The Riddle of Consciousness

The New Yorker:

A few weeks ago, while staying with my in-laws, my four-month-old son woke up at two-thirty in the morning. He was hungry, and, knowing that he would not be coaxed back to sleep without a bottle, I brought him downstairs to the kitchen, where his crying stopped abruptly. He clearly recognized that he had arrived in an unfamiliar place, and he became fully absorbed in understanding where he was and how he’d gotten there. He was searingly alert; he craned his head and his eyes darted around. The eight minutes or so that it took it to warm the bottle, usually a time of intense complaint, passed with hardly a peep. I became convinced that, for the first time, my son was fully, consciously aware of his surroundings.

As a scientist, I realize that my experience was subjective. But the leading scientific journal, Science, just published the results of an experiment that endeavored to look objectively at the rudiments of consciousness in infants. This work, conducted by the cognitive psychologists Sid Kouider, Stanislas Dehaene, and Ghislaine Dehaene-Lambertz, is an examination of brain waves in babies between five and fifteen months old, aimed at constructing what the scientists refer to as a “biological signature of consciousness.”

The background of this experiment is a theory called the “global workspace” model of consciousness, according to which perceptual awareness involves two stages of neural activity. The first is a purely sensory activation, typically in the back of the brain. The second stage reflects a kind of “ignition,” and is achieved only for stimuli that are consciously perceived.

Read the whole story: The New Yorker

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