Since the earliest days of psycho-physiology, there has been a debate about the link among sensation, perception, attention, and consciousness. The main question is: What happens to a sensory signal in the brain when it reaches a conscious stage of processing as opposed to being processed preattentively and outside of awareness? Answering this question is a complex challenge and involves combining expertise from several fields of research.
This combination includes investigations of sensory processing in animals and humans and their modulation by various attentional manipulations (spatial, feature-based, object-based, crossmodal) as well as by various manipulations of visibility (e.g., masking, rapid serial visual presentation, rivalry). A major goal of this research is to understand how the large-scale organization influences whether a stimulus reaches consciousness or not. To pursue this goal, neuroimaging techniques (electroencephalography [EEG], magnetoencephalography [MEG], functional magnetic resonance imaging [fMRI]) will be used in combination with innovative computational methods (modeling, machine learning, dynamic causal modeling [DCM]).
Berlin’s academic environment is uniquely suitable for research on perception, attention, and consciousness. First, there are a number of the Berlin School of Mind and Brain's researchers with a distinct focus on this field. The research group of Michael Brecht investigates sensory information processing in the rodent barrel cortex. Brecht conducted a ground-breaking study on the role of single neurons in conscious detection. The group of John-Dylan Haynes has investigated the link among neural signals, conscious perception, and reward. Furthermore, this group has been active in studying the role of consciousness and unconscious determinants in human decision-making. The groups of Gabriel Curio and Arno Villringer are concerned with the neuro-physiological mechanisms of spontaneous neural background activity and how this background activity figures in sensory processing. The group of Peter Frensch studies conscious perception by investigating the cognitive mechanisms that underlie the generation of human consciousness and by investigating the function of consciousness in the control of action. The group of Klaus Obermayer studies principles underlying perceptual information processing in biological systems at the computational level. Two of the main foci of Michael Pauen’s philosophical research group are theoretical and empirical approaches to the so-called “hard problem of consciousness”. The Research Training Group “Sensory Computation in Neural Systems” investigates neural coding in sensory systems using machine learning and computational modeling. The Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience (BCCN)’s core research area of “precision and variability” aims at improving understanding of why neural computations can be so precise despite the inherent noise in sensory channels.
How brain processes give rise to conscious perception is a key question in mind and brain research. Answering this question requires an understanding of information flow from basic low-level sensory signal processing all the way up to conscious perception. It goes further, though, to developing an understanding of the influence and role of conscious versus unconscious processing. In the past years we focused on conscious and unconscious information processing in the visual domain. We have recently extended the scope by tracing the role of awareness all the way to the preparation of actions, thus including non-perceptual approaches to conscious processing.
Relationship with other Mind & Brain research topics
(i) One example is the emerging research on the role of attention and awareness for human decision-making (topic 2). We have investigated the role of attention and awareness in consumer decision-making, in the preparation of decisions for action plans, and perceptual decision-making. We plan to access the broader field of decision-making by investigating awareness of relevant sensory information or of contingencies between stimuli and reward.
(ii) Another important mind and brain area in which awareness plays an important role is clinical research (topic 5). We will go beyond our previous efforts by investigating disturbances of awareness in neurological and psychiatric syndromes, such as neglect or depression. This work will particularly benefit from translating basic research paradigms into clinical research (e.g., visual masking of emotional stimuli in psychiatry, semantic representation in dementia, or visual search in neglect). The key novelty here will be to specifically compare processing in healthy individuals and various patient groups.
(iii) We aim to assess the role of attention and awareness across the lifespan (topic 4) to understand how cognitive processing differences might be related to attentional versus automatic, or conscious versus unconscious processing.
(iv) We will expand our research on the neuroscience of awareness into the topic of social neuroscience (topic 6). Several processes of social interaction operate automatically and are not preceded by conscious intentions. Thus, our work on unconscious determination of human choices and social neuroscience will be a good match.
Merging these areas of study will open up novel lines of research on conscious and unconscious processing. At the same time, they will permit a tighter integration of the sub-areas and research approaches of the Berlin School of Mind and Brain and will foster potential synergies between the participating researchers.
Contact details of the Mind & Brain faculty
Special Newsletter issue on consciousness research