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Morten Overgaard on consciousness

Why are we conscious? How can it be that physical processes in the brain seem to be accompanied with subjective experience? As technology has advanced, psychologists and neuroscientists have been able to observe brain activity. But with an explosion in experiments, methods, and measurements, there has also been great confusion. We spoke with Morten Overgaard, editor of Behavioral Methods in Consciousness Research, about the past, present, and future of consciousness research.

What do you find most interesting about the field of consciousness?

To me, consciousness is the greatest mystery of all, and this is essentially what captivates me about it. Although incredibly great minds have been speculating how subjective experiences without a physical definition can stand in some relation to the physical brain, no one has been able to answer the question yet. If we were not conscious, there would be no “we”, only physical objects with limbs and organs.

What influenced your research?

In fact, the idea for my book came very suddenly in 2012 when I organized a symposium with three colleagues. I had been working with methods for how to study consciousness for more than a decade, and our symposium was called “Behavioural methods to assess awareness”. Honestly, I thought the title and topic was too nerdy and specialized to attract a large group of attendants. I was very wrong.

Even though research on consciousness is still not at a stage where we can say “you should do exactly this or that,” it became clear to me that the field needs a “hands-on manual” for how to use various methods. What was also particularly clear to me was how important it is to underline the limitations and unknown aspects of each existing method. When scientists write research papers, we typically write about all the things that went well and things that we know. More rarely, we write about all the things that are still mysteries and the doubts we may have about the things we do. It is important to remember that consciousness research is still a very young and unfinished discipline, and that there are no final answers about when and how to use different methods.

How do you go about investigating consciousness? Why are the different methods so important?

There is no single way to measure consciousness; there are many different ideas and angles to the topic. And we are very far from having one all-encompassing method to study consciousness.

Why is the matter important? Consciousness is perhaps the greatest mystery in science today while at the same time, it is the most fundamental thing to our existence. If we are ever to understand how consciousness relates to the physical world (e.g. the brain), and if science is to be part of getting to such an understanding, we need proper and careful methods.

Where do you see the field of consciousness and cognitive psychology heading in the next 10 years?

This is a very difficult question. There is currently a tendency to increase fragmentation in cognitive psychology, and to some degree in consciousness research. A researcher in, say, visual perception may have theories and methods that are completely different from researchers in other sub-disciplines. Most researchers in visual perception who are interested in consciousness ask what the functions of consciousness may be. However, researchers in motor control generally agree that consciousness plays no functional role at all, but is some sort of by-product to brain activity.

Such conflicts may be used to help us reconsider cognitive psychology as a discipline. In a sense, specialization and fragmentation is sometimes necessary to develop expert knowledge in a field. However, if general models of cognition from one sub-discipline cannot generalize to other areas, we could think of integrational perspectives as well. How the “poles” of fragmentation and integration will be balanced will influence the shape of cognitive psychology in the years to come.

What advice would you have for students of psychology?

I think the most important advice is to keep asking questions, including meta-questions about what one is actually studying, and about one’s methodological choices. Psychology is a difficult discipline because at the same time it wants to be a quantitative science comparable with natural and health sciences, although its object of investigation is in many cases purely subjective. As a consequence, it is sometimes difficult for psychologists not to confuse the object of investigation (say, visual consciousness) with the measure of choice (say, a particular kind of report). This is the case both in clinical and scientific work.

What career would you have pursued if you hadn’t become a professor?

When I was young, I had a serious inner conflict whether I should pursue a career in science or in arts. I was very involved in theatre, movies, radio programmes, and writing novels and short stories from a quite young age. I still sometimes wonder whether I chose the right path. Otherwise, I would perhaps have done something more down to earth, such as producing wine from ingredients naturally occurring in Denmark.

Who is your greatest psychological influence?

I don’t have a single source of direct influence. I was never part of a laboratory or had a “mentor” in any classical sense. Instead, I am close to “self-taught” but with much inspiration from brilliant people. For example, when I went to hear lectures by the Danish neuroscientist Jesper Mogensen when I was a student, I was left thirsting for an understanding of the brain. Jesper is today one of my primary collaborators. David Chalmers’ book The Conscious Mind (1996) was probably the most important source of inspiration for me to become interested in consciousness. I later visited him in Arizona as a PhD student, and I have much respect for him still today. I think my current scientific approach to consciousness is very influenced by both of them.

What is your favourite book – academic or otherwise?

I guess I don’t think of many things in my life as “favourites”. I love The Lord of the Rings for the way it influenced my fantasy life when I was a child. As a teenager, Stephen King made me read 200 pages a day, desperately seeking the feeling of horror in It or Pet Cemetery. Later on, I started to read many more complicated things. With regards to academic books, there is not one book that has influenced my life more than The Conscious Mind by David Chalmers.

Who would be your three fantasy dinner party guests?

God would be one. If he/she would accept the invitation, I would probably not invite more.

Headline image credit: Neurons. CC0 via Pixabay.

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