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Signatures of Conscious Processing in the Human Brain

Signatures of Conscious Processing in the Human Brain

This video was recorded at 26th Annual Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems (NIPS), Lake Tahoe 2012. Understanding how brain activity leads to a conscious experience remains a major experimental challenge. I will describe a series of experiments that probe the signatures of conscious processing. In these experiments, my colleagues and I ask whether a specific type of brain activity can be detected when a person suddenly becomes aware of a piece of information. We create minimal contrasts whereby the very same visual stimulus is sometimes undetected, and sometimes consciously seen. We then use time-resolved methods of electro- and magnetoencephalography to follow the time course of brain activity. The results show that conscious access relates to a global burst of late synchronized activity (a cortical "ignition"), distributed through many cortical areas. We propose a theory of a global neuronal workspace, according to which what we experience as a consciousness is the global availability of information in a large-scale network of pyramidal neurons with long-distance axons. This knowledge is now being applied to the monitoring of conscious states in non-communicating patients. Using real-time signal processing techniques, we believe that a few minutes of testing with simple sounds and two recording electrodes might suffice to determine whether a person is conscious.

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