Resources for newcomers to consciousness science

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Want to know more about consciousness science? What follows is a personal, subjective collection of resources intended for people without much or any prior training in neuroscience, psychology, or philosophy, who want to gain a foothold in the exciting field of consciousness science. I was motivated to put this together by the unexpectedly large number of queries along these lines that have landed in my inbox since my TED talk was posted, back in July 2017.

I’ll shamelessly highlight some of my own stuff, which will be a bit of a random selection until my new book is published (written). For the most part, though, I’ll point to resources I’ve found helpful both for myself, and for others, both in general discussions and in the nine years I’ve been teaching the Masters level course on ‘Neuroscience of Consciousness’ at the University of Sussex. (That’s definitely one way to learn more – sign up for our MSc!) I certainly expect this collection to evolve; by all means let me know, in the comments, if you have suggestions or spot egregious sins of omission.

My focus here is on empirical science, rather than on the ins and outs of philosophy of mind. If philosophy is your main interest then David Chalmers has put together an excellent collection of resources.


Books

Consciousness: an Introduction. Susan Blackmore and Emily Troscianko, 2018. An accessible survey of consciousness science with a special focus on altered states and ‘borderlands’.

Consciousness and the Brain. Stanislas Dehaene, 2014. An excellent survey of the frontiers of consciousness science, from one of the leaders of the field. The book emphasizes cognitive neuroscience approaches to consciousness science, and strongly advocates versions of ‘global workspace’ theory.

Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist. Christof Koch, 2012. A fascinating and surprisingly autobiographical account from the Francis Crick’s former collaborator and still one of the leading researchers in consciousness science.

Consciousness Explained. Daniel Dennett, 1991. An all-time classic in which Dennett reinvigorates the science of consciousness by connecting philosophy with cognitive science, and proposing his multiple-drafts theory of consciousness.  Critics say he doesn’t explain consciousness, he ‘explains it away’. What do you think?

Into the Gray Zone. Adrian Owen, 2017. Nothing to do with the acquisition of bus passes, but a personal account of the discovery of residual consciousness in patients with severe brain injury, by a pioneer of clinical consciousness science.

Making Up the Mind: How the Brain Creates Our Mental World. Chris Frith, 2007. A beautifully written exploration of the predictive basis of perception, by one of the most influential psychologists of recent years.  Although it predates developments like the ‘free energy principle‘ there is still much of value here, and it’s a lovely read.

Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life. Peter Godfrey-Smith, 2017. I was lucky enough to spend a few days in an octopus lab back in 2009 and have been fascinated by these strange and wonderful creatures ever since. This delightful book by a philosopher and scuba-diver is an outstanding examination of a very different kind of mind.

(The) Ego Tunnel. Thomas Metzinger, 2010. An excellent and highly readable precis of eminent philosopher Metzinger’s ideas on consciousness, especially those about the existence (or nonexistence) of the ‘self’. According to Metzinger, everything we experience is a ‘virtual self in a virtual reality’.

(The) Man Who Wasn’t There. Anil Ananthaswamy, 2015. An insightful exploration of self-consciousness through the various ways it can go wrong, or at least differently. Combines the relevant neuroscience with a personal touch as the author meets people with various strange conditions.

(The) Oxford Companion to Consciousness. Tim Bayne, Axel Cleeremans, and Patrick Wilken (Editors), 2009.  Not something to read cover-to-cover, but a dictionary-style reference to core concepts (and more concepts) in consciousness science.  Super-useful for refreshing all the ‘isms’ of philosophy and the terminology of cognitive neuroscience.

(The) Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains our Insatiable Search for Meaning. Daniel Bor, 2012. A highly readable and neuroscientifically oriented account of the new science of consciousness, by Dan Bor, a former research fellow at the Sackler Centre.

Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action, and the Embodied Mind. Andy Clark, 2015. Although not focusing on consciousness, this is a compelling account of the ‘prediction machine’ view of brain, body, and mind. “Essential reading for meat machines of all kinds” as I blurb it on the back cover.

(The) Student’s Guide to Cognitive Neuroscience (3rd edition). Jamie Ward, 2015. This textbook – by my Sussex colleague Jamie Ward – provides an excellent grounding in cognitive neuroscience.

Wider than the Sky. Gerald Edelman, 2005. Edelman was my mentor in consciousness science, and this short book is probably the most accessible introduction to his rich ideas that traverse evolution, neuroscience, molecular biology, and psychology.


