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States Of Consciousness Essay Questions

Consciousness is at once the most familiar and the most mysterious feature of our existence. A new science of consciousness is now revealing its biological basis.

Once considered beyond the reach of science, the neural mechanisms of human consciousness are now being unravelled at a startling pace by neuroscientists and their colleagues. I've always been fascinated by the possibility of understanding consciousness, so it is tremendously exciting to witness – and take part in – this grand challenge for 21st century science.

Here are eight key questions that neuroscientists are now addressing:

1. What are the critical brain regions for consciousness?

The brain contains about 90 billion neurons, and about a thousand times more connections between them.

But consciousness isn't just about having a large number of neurons. For instance, the cerebellum, which contains over half the neurons in the brain, doesn't seem much involved. We now think that consciousness depends primarily on a specific network of regions in the cortex (the wrinkled surface of the brain) and the thalamus (a walnut-sized structure buried deep in the interior). Some of these regions are important for determining the level of consciousness (the difference between waking and dreamless sleep) while others are involved in shaping conscious content (the specific qualities of any given experience).

Current hot topics include the role of the brain's densely connected frontal lobes, and the importance of information flow between regions rather than their activity per se.

2. What are the mechanisms of general anaesthesia?

A good way to study a phenomenon is to see what happens when it disappears. General anaesthesia can be induced by many different substances (including propofol, one of the drugs that contributed to Michael Jackson's death) but the outcome is the same: total loss of consciousness.

There is now increasing evidence that anaesthesia involves a disintegration of how different parts of the brain work together, a sort of "cognitive unbinding" rather than a general shutting-down.

A key question now is how similar general anaesthesia is to other states of unconsciousness, such as dreamless sleep.

3. What is the self?

All our experiences seem tied to an experiencing self, the 'I' behind our eyes. But selfhood is a complex phenomenon, encompassing a first-person perspective on the world, a sense of ownership of our body, actions, and thoughts, perceptions of our internal physiological condition, and of course the narrative we tell ourselves about our past experiences and imagined futures.

We now know that these different features depend on different brain mechanisms, and can even be manipulated experimentally (for example, it's possible to generate "out of body" experiences in the lab). Understanding how the brain constructs the conscious self will help us better understand and treat psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, which involve a disintegration of selfhood.

4. What determines experiences of volition and 'will'?

The question of whether "free will" exists is guaranteed to raise philosophical hackles. But what's not in doubt is that the experience of intending and causing our actions exists and is very common. Neuroscientists have studied this issue since the 1980s by looking for neural signatures of volition (the experience of intending to do something) and agency (the experience of causing an action). A growing consensus now rejects the idea of volition as explicitly causing actions, instead seeing it as involving a particular brain network mediating complex, open decisions between different actions.

5. What is the function of consciousness? What are experiences for?

Researchers have now discovered that many cognitive functions can take place in the absence of consciousness. We can perceive objects, make decisions, and even perform apparently voluntary actions without consciousness intervening. One possibility stands out: consciousness integrates information. According to this view, each of our experiences rules out an enormous number of alternative possibilities, and in doing so generates an incredibly large amount of information.

6. How rich is consciousness?

The vast majority of evidence about consciousness depends on subjective reports, for example when we say what we (consciously) see. A long-running debate has asked whether we are missing something by this method, if what we experience can outstrip our ability to report on it. Intriguingly, evidence is emerging that this may indeed be the case. This evidence may provide a basis for tackling one of the thorniest problems in consciousness science: distinguishing the brain mechanisms of consciousness itself from those involved in being able to relate what we experience.

7. Are other animals conscious?

Mammals share much of the neural machinery important for human consciousness, so it seems a safe bet to assume they are conscious as well, even if they can't tell us that they are. Despite this similarity, animal consciousness is unlikely to involve conscious selfhood in the same sense that humans enjoy. Beyond mammals the case is much harder to decide. However, birds and cephalopods (such as the octopus) are particularly intriguing, being extremely smart and having surprisingly complex brains.

8. Are vegetative patients conscious?

In the US alone, about 15,000 patients are in a "vegetative state", having suffered massive brain injury. The key feature of this state is that patients' behaviour suggests that they are awake but not aware. Brain imaging has revealed, however, that at least some of these patients are conscious, and has even facilitated communication between these patients and their families and doctors.

We now need to improve the sensitivity of these methods and use them to guide not only diagnosis but also treatment.

These are just a few of the active research areas in the neuroscience of consciousness. What's important is that we can make rapid progress on these and other key questions without getting hamstrung by some of the grand mysteries that still remain, most obviously: Why is consciousness part of the universe at all? But it's this question that still keeps me awake at night.

Anil Seth is co-director of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex and chair of the 16th annual meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness, which will take place in Brighton, 2-6 July

He will take part in a debate about the nature of consciousness at the Royal Institution on Wednesday 7 March

  • 1. 

    Most of our time awake is spent in a state called _____, in which our thoughts, feelings, and sensations are clear and organized, and we feel alert.

    • A. 

      Altered state of consciousness

    • B. 

    • C. 

    • D. 

  • 2. 

    Which of the following is NOT an altered state of consciousness?

    • A. 

    • B. 

      You have been drinking beer

    • C. 

