Conscious Competition

Brain scientists can watch neurons fire and communicate. They can map how brain regions light up during sensation, decision-making, and speech. What they can’t explain is how all this activity gives rise to consciousness. Theories abound, but their advocates often talk past each other and interpret the same set of data differently. “Theories are very flexible,” says Christof Koch, president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, Washington. “Like vampires, they’re very difficult to slay.”

Now, the Templeton World Charity Foundation (TWCF), a nonprofit best known for funding research at the intersection of science and religion, hopes to narrow the debate with experiments that directly pit theories of consciousness against each other. The first phase of the $20 million project, launched this week at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Chicago, Illinois, will compare two theories of consciousness by scanning the brains of participants during cleverly designed tests. Proponents of each theory have agreed to admit it is flawed if the outcomes go against them.

Head-to-head contests are rare in basic science. “It’s a really outlandish project,” says principal investigator Lucia Melloni, a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, Germany. But understanding consciousness has become increasingly important for researchers seeking to communicate with locked-in patients, determine whether artificial intelligence systems can become conscious, or explore whether animals experience consciousness the way humans do. To winnow the theories, TWCF took inspiration from a 1919 experiment in which physicist Arthur Eddington pitted Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity against Isaac Newton’s gravitational theory. Eddington measured how the Sun’s gravity caused light from nearby stars to shift during a solar eclipse—and Einstein won.

(continue reading)