Ignition of consciousness

ScienceDaily has a report (here) on research by R. Malach, L. Fisch and I. Fried published in Neuron. They found an ‘ignition’ of intense neural activity associated with consciously seeing an image. They use a very powerful method (not available to everyone). Epileptic patients who have electrodes implanted in their brains in preparation for surgery are asked to volunteer of tests on perceptual awareness.

The subjects looked at a computer screen, which briefly presented a ‘target’ image… followed by a ‘mask’ … at different time intervals after the target image had been presented. This allowed the experimenter to control the visibility of the images — the patients sometimes recognized the targets and sometimes failed to do so. By comparing the electrode recordings to the patients’ reports of whether they had correctly recognized the image or not, the scientists were able to pinpoint when, where and what was happening in the brain as transitions in perceptual awareness took place.

Malach: ‘We found that there was a rapid burst of neural activity occurring in the high-order visual centers of the brain (centers that are sensitive to entire images of objects, such as faces) whenever patients had correctly recognized the target image.’ The scientists also found that the transition from not seeing to seeing happens abruptly. Fisch: ‘When the mask was presented too soon after the target image, it ‘killed’ the visual input signals, resulting in the patients being unable to recognize the object. The patients suddenly became consciously aware of the target image at a clear threshold, suggesting that the brain needs a specific amount of time to process the input signals in order for conscious perceptual awareness to be ‘ignited.”

This study is the first of its kind to uncover strong evidence linking ‘ignition’ of bursts of neural activity to perceptual awareness in humans. More questions remain: Is this the sole mechanism involved in the transition to perceptual awareness? To what extent is it a local phenomenon?

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