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Using narratives to understand human conscious experience

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Abstract: Consciousness is, arguably, the central quality of human life. Yet, how it emerges from the workings of the brain remains poorly understood. For example, until recently, little has been known about how different individuals may form similar conscious experiences, or the extent to which severely brain-injured patients – who cannot provide self-report – can form conscious experiences similar to those of healthy people. I will discuss an innovative approach for understanding the shared neural basis of our conscious experience, as we engage in ubiquitous activities of daily life. For the first time, I have demonstrated that a common neural code underpins similar conscious experiences in healthy individuals, and that this code may be used to interpret these experiences without recourse to behaviour. This approach provided strong evidence for intact conscious experiences in several brain-injured patients, who were thought to lack consciousness for many years. To further investigate its neural mechanisms, I have abolished consciousness via anesthesia in healthy participants. Using the same naturalistic approach, I have shown that cognitive processes are hierarchically impaired under deep anesthesia and that these impairments are key for understanding information integration in the conscious brain. This work sheds light on the common neural basis of human consciousness and has important medico-ethical implications for vulnerable patients, including those in coma, where accurate prognostication can help save a patient’s life.


Lorina Naci is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland. Her work focuses on developing novel biomarkers of healthy and disordered cognition in the aging and patient populations, such as brain-injured, deeply anesthetized, and Parkinson’s. Concurrently, she explores the medico–ethical and societal implications of these applications to build ethical guidelines for use in clinical settings. In recent work, she has used neuroimaging to understand how consciousness emerges from the healthy brain and to detect conscious awareness in some brain-injured patients who appear to be entirely vegetative. Her recent work has enabled some of these individuals to communicate their thoughts to the outside world. Lorina’s research has been published in high-impact scientific journals and covered widely in the international media. She holds a L’Oréal for Women in Science Research Excellence Fellowship, and in 2017 received the L’Oréal Foundation France and UNESCO International Rising Talent Award.

This talk is part of the Zangwill Club series.

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