Consciousness Conference Seeks New Perspectives

By Tory Brykalski - On March 4 and 5, 2016, the Center for Mind and Brain at UC Davis hosted the third Northern California Consciousness conference. The event brought together an interdisciplinary group of faculty and students from the social sciences, humanities, and hard sciences. Ten speakers presented lectures on various aspects of human consciousness and the brain, including categorical representation and classification, alternative theories of consciousness, imagination, and self-reflection.

Christof Koch, chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, gave the keynote lecture. His talk, “The Neural Correlates of Consciousness: Progress and Problems,” focused on the neural mechanisms (NCCs) that give rise to conscious perception. Outlining research that has, in recent decades, increased our understanding of the specific mechanisms that enable consciousness and contribute to its content, Koch suggested that discovering and characterizing NCCs still does not necessarily explain consciousness.

We still don’t know, for example, why certain regions of the brain are activated while others are not. We also do not know how or when a human fetus develops consciousness, or how to emulate it. We are, however, beginning to understand which mechanisms are correlated with what phenomenological experiences. This understanding may, in time, help researchers to generate a general theory of consciousness.

Connecting mental and physical

Earlier in the day, Alyssa Ney, a professor of philosophy at UC Davis, presented her paper “The Empirical Case for Physicalism,” in which she suggested that everything—including consciousness—is a physical phenomenon, or a derivative of a physical phenomenon. Any robust science of consciousness, her talk implied, ought to be able to explain the exact relationship between a subjective mental state (pain, for example) and a physical embodied reaction.

Noticing the unnoticed

Michael Pitts, a professor of psychology at Reed College, then presented his work on “Inattentional Blindness and Visual Awareness Without Report.” Using the invisible gorilla test as his point of entry, his talk explored the ways in which brains register “noticing” versus “not-noticing.” Is a part of our brain, he asked, aware of phenomena (like the invisible gorilla) even when we are not paying attention to it? What is the relationship between attention and awareness? His research into these questions helped him to identify some of the NCCs that may give rise to consciousness.

The rest of the conference featured more talks, a panel discussion entitled “Does consciousness have a function?” and several opportunities for graduate students, postdoctoral students, and speakers to meet and network.

Learn more about Northern California Consciousness and the Center for Mind and Brain.