Decoding the neuroscience of consciousness

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In the 1990s, neuroscientist Melvyn Goodale began to study people with a condition called visual form agnosia. Such individuals cannot consciously see the shape or orientation of objects, yet act as though they can. “If you hold up a pencil in front of them and ask them if it’s horizontal or vertical, they cannot tell you,” says Goodale, founding director of the Brain and Mind Institute at Western University in London, Canada. “But remarkably, they can reach out and grab that pencil, orienting their hand correctly as they reach out to make contact with it.”

Goodale’s initial interest related to how the brain processes vision. But as his work to document the two visual systems that govern conscious and unconscious sight progressed, it caught the eye of philosophers, who drew him into conversations about consciousness — a melding of fields that has transformed both.

Goodale’s initial interest related to how the brain processes vision. But as his work to document the two visual systems that govern conscious and unconscious sight progressed, it caught the eye of philosophers, who drew him into conversations about consciousness — a melding of fields that has transformed both.

But even as research progresses, and ideas from science and philosophy continue to meld, essential questions remain unanswered. “It’s still just fundamentally mysterious how consciousness happens,” says Anil Seth, a cognitive and computational neuroscientist and co-director of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK.

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