The quality of our consciousness is what sets us apart from other species, and seems to be one of the defining traits of being human. And yet the nature of consciousness remains a mystery. The program grapples with the fundamental underpinnings of consciousness, and relates the findings to biology on the one hand and to philosophical questions on the other.
Recent technological advances in medical imaging make it possible to see the brain in action. The new technology for the first time gives an opportunity to scholars from fields as different as genetics, cognitive neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and philosophy of mind to come together and work to understand consciousness. By creating the opportunity for deep collaborations, the CIFAR program will allow fellows to solve one of the most profound questions about human nature.
In addition to providing insights into the human experience, results could also cast light on mental illnesses that include disorders of consciousness, for example schizophrenia and autism. They will provide insights into improving understanding of how we learn. They will help us understand creativity, create better anaesthetics and other drugs, and even help us explore better ways of interacting with machines.
Consciousness is perhaps the most intimate of human mental experiences, and yet the hardest to explain. It allows us to remember past events, to experience pleasure in the moment, and to think about tomorrow. But it is also mysteriously altered or eliminated when we go to sleep.
Exactly what consciousness is and how it can be explained is an old question. Why do we have the experience of consciousness at all? What brain processes are at work? Do animals have consciousness? Do babies? Could machines?
Fellows will use advances in brain imaging, computational neuroscience and other fields to answer these questions. Advanced neuroimaging studies have already shown strong evidence for a close link between consciousness and observable activity in the brain. Fellows will further develop ways to isolate conscious and unconscious processes in the brain, and determine just how important interactions among the subsystems of the brain are in creating consciousness.
The program brings together researchers from a broad range of disciplines, including cognitive neuroscientists, neurologists, geneticists and other biologists, anthropologists, psychologists, computational scientists, philosophers, artists, and other scholars. The program is developing a fundamental framework to help all of these disciplines interact in order to understand how our brains give rise to consciousness and our unique perspective on the world around us.
Research themes include the nature of consciousness, its function, biological basis, origins, and the disorders that arise in consciousness.
Contact the program’s senior director, Kate Geddie