A study of visual perception that didn’t inform us about human conscious awareness

This 2015 Vanderbilt study with a Princeton reviewer stated that they found “compelling evidence” related to:

“How the brain begets conscious awareness.

Identifying the fingerprints of consciousness in humans would be a significant advancement for basic and medical research, let alone its philosophical implications on the underpinnings of the human experience.”

Let’s begin with the “conscious” part of the study’s conscious awareness goal. A summary article of 105 studies entitled Evolution of consciousness: Phylogeny, ontogeny, and emergence from general anesthesia that I curated found:

The core of human consciousness appears to be associated primarily with phylogenetically ancient structures mediating arousal and activated by primitive emotions.”

The current study ignored the evolutionary bases of human consciousness and didn’t include any limbic system and lower brain areas. The researchers’ biases were further indicated by the statement from their press release:

“Focal theories contend there are specific areas of the brain that are critical for generating consciousness, while global theories argue consciousness arises from large-scale brain changes in activity.”

The researchers were in the global camp of this unnecessary divide.


Let’s next examine the “awareness” part of the study’s conscious awareness goal. The subjects were 24 students in a visual perception experiment that used fMRI. The visual events that were perceived went into the “aware” bucket and the others into the “unaware” bucket.

The study’s subject selection criteria and experiment seemed a little odd for developing “compelling evidence” related to “how the brain begets conscious awareness.” By equating visual perception with awareness, the researchers excluded the contributions of other senses and methods of awareness.

Would it follow from the study’s methodology that blind people can’t be consciously aware?

The supplementary material showed that 7 of the 24 subjects’ results for one experimental condition, and 12 – half – of the subjects’ results for another condition were excluded because they apparently had problems reporting confidence in their visual perception. I wonder why the reviewer agreed that it was appropriate to toss out half of the subjects’ experimental results.

Whatever else it was that the study found, the researchers didn’t reach their goal of developing “compelling evidence” related to “how the brain begets conscious awareness.”

http://www.pnas.org/content/112/12/3799.full “Breakdown of the brain’s functional network modularity with awareness”

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