Papers

It’s impossible to maintain an up to date and comprehensive list of papers relevant to consciousness science, so please treat these suggestions as just that – suggestions. I’ve included only open-access (i.e., free to everyone) papers* – meaning I am missing out some otherwise obvious targets. It’s also important to know that some of these papers argue positions that are controversial – so do take things with a pinch of salt. My own papers are included not with any claim that they have any particular importance, but only in the hope they might be useful as introductory pieces, or expand in helpful ways on themes in the TED talk and other public-oriented things. As with the books I use alphabetic ordering.

Blake, R., Brascamp, J., & Heeger, D. J. (2014). Can binocular rivalry reveal neural correlates of consciousness? Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci, 369(1641), 20130211.  [an eloquent and historically well informed review of binocular rivalry and its relevance to consciousness.]

Blanke, O., Slater, M., & Serino, A. (2015). Behavioral, Neural, and Computational Principles of Bodily Self-Consciousness. Neuron, 88(1), 145-166.  [a comprehensive review of the neuroscience of experiences of body ownership.]

Block, N. (2005). Two neural correlates of consciousness. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9(2), 46-52. [in which Ned Block articulates his much discussed distinction between phenomenal and access consciousness.]

Chalmers, D. J. (1994). Facing up to the problem of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 23(3), 200-219. [the classic reference to the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness.]

Dehaene, S., & Changeux, J. P. (2011). Experimental and theoretical approaches to conscious processing. Neuron, 70(2), 200-227. [a now-classic reference to various approaches in the field, with a bias towards ‘global workspace’ theory]

Frassle, S., Sommer, J., Jensen, A., Naber, M., & Einhauser, W. (2014). Binocular rivalry: Frontal activity relates to introspection and action but not to perception. Journal of Neuroscience, 34(5):1738-1747 [This empirical paper kick-started a whole sub-field about ‘no report’ paradigms, which try to distinguish correlates of (conscious) perception from those of report. There’s a nice review paper here, but its not open access; again many people disagree – and its far from clear what no-report experiments actually reveal]

Fried, I., Haggard, P., He, B.,J. & Schurger, A. (2017). Volition and action in the human brain: processes, pathologies, and reasons. J Neurosci, 37(45):10842-10847.  [a good review of the neuroscience of volition. Patrick Haggard’s other stuff is also well worth reading]

Koch, C., Massimini, M., Boly, M., & Tononi, G. (2016). Neural correlates of consciousness: progress and problems. Nat Rev Neurosci, 17(5), 307-321.  [a recent update on the ‘neural correlates’ approach, though with a bias towards finding NCCs in the ‘back’ of the brain.  See here for some counterarguments – what do you think?]

Lamme, V.A.F. (2006). Towards a true neural stance on consciousness. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10(11), 494-501. [in which Victor Lamme suggests that global workspace theory is all about access and not about conscious phenomenology.  Read in conjunction with Block (also in this line) and Dehaene (not).  Here’s a more recent version but its not open access.].

Powers, A. R., Mathys, C., & Corlett, P. R. (2017). Pavlovian conditioning-induced hallucinations result from overweighting of perceptual priors. Science, 357(6351), 596-600. [a brilliant paper combining behavioral experiment, computational modelling, and neuroimaging, to show how hallucinations depend on overly strong perceptual priors.]

Seth, A.K. (2009). Functions of consciousness. In W.P. Banks (ed.) Elsevier Encyclopedia of Consciousness. Vol 1: 279-293.  [a quite old but still (hopefully) valid summary of neuroscientific and philosophical perspectives on what consciousness is ‘for’].

Seth, A.K. (2013). Interoceptive inference, emotion, and the embodied self. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 17(11):656-663 [a conceptual paper exploring how experiences of emotion and selfhood depend on predictions about body-related signals]. The follow up paper is just out now, also in Trends.  Seth, A.K., & Tsakiris, M. Being a beast machine: the somatic basis of selfhood. Preprint here.

Seth, A.K. (2015). The cybernetic Bayesian brain: from interoceptive inference to sensorimotor contingencies. In Open MIND, eds. T. Metzinger & J. Windt. Frankfurt a.M., GER: MIND group. [a conceptual paper, exploring how control-oriented predictive models are relevant for consciousness; see also the commentary: Wiese, W. (2015) Perceptual presence in the Kuhnian-Popperian Bayesian brain.]

