Welcome to the seventh installment ofMind Matters is Sciam.com's "seminar blog" on the sciences of mind and brain. Each week, top scientists discuss the research driving neuroscience, psychology, and psychiatry. You can join them. We hope you will.
Betting on Consciousness
What's consciousness? Perhaps, a new study suggests, it's what you're willing to bet on. Photo by Adrian Sampson, Creative Commons license.
Introductionby David Dobbs, Editor, Mind Matters
Consciousness -- the awareness of perception, sensation or thought -- presents one of neuroscience's most slippery problems. How do we become aware of something? When can we be said to be aware of something? Being tired and being conscious of being tired are two different things; how does one become the other? Philosophers, having debated these heady questions for centuries, have recently been joined by neuroscientists determined to test them with replicable measurements of awareness. In the paper described here -- "Post-decision wagering objectively measures awareness," published in Nature Neuroscience on 21 January 2007 -- the authors, Navindra Persaud of the University of Toronto and Peter McLeod and Alan Cowey of Oxford University, made a splash bringing to these ancient questions an ancient measure of confidence: gambling. In a set of experiments drawing equally on Oliver Sacksian neurological anomalies and Friday night poker, Persaud and colleagues manage to test awareness of knowledge that the subjects don't even know they have. Asking subjects to bet on how well they know something is an established trick in neuroeconomics. But as our experts Christof Koch and Kerstin Preuschoff write, applying this tactic to awareness appears to give consciousness researchers a much-needed but elusive tool -- a way to assess consciousness without disturbing it.