The neural correlates of conscious experience: an experimental framework

Trends Cogn Sci. 1999 Mar;3(3):105-114. doi: 10.1016/s1364-6613(99)01281-4.


Demonstrating that neural activity 'represents' physical properties of the world such as the orientation of a line in the receptive field of a nerve cell is a standard procedure in neuroscience. However, not all such neural activity will be associated with the mental representations that form the contents of consciousness. In some cases, such as when patients with blindsight correctly 'guess' the location of a stimulus, neural activity is associated with physical stimulation and with appropriate behaviour, but not with awareness. To identify the neural correlates of conscious experience we need to identify patterns of neural activity that are specifically associated with awareness. Experiments aimed at making such identifications require that subjects report some aspect of their conscious experience either verbally or through some pre-arranged non-verbal report while neural activity is measured. If there is some characteristic neural signature of consciousness, then this should be distinguishable from the kinds of neural activity associated with stimulation and/or behaviour in the absence of awareness. It remains to be seen whether the neural signature of consciousness relates to the location of the neural activity, the temporal properties of the neural activity or the form of the interaction between activity in different brain regions.