Monash Neuroscience of Consciousness
Understanding consciousness and intelligent functions
The Monash Neuroscience of Consciousness (MoNoC) Research Laboratory aims to understand the neural basis of consciousness and also to understand the relationship between consciousness and intelligent functions.
The group's research focuses on two areas:
- Consciousness itself - developing the theory of consciousness and empirically testing it, revealing the boundary condition of conscious and non-conscious processing.
- Intelligent functions - the relationship between consciousness and functions such as attention, working memory, and metacognition in humans, animals and artificial systems.
Towards the physical basis on consciousness
Questions about consciousness have puzzled humanity for centuries.
In a recent Convergence Science Network event held at Monash Biomedical Imaging, Professor Nao Tsuchiya from the Monash Neuroscience of Consciousness group discussed the latest neuroscience research on consciousness. These scientific discoveries may help answer the philosophical questions about consciousness. View the event.
Attentional lapses are linked to local sleep-like activity in the awake brain
Throughout the day, our attention fluctuates widely. Even in the midst of a task, we can find our minds wandering – or even going blank. In fact, research has shown that we spend up to half our waking lives not paying attention to our surroundings or the task at hand. But what happens in the brain during these attentional lapses?
Reference: Andrillon, T., Burns, A., MacKay, T., Windt, J., & Tsuchiya, N. (2021). Predicting lapses of attention with sleep-like slow waves. Nature Communications, 12, 3657. doi: 10.1038/s41467-021-23890-7
Testing a theory of consciousness in flies
How consciousness is generated by the brain is a longstanding question in neuroscience. One theory – known as integrated information theory (IIT) – proposes that conscious experience corresponds to organised patterns of interactions between cells in the brain. The brain cells must be involved in both feedforward and feedback mechanisms – affecting, and being affected by, other cells in the brain, respectively.
Reference: Leung, A., Cohen, D., van Swinderen, B., & Tsuchiya, N. (2021). Integrated information structure collapses with anesthetic loss of conscious arousal in Drosophila melanogaster. PLOS Computational Biology, e1008722. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1008722
Measuring changes in attention, not perception
Neuroscience has long grappled with the relationship between attention and conscious awareness, or perception. Recent research from MoNoC investigators suggests that the two processes are separate and use different pathways in the brain. This is illustrated by studies showing that we can be conscious of things we’re not paying attention to, and not conscious of things we are paying attention to.
Reference: Davidson, M. J., Mithen, W., Hogendoorm, H., van Boxtel, J. J. A., & Tsuchiya, N. (2020). The SSVEP tracks attention, not consciousness, during perceptual filling-in. eLife, 9, e60031. doi: 10.7554/eLife.60031
Dream Catcher: finding the link between brain and mind
One of the biggest challenges in neuroscience is understanding human consciousness. How can we use what we know about the workings of the brain to explain our subjective experiences – awareness, perception, thoughts and feelings?
Reference: Wong, W., Noreika, V., Móró, L., Revonsuo, A., Windt, J., Valli, K., & Tsuchiya, N. (2020). The Dream Catcher experiment: Blinded analyses failed to detect markers of dreaming consciousness in EEG spectral power. Neuroscience of Consciousness, 1, niaa006. doi: 10.1093/nc/niaa006
Our attention can jump between visible and invisible objects
Are we aware of everything we pay attention to? Even when we focus our attention on a single object, we experience periods of high and low focus that alternate many times per second. These rapid changes in attention – known as attentional sampling – are imperceptible to us, but allow our brains to capture information about the surrounding scene and enhance it for analysis.
Reference: Davidson, M. J., Alais, D., van Boxtel, J. J. A., & Tsuchiya, N. (2018). Attention periodically samples competing stimuli during binocular rivalry. Elife, 7, e40868. doi: 10.7554/eLife.40868
Without attention, you can see a lot – but not everything
We can all relate to the frustration of talking to someone who is deeply engrossed in their phone or favourite show. But does the fact that their attention is focused elsewhere mean they’re not conscious of us? Whether we can be conscious of things that we’re not paying attention to is a longstanding question in psychological research, and leading scientific theories of consciousness disagree on the answer. It’s an important question with real-world implications – particularly for human activities such as using heavy machinery or driving a car.
Reference: Matthews, J., Schroeder, P., Kaunitz, L., van Boxtel, J.J.A., & Tsuchiya, N. (2018). Conscious access in the near absence of attention: critical extensions on the dual-task paradigm. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 20170352. doi:10.1098/rstb.2017.0352.
A new type of memory for faces you see only in passing has been discovered, but how it works is an enigma
You walk into a café, scanning the room for your friend. As your eyes flit from one person to the next, does your brain commit to memory all those faces? A study led by Professor Naotsugu Tsuchiya of Monash University suggests that it does, at least briefly.
Reference: Kaunitz, L. N., Rowe, E. G., & Tsuchiya, N. (2016). Large capacity of conscious access for incidental memories in natural scenes. Psychological Science, 27(9), 1266-1277.