Thalamic contributions to attention and consciousness

Conscious Cogn. 1995 Jun;4(2):172-93. doi: 10.1006/ccog.1995.1024.


A tacit assumption since the 19th Century has been that the neocortex serves as the "seat of consciousness." An unexpected challenge to that assumption arose in 1949 with the discovery that high-frequency EEG activation associated with an alert state requires the intactness of the brainstem reticular formation. This discovery became the impetus for nearly three decades of research on what came to be known as the reticular activating system. By the 1970s, however, methodological and philosophical controversies led to the general abandonment of subcortical theories of attention and consciousness, with a return to an almost exclusive focus upon the cortex. With recent advances in the neurosciences the focus is shifting once more, this time to the unique contributions of cortical, thalamic, and brainstem structures in mediating selective attention and perceptual awareness. This paper offers a nontechnical review of the history of these developments up to contemporary interest in the putative role of oscillatory EEG patterns in the integration of perceptual features of experience. It puts forward the thesis that a key to understanding attention and consciousness is an appreciation of the contributions of the thalamus to these cognitive processes.

Publication types

  • Comment
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Arousal / physiology
  • Awareness / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Brain Stem / physiology
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology
  • Consciousness / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Humans
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Reticular Formation / physiology
  • Thalamic Nuclei / physiology*