Seth, A.K., He, B.J., & Hohwy, J. (2015). Editorial. Neuroscience of consciousness. 1-3. [explains why the neuroscience of consciousness is a good thing]

Seth, A.K. (2017). The fall and rise of consciousness science. In The Return of Consciousness, ed. A Haag. p.13-41. Ax:Son Johnson Foundation, Riga.  [a brief survey of the history of consciousness and its revival in the late 20th Century].

Tononi, G., Boly, M., Massimini, M., & Koch, C. (2016). Integrated information theory: from consciousness to its physical substrate. Nat Rev Neurosci, 17(7), 450-461. [a comprehensive review of the influential but empirically hard-to-test ‘integrated information theory’ of consciousness]


Obligatory self referential bit

The TED talk is a good place to start, although – like many TED talks – it lacks actual data. (TED talks sometimes seem like homeopathy to me, gaining their potency in proportion to how much scientific content is diluted away. I don’t mean this unkindly, though I am happy to be unkind to homeopathy.) My 2016 essay in Aeon sets out the basic approach of building explanatory bridges between (neural) mechanism and phenomenology, what I call with tongue-in-cheek the ‘real problem’ of consciousness, and there’s a video of my 2016 Royal Institution Friday Discourse which delves deeper. More recently, there’s a long conversation with Sam Harris on his Waking Up podcast, from January 2018. This covers many issues and weighs in at over three hours. I’ve also written about octopus minds for Jim Al-Khalili’s book Aliens, experiences of depression and anaesthesia for Granta, and artificial consciousness in a review of Alex Garland’s brilliant film Ex Machina. Finally, the 2014 book 30 Second Brain, written with colleagues and friends, provides a gentle introduction to neuroscience with an emphasis on consciousness.


Other gubbins

Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness. The primary scientific organisation for the support and promotion of consciousness science.  Founded in 1994 – I’ve been going to their brilliant annual meetings since 2003.

The Rap Guide to Consciousness. A show, and also a CD, by the world’s most accomplished peer-reviewed rap artist, Baba Brinkman. I worked with him on this project, which premiered at the 2016 Brighton Festival, enjoyed a successful run at the 2016 Edinburgh Festival, and can now be found at the Soho Playhouse in New York.

The Most Unknown. A feature documentary by director Ian Cheney (and advised by Werner Herzog) following nine scientists around to amazing places around the world. Axel Cleeremans and I talk about consciousness, but not to each other. It’s now streaming on Netflix.

CIFAR Azrieli Programme in Mind, Brain, and Consciousness. This is a Canadian programme dedicated to understanding where human consciousness comes from, and why it’s important.

Neuroscience of Consciousness. An open-access journal, published by Oxford University Press, edited by me and Jakob Hohwy. It’s the official journal of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness.

Consciousness and Cognition. One of the longest running academic journals focused on consciousness research. Currently edited by Talis Bachmann.


Do something

Enough reading. Take action! Join the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness (the ASSC). Come to one of our annual meetings. Subscribe to email alerts from the journal Neuroscience of Consciousness. Find out if there’s any consciousness research going on in a University department near you and sign up for all their experiments. Attend a summer/winter school, either in consciousness science specifically, or in neuroscience, psychology, or philosophy more generally. How about the CIFAR Winter School on the neuroscience of consciousness. Join a reading and discussion group, enrol in a course, and if nothing else just build into your life the practice of noticing the flow of your own consciousness, for in the end, nothing else matters.


Acknowledgements

Although this is just a blog post I wanted to acknowledge all the organisations that have allowed me to pursue the outreach and engagement aspects of consciousness science. I’m grateful to Wellcome Trust for an Engagement Fellowship (2016-2020), the CIFAR programme on Mind, Brain, and Consciousness, where I hold a Senior Fellowship, and the Dr. Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation which supports the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science.

*papers with online open access preprints are also OK – but this is a pretty recent phenomenon.

2 thoughts on “Resources for newcomers to consciousness science

  1. What a fabulous collection of books! I just read “the Real Problem” for the first time and I’d like to mention another insightful book: The Ancient Origins of Consciousness by Feiner & Mallatt, which traces the structures of the brain that provide Phenomenal Consciousness with dozens of exquisitely detailed diagrams of brains along the evolutionary journey to Consciousness. Book URL: https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/ancient-origins-consciousness , More Notes: jch.com/notes/FeinbergMallatt2016.html

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