The Science of Consciousness (BIO4123.01)

David Edelman

Most of us have an intuitive sense of what consciousness is. It is what slips away when we fall asleep and returns when we awaken. It is the awareness of a particular word, object, or scene. It is the feeling of an internal presence. For centuries, nearly all thought about the nature of consciousness was the sole preserve of philosophers, most notably Rene Descartes, John Locke, and David Hume. Although William James had expressed the brilliant and timely insight that consciousness is a process whose function is knowing–i.e., a process and not a thing–as early as 1904, it wasn’t until well into the 20th Century that consciousness emerged as a legitimate area of scientific inquiry. In this course, we will review the most prominent theories of consciousness within neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy, explore the means by which consciousness can be assessed and measured in humans and non-human animals, and discuss the known brain and behavioral correlates and properties of conscious experience. What is the distinction between sensory consciousness and higher-order consciousness (e.g., self-awareness)? What is the effect of embodiment (i.e., what it is like to be a human vs. what it is like to be a bat or other animal) on conscious experience? Which animals experience conscious states? How and when did consciousness evolve and what is its function, if any? We will try to answer these questions as we explore the nature of consciousness: a mysterious and compelling process that is, today, a tractable object of scientific study.