      You are concentrating hard on a math test

    • D. 

  • 3. 

    Which of the following is NOT an example of a circadian rhythm?

    • A. 

    • B. 

    • C. 

    • D. 

  • 4. 

    When light begins to fade at the end of the day, the suprachiasmatic nucleus in the ______ signals the pineal gland to release _______.

    • A. 

    • B. 

    • C. 

    • D. 

  • 5. 

    Which of the following was NOT listed as one of the factors involved in the ability to go to sleep?

    • A. 

    • B. 

    • C. 

    • D. 

  • 6. 

    The symptoms of sleep deprivation include all but which of the following?

    • A. 

    • B. 

    • C. 

      Feeling on general discomfort

    • D. 

  • 7. 

    You hear about an accident that took place at 3:00 A.M. The car was traveling along and them seemed to drift into the opposing lane of traffic, hitting an oncoming car head on. Given the early morning time, you suspect that the driver of the car that drifted over the center line most likely experienced a ______.

    • A. 

    • B. 

    • C. 

    • D. 

  • 8. 

    It might be best to say that adaptice theory explains _____ whereas restorative theory explains _______.

    • A. 

      Why we NEED to sleep; WHEN we sleep

    • B. 

      WHERE we sleep; why we NEED to sleep

    • C. 

      Why we NEED to sleep; WHERE we sleep

    • D. 

      WHEN we sleep; why we NEED to sleep

  • 9. 

    What is the first stage of sleep in which, if awakened, you will realize that you were asleep?

    • A. 

    • B. 

    • C. 

    • D. 

  • 10. 

    In which stage of sleep do night terrors occur?

    • A. 

    • B. 

    • C. 

    • D. 

  • 11. 

    Sleepwalking _______.

    • A. 

    • B. 

      Occurs more frequently in girls than in boys

    • C. 

      Occurs in about 50 percent of the population

    • D. 

      Lasts well into late adulthood in most people

  • 12. 

    Night terrors ______.

    • A. 

      Are the same thing as nightmares

    • B. 

      Are always vividly remembered afterward

    • C. 

      Are more common in children

    • D. 

      Take place in one of the lighter stages of sleep.

  • 13. 

    Which of the following statements about REM sleep is FALSE?

    • A. 

      The eyes move rapidly back and forth under the eyelids

    • B. 

      Most people report that they were dreaming if awakened

    • C. 

      The body is aroused and brain waves resemble waking beta waves

    • D. 

      Lack of REM sleep produces psychological disorders

  • 14. 

    If you are in REM sleep but are able to move around and act out your dreams, you may have a rare condition called _______.

    • A. 

    • B. 

    • C. 

    • D. 

  • 15. 

    If you suddenly and without warning slip into REM sleep during the day, often falling down as you do so, you may have a condition called _____.

    • A. 

    • B. 

    • C. 

    • D. 

  • 16. 

    A sleep disorder that may require the use of a machine to force air gently into the nasal passages is called ______.

    • A. 

    • B. 

    • C. 

    • D. 

  • 17. 

    Randall tells his therapist that he had a dream about riding on a train that went through a tunnel. The therapist tells Randall that his dream was most likely about sexual intercourse, as the tunnel represents a woman's vagina. Randall's therapist is using the _______ theory of dreams to explain Randall's dream.

    • A. 

    • B. 

    • C. 

    • D. 

  • 18. 

    Hypnosis has been shown to do all of the following BUT ______.

    • A. 

      Induce amnesia for what happens during the hypnotic state

    • B. 

      Provide pain releif without medication

    • C. 

      Alter sensory perceptions

    • D. 

      Regress people back to their early childhood experiences

  • 19. 

    Jackie used Esctasy while she was in college, but now that she has a government job she has avoided using any recreational drugs. Although she had no problem quitting, she still finds that every now and then she gets a strong craving to use Ecstasy again. Her craving si most likely the result of ______.

    • A. 

    • B. 

    • C. 

    • D. 

  • 20. 

    Which of the following is NOT a naturally occuring substance?

    • A. 

    • B. 

    • C. 

    • D. 

  • 21. 

    Which of the following is NOT a depressant?

    • A. 

    • B. 

    • C. 

    • D. 

  • 22. 

    Alcohol actually ______ the release of GABA, a neurotransmitter that inhibits many brain functions.

    • A. 

    • B. 

    • C. 

    • D. 

  • 23. 

    _________ was originally thought to be a more pure form of morphine, with fewer side effects.

    • A. 

    • B. 

    • C. 

    • D. 

  • 24. 

    "Magic mushrooms" are the source of _______.

    • A. 

    • B. 

    • C. 

    • D. 

  • 25. 

    High doses of marijuana can lead to ____.

    • A. 

    • B. 

      Hallucinations and delusions

    • C. 

    • D. 

  • 26. 

    Which of the following statements concerning sleep deprivation is FALSE?

    • A. 

      Driving after 17 to 19 hours without sleep is less dangerous than having a blood alcohol level of .05

    • B. 

      Sleep deprivation accounts for 30-40 percent of all accidents involving heavy trucks

    • C. 

      Sleep deprivation accounts for 16-60 percent of all road accidents

    • D. 

      Sleep deprivation can cause stress, anxiety, and depression and increase risky behavior

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