A neuroscientific approach to consciousness

Prog Brain Res. 2005;150:11-23. doi: 10.1016/S0079-6123(05)50002-5.


For a neuroscientist, consciousness currently defies any formal operational definition. However, the phenomenon is distinct from self-consciousness: after all, one can "let oneself go," when experiencing extreme emotion, but still be accessing a sentiment, subjective, conscious state. This raw, basic subjective state does not appear to be an exclusive property of the human brain. There is no obvious qualitative transformation in either the anatomy or the physiology of the central nervous system of human or non-human animals, no phylogenetic Rubicon in the animal kingdom. Similarly, there is no clear ontogenetic line that is crossed as the brain grows in the womb, no single event or change in brain physiology, and certainly not at birth, when consciousness might be generated in an all-or-none fashion. A more plausible, and scientific, view of consciousness might be therefore that it is not a different property of the brain, some magic bullet, but that it is a consequence of a quantitative increase in the complexity of the human brain: consciousness will grow as brains grow. Hence, consciousness is most likely to be a continuously variable property of the brain, in both phylogenetic and ontogenetic terms. Here, we describe how modern techniques may be utilized to determine the physiological basis of consciousness.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology
  • Consciousness / physiology*
  • Diagnostic Imaging
  • Humans
  • Neurosciences* / methods
  • Pain / psychology