Can consciousness be separated from function in the brain?
TWCF Number
Project Duration
September 1 / 2022
- August 31 / 2024
Core Funding Area
Big Questions
North America
Amount Awarded

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Michael Cohen
Institution Trustees of Amherst College

Does consciousness rely on the same neural mechanisms as those we use for thinking — attention, language, and working memory? This question has been debated for several decades and is the subject of hundreds of papers. Several prominent theories (e.g., Global Neuronal Workspace Theory) state that consciousness cannot be separated from function in the brain, while others (e.g., Information Integration Theory) state that consciousness is supported by distinct neural regions.

As researchers try to solve this problem, they face the challenge of isolating the neural mechanisms necessary for conscious awareness. To identify these mechanisms, researchers often compare brain scans or other neuroimaging data between times that a person sees a stimulus (like a flash of light) and times they fail to notice it. This approach faces a weakness because participants are regularly asked to say whether they saw something, which also uses brain activity. The researchers then struggle to know whether any changes in brain activity related to conscious perception or the act of talking about it.

The first goal of a research project directed by Michael Cohen at Amherst College is to use a new method that employs a functional MRI (fMRI) scanner to look at activities that have not been tested before. The researchers will determine whether this new paradigm can identify the true neural correlates of perceptual awareness.

The second goal of this project is to then use well-established methods to identify the neural regions associated with higher-level cognitive functions (e.g., attention, language, and working memory). Then, the team will measure the overlap between neural regions associated with consciousness and these cognitive functions. 

If successful, the researchers should be able to compare the findings of this new method to that of established methods to determine what brain activity relates uniquely to consciousness. Numerous theories in the field of consciousness study make different predictions of the experiments in both aims. Thus, the work taking place here could help adjudicate divergent theories of consciousness.

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