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Consciousness: What in the World is it?

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Consciousness is, for each of us, the presence of a world. Without consciousness there is no world, no self: there is nothing at all. But we do not know much about the material and biological basis of this most central feature of our lives. How do rich multisensory experiences, the senses of self and body, and volition, agency, and ‘will’ emerge from the joint activity of billions of neurons locked inside a bony skull? Once reserved within philosophy and theology, the neuroscience of consciousness has emerged as a one of the great scientific challenges for this century. In this seminar I will sketch the state-of-the-art in the new science of consciousness. I will distinguish between conscious level (how conscious we are), conscious content (what we are conscious of), and conscious self (the ‘I’ behind the eyes), describing in each case how new experiments are shedding light on the underlying neural mechanisms, in normal life and in neurological and psychiatric conditions. Throughout, I will emphasize phenomenology – the way things seem – as the target for any satisfying explanation of how the brain, in conjunction with the body and the environment, gives rise to and shapes conscious experience.

This talk is part of the Stokes Society, Pembroke College series.

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