thescientist | Ever since I switched my research focus from theoretical physics to neuroscience many years ago, my professional life has focused on the “easy problem” of consciousness—exploring relationships between brain activity and mind. So-called signatures of consciousness, such as increased blood oxygen or electrical activity patterns in different brain regions, are recorded using several different imaging methods, including electroencephalography (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
The “hard problem”— how and why neural activity produces our conscious awareness—presents a much more profound puzzle. Like many scientists and nonscientists alike, I have a long-running fascination with the mystery of consciousness, which serves as the inspiration for my latest book, The New Science of Consciousness.
A new approach to studying consciousness is emerging based on collaborations between neuroscientists and complexity scientists. Such partnerships encompass subfields of mathematics, physics, psychology, psychiatry, philosophy, and more. This cross-disciplinary effort aims to reveal fresh insights into the major challenges of both the easy and the hard problems. How does human consciousness differ from the apparent consciousness of other animals? Do we enjoy genuine free will or are we slaves to unconscious systems? Above all, how can the interactions of a hundred billion nerve cells lead to the mysterious condition called consciousness?