Consciousness and Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts

What is consciousness? Why our minds may fly while our bodies are inert? How does a subjective state of consciousness arise from an objective state of brain tissue? While the subject of human consciousness traditionally belongs to the domain of philosophy, recent advances in cognitive science makes it possible to decipher the mechanism of consciousness in the lab. On a recent July afternoon, preeminent brain scientist Stanislas Dehaene, Professor from Collège de France, presented a set of tantalizing recent discoveries to a packed auditorium in the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum in the sweltering July heat. The Lecture, co-sponsored by NYU Shanghai, is part of the Shanghai Science Communication Forum co-organized by the Shanghai Science Education Development Foundation and the Shanghai Museum of Science and Technology.

Using a combination of intriguing video and images, Dehaene demonstrated how the scientists use visual illusions, subjective reports, neuroimaging results and tools in machine learning to decode subliminal images from brain signals and to identify the signatures of consciousness that emerge when these images pop into consciousness. Based on that, Dehaene proposed the “global neuronal workspace theory” which gives a succinct explanation about the information-processing architecture that underlines consciousness mind.

Many of the ideas and experiments discussed in the lecture could be traced back to Dehaene’s recently published book, Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts1. The book received many accolades from fellow scientists, including that of the Nobelist Eric Kandel. A member of the audience excitedly remarked afterwards, “I never realized that consciousness could be a subject of scientific and systemic research. Professor Dehaene’s explanation of signals of consciousness and unconsciousness in the human brain is very easy to follow. What impresses me the most is the clinical application of consciousness research in the diagnosis and treatment of patients in vegetative or minimally conscious state. What I see is the humanistic care in scientific research.”

Dr. Xiao-jing Wang, Associate Vice Chancellor for Research at NYU Shanghai and a world-renowned computational neuroscientist in his own right, delivered opening remarks for the Lecture. He remarked, “NYU Shanghai wishes to leverage its strength and influence in the international academia and continues the cooperation with Shanghai Museum of Science and Technology. Together we want to give the public access to the world’s most distinguished scholars like Professor Dehaene. This will raise the public’s awareness of the latest scientific discoveries and inspire young talents in Shanghai to dedicate themselves to cutting edge research such as brain science.

Distinguished certainly is Dehaene. Among his many honors, he is a member of the French Academy of Sciences, the Royal Academies for Science and the Arts of Belgium, and a Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Sciences of USA. Dehaene shared the 2014 Brain Prize, hailed as the Nobel Prize of Neuroscience, with Professors Giacomo Rizzolatti and Trevor Robbins.

  1. Dehaene, S. (2014). Consciousness and the brain: Deciphering how the brain codes our thoughts. Penguin.

Written by NYU-ECNU Institute of Brain and Cognitive Science at NYU Shanghai