Essay: The study of consciousness

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The study of consciousness is problematic and, in order to combat this, has become an interdisciplinary effort that touches upon a plethora of aspects of human cognition and brain function. Originally, a neurological approach looking at selective deficits in patients was adopted to learn about normal and abnormal brain function. Of late, there has been an increasing interest in the study of positive symptoms, like those related to synaesthesia. The phenomenon of synaesthesia can essentially be described as a ‘union of the senses’ (“UK Synaesthesia Association”, 2018), whereby an inducer (e.g. the letter A) elicits an unrelated synaesthetic association (e.g. the colour red). Explaining the reason for and the mechanisms behind this combination of two different cognitive streams (Sobczak-Edmans and Sagiv, 2013) is one of the ‘hard’ problems in consciousness research (Chalmers, 1995), as it is in essence a subjective experience of ‘what things feel like’. While early research into synaesthesia merely provided documentation, more recent work endeavours to explain the perceptual experience of synaesthetes and consider how synaesthesia can inform perception and consciousness as a whole (e.g. Cohen Kadosh, Gertner and Terhune, 2012). Several researchers have made cases for using synaesthesia as a model problem to better understand consciousness: for example Gray (2005), who suggested that instead of functionalism (where there was a difference in function, there should be a consequential difference in experience), in synaesthesia, two different functions can lead to the same subjective experience.
The advantages of using synaesthesia as a model problem were most effectively put forward by Sagiv and Frith (2013): they stated that synaesthesia is phenomenologically defined while its properties can be studied in detail. For example, it is characterised by atypical perceptual experiences, which can then be compared with cases where it is absent (while the subjective accounts of individuals’ conscious experience act as a dependent variable; Baars, 2003). The perceptual experience of synaesthetes is uncommon but its existence highlights the same general problem, including how these experiences arise and with what neural basis (Sagiv and Frith, 2013). The second feature of synaesthesia that makes it an appropriate model problem is the immense variety of sub-types, proposed to be more than 80 (“Synesthesia”, 2017). These involve diverse blends of sensory modalities and types of experiences, which provides researchers with a great number of opportunities to observe and test theories of brain function and associated mental states. Furthermore, it invites a debate on individual differences in subjective experience of the world around us. The third, most practical reason that favours using synaesthesia as a model problem is that synaesthetes are, generally, healthy and willing research participants in comparison to using neurological/neuropsychiatric patients who have perceptual abnormalities. Synaesthesia is more common than originally thought – estimated to occur in up to 5% of the population (Sagiv and Ward, 2006) – creating a large pool of potential participants. In addition, a review by Luke and Terhune (2013) outlines the current standing of research into chemically induced synaesthesia: their findings stated that serotonin agonists (Nichols, 2004) (e.g. …

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