What is consciousness? It is a term which is liberally used in these so-called ‘enlightened’ times, when we use it to describe developing spiritual awareness. In physical terms, one might describe it as the presence of life, and what our brain perceives, which would be a reasonable assumption. What we may not be aware of, however, are the limitations of our brain, how ‘conscious’ perception affects what we perceive, and how we perceive it.

On a daily basis, the brain processes a huge amount of information, only a fraction of which we are actually aware of; consequently it is almost impossible to determine what remains stored in our sub-conscious.

Two scientists believe that they may now be able to illustrate why certain information manages to reach our conscious brain. Natalia Zaretskaya and Andreas Bartels from the Centre for Integrative Neuroscience (CIN) at the University of Tübingen, have been conducting research using an illusory technique known as ‘binocular rivalry’, a recognized practice which renders visual images invisible.

When presented with two or more competing images, the eyes will only register one image at a time. During binocular rivalry we constantly switch from conscious to unconscious recognition of the images, and certain factors can affect which image becomes dominant; for example, an image which is upright will force its way into our consciousness more readily than one which is upside-down, as the brain will respond to the salient information.

During the research study, which was published in the journal Current Biology, the localized parietal regions in the brain normally concerned with perceptual reasoning, then whilst presenting subjects with both moving and static images, attempted to disrupt neural processing by applying magnetic pulses to the parietal regions to affect their perception of visual motion. The results were surprising: the pulses did not affect perception of the moving image, but the static image was perceived for longer.

The most interesting fact to come to light was that perception of the moving image could be altered as long as it was being perceived unconsciously, but that perception was not altered at all once the image had been recognized by the conscious brain. So, unconscious motion is fluid and liable to disturbance, whereas once the motion has been consciously perceived, it becomes more stable and is unaffected by external influences, including noise. So, conscious neural codes appear to create a more stable world around us, but how is this affect achieved?

There seems to exist a kind of quantum formalism in the process of binocular rivalry, whereby the ‘observer’ appears to significantly affect the ‘observed’, and the dynamics of the subjective experience may, therefore, always be fluid. In fact, quantum theory is almost necessary to fully describe the conscious experience, in this case, related to what is physically seen. If this is true, the philosophical potential is limitless: how does this process influence our individual perceptions of the world around us? Can we really trust our eyes? Could this explain why people see unexplained phenomena which appear to be invisible to others? How many other unknown factors influence what our brains perceive?

Science is still a few leaps away from providing definitive answers to these questions, but we would love to hear your own hypotheses on this fascinating subject. Subscribe today and leave us your comments.

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