The Secret You
The Human Guinea Pig Experiment and the Search for Consciousness

The Secret You
The Human Guinea Pig Experiment and the Search for Consciousness

When do we first become aware of ourselves? What is consciousness and how does it occur?

In medicine, several neurological and brain imaging techniques, such as EEG and fMRI, have proven useful for physical measures of brain activity associated with consciousness.

This is particularly true for EEG measures during anesthesia, which can provide an indication of anesthetic depth.

With the help of a hammer-wielding scientist, Jennifer Aniston and a general anaesthetic, Professor Marcus du Sautoy goes in search of answers to one of science's greatest mysteries: how do we know who we are?

While the thoughts that make us feel as though we know ourselves are easy to experience, they are notoriously difficult to explain. So, in order to find out where they come from, Marcus subjects himself to a series of probing experiments.

He learns at what age our self-awareness emerges and whether other species share this trait. Next, he has his mind scrambled by a cutting-edge experiment in anaesthesia. Having survived that ordeal, Marcus is given an out-of-body experience in a bid to locate his true self.

And in Hollywood, he learns how celebrities are helping scientists understand the microscopic activities of our brain. Finally, he takes part in a mind-reading experiment that both helps explain and radically alters his understanding of who he is.

Consciousness is a term that has been used to refer to a variety of aspects of the relationship between the mind and the world with which it interacts.

It has been defined, at one time or another, as: subjective experience; awareness; the ability to experience feelings; wakefulness; having a sense of selfhood; or as the executive control system of the mind.

Despite the difficulty of definition, many philosophers believe that there is a basic underlying intuition about consciousness that is shared by nearly all people.

As Max Velmans and Susan Schneider wrote in The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness: "Anything that we are aware of at a given moment forms part of our consciousness, making conscious experience at once the most familiar and most mysterious aspect of our lives."

In philosophy, consciousness is often said to imply four characteristics: subjectivity, change, continuity, and selectivity. Philosopher Franz Brentano has also suggested intentionality or aboutness (that consciousness is about something); however, there is no consensus on whether intentionality is a requirement for consciousness.

Issues of practical concern in the philosophy of consciousness include whether consciousness can ever be explained mechanistically; whether non-human consciousness exists and if so how it can be recognized; at what point in fetal development consciousness begins; and whether it may ever be possible for computers to achieve a conscious state.

The Awakening

At one time consciousness was viewed with skepticism by many scientists and considered within the domain of philosophers and theologians, but in recent years it has been an increasingly significant topic of scientific research.

In psychology and neuroscience, the focus of most research is on understanding what it means biologically and psychologically for information to be present in consciousness—that is, on determining the neural and psychological correlates of consciousness.

The majority of experimental studies use human subjects and assess consciousness by asking subjects for a verbal report of their experiences (e.g., "tell me if you notice anything when I do this").

Issues of interest include phenomena such as subliminal perception, blindsight, denial of impairment, and altered states of consciousness produced by psychoactive drugs or spiritual or meditative techniques.

In medicine, consciousness is assessed by observing a patient's arousal and responsiveness, and can be seen as a continuum of states ranging from full alertness and comprehension, through disorientation, then delirium, then loss of any meaningful communication, and ending with loss of movement in response to painful stimuli.

Issues of practical concern include how the presence of consciousness can be assessed in severely ill, comatose, or anesthetized people, and how to treat conditions in which consciousness is impaired or disrupted.