Changing Our Understanding of Consciousness

Summary: A new study reports consciousness has dimensions rather than definable levels.

Source: Monash University.

Measuring and defining consciousness has been an ongoing challenge for neuroscientists, philosophers and psychologists for centuries. The concept of levels of consciousness is mostly theoretical, limiting the abilities of researchers to develop objective measurement and understanding of how different global states of consciousness relate to each other.

Diagnostic scales such as the Glasgow Coma Scale rank consciousness based on various behavioural criteria. Professor Jakob Hohwy, School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies, and his team have argued that the idea of consciousness levels is wrong. Professor Hohwy and his colleagues believe that unlike the human body’s more objective measurements, such as blood pressure and height, consciousness has dimensions rather than definable levels.

For example, a person in a vegetative state can’t lift their arm when asked, while a conscious person can. But ask either to imagine themselves playing tennis – as a now famous study by co-author Adrian Owen of the University of Western Ontario did – and their brains may well light up in the same way. Clearly, their state of consciousness differs, however both may share an awareness and ability to respond to verbal demands.

The Hohwy team argues that the notion of a single scale doesn’t fit within the little we know about consciousness. Professor Hohwy, who is associate dean of research in the Faculty of Arts and principal investigator of the Philosophy & Cognition lab, argues subjective experience cannot be partial.

“It’s either something you have or you don’t. And if subjective experience can’t be put on a single sliding scale, neither can consciousness,” he said.

Image shows the outline of a head.

The complexity and intangibility of consciousness can lead to the perception that it is a concept belonging only in the world of theoretical academia. NeuroscienceNews.com image is adapted from the Monash press release.

The complexity and intangibility of consciousness can lead to the perception that it is a concept belonging only in the world of theoretical academia. However, consciousness research has significant and real-life implications. Gaining a greater understanding of consciousness could lead to more ethical end-of-life decisions for people with severe brain injuries.

“You’re always either conscious or not conscious, but then it’s a matter of how much you’re conscious of, and what you’re doing with that consciousness,” Professor Hohwy said.

Rather than asking how conscious a person is, a better question might be to ask what the person is conscious of. Are they conscious of loved ones’ voices at their bedside, or only unintelligible noises? This could mean additional tests, such as brain imaging, to assess a person’s cognitive abilities.

About this neurology research article

Funding: This work was supported by European Research Council Grant The Architecture of Consciousness (313552) to T.B., Australian Research Council grants FT100100322 and DP160102770 to J.H., and a Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC) award to A.M.O.

Source: Monash University
Image Source: This NeuroscienceNews.com image is adapted from the Monash University press release.
Original Research: Full open access research for “Are There Levels of Consciousness? by Tim Bayne, Jakob Hohwy, and Adrian M. Owen in Trends in Cognitive Neurosciences. Published online April 18 2016 doi:10.1016/j.tics.2016.03.009

Cite This NeuroscienceNews.com Article
Monash University. “Changing Our Understanding of Consciousness.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 9 June 2016.
<http://neurosciencenews.com/consciousness-dimensions-neuroscience-4420/>.
Monash University. (2016, June 9). Changing Our Understanding of Consciousness. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved June 9, 2016 from http://neurosciencenews.com/consciousness-dimensions-neuroscience-4420/
Monash University. “Changing Our Understanding of Consciousness.” http://neurosciencenews.com/consciousness-dimensions-neuroscience-4420/ (accessed June 9, 2016).

Abstract

Are There Levels of Consciousness?

The notion of a level of consciousness is a key construct in the science of consciousness. Not only is the term employed to describe the global states of consciousness that are associated with post-comatose disorders, epileptic absence seizures, anaesthesia, and sleep, it plays an increasingly influential role in theoretical and methodological contexts. However, it is far from clear what precisely a level of consciousness is supposed to be. This paper argues that the levels-based framework for conceptualizing global states of consciousness is untenable and develops in its place a multidimensional account of global states.

Trends

The notion of a conscious level plays an increasingly important role in the science of consciousness, but there has been little conceptual analysis of the notion and it is typically left unexplained.

The standard conception of conscious levels identifies them with changes in a creature’s degree of consciousness, but this conception is theoretically problematic and fails to do justice to the multifaceted nature of levels.

Global states of consciousness are multidimensional phenomena that capture the cognitive and behavioural dimensions of consciousness, such as the ways in which conscious contents are gated and their functional roles.

“Are There Levels of Consciousness? by Tim Bayne, Jakob Hohwy, and Adrian M. Owen in Trends in Cognitive Neurosciences. Published online April 18 2016 doi:10.1016/j.tics.2016.03.009

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