Humans have learned to travel through space, eradicate diseases and understand nature at the breathtakingly tiny level of fundamental particles.
Yet we have no idea how consciousness – our ability to experience and learn about the world in this way and report it to others – arises in the brain.
In fact, while scientists have been preoccupied with understanding consciousness for centuries, it remains one of the most important unanswered questions of modern neuroscience.
Now our new study, published in Science Advances, sheds light on the mystery by uncovering networks in the brain that are at work when we are conscious.
It’s not just a philosophical question.
Determining whether a patient is ‘aware’ after suffering a severe brain injury is a huge challenge both for doctors and families who need to make decisions about care.
Modern brain imaging techniques are starting to lift this uncertainty, giving us unprecedented insights into human consciousness.
For example, we know that complex brain areas including the prefrontal cortex or the precuneus, which are responsible for a range of higher cognitive functions, are typically involved in conscious thought.
However, large brain areas do many things. We therefore wanted to find out how consciousness is represented in the brain on the level of specific networks.