ecologically-valid contexts rather than in a limited laboratory setting?

The team will develop new instruments that use visual aids and machine learning to make the measurements accessible and precise. Using these methods, they will assess the relationship between the dynamic qualities of consciousness, personality characteristics, and higher-order cognition using both correlational and experimental designs. They will measure these relationships in virtual reality environments, a setting which allows for controlled laboratory conditions but still closely resembles everyday life.

The first part of the study will develop and test a new “thinking grid” tool which allows participants to watch a video and report the extent to which they are focused or mind-wandering. Preliminary results are positive, but this experiment is needed to validate the thinking grid before it can be used more broadly. The second part of this study will use the thinking grid and two other established methods to study the dynamics of consciousness in a virtual reality setting.

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