Thresholds of the Mind Documenting the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science
The Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science
Thresholds of the Mind is a project documenting the research work being carried out at The Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at Sussex University. I have been documenting the centre since 2014. The Sackler Centre seeks to unravel the complex brain mechanisms that generate consciousness through a variety of techniques, including the use of a hypnagogic scanner and adapted Oculus Rift Goggles. Augmented reality environments are created in order to investigate Interoception (awareness of bodily states), Proprioception (awareness of how our body is positioned in space) and Out of Body experiences. These experimental research methods have a vast range of clinical applications, including psychiatry and robotics. The theme of consciousness, how we explore and understand the world around us on a both on a physical and psychological level, and the pioneering nature of the scientific enquiry at the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science, brings into question the nature of perception, the artistic pursuit of photography and the sense of self.
‘The practical applications in terms of treatment are varied. For instance, Psychedelic Research is demonstrating an exciting potential for clinical use, for example, in alleviating depression. …Small changes in brain dynamics can have large effects on consciousness.’ - Anil Seth, Michael Shrtner, Enzo Tagliazucchi, Suresh Muthukumaraswarmy, Robin Cahart-Harris, Lionel Barrett: What PsychedelicResearch can and Cannot Tell Us About Consciousness (2018)
‘The mind is much more than information. It is much more than data. That’s the reason you can’t use a computer to find out how the brain works. The brain is simply not computable. It cannot be simulated.’ – Miguel Nicolelis
At the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science there are a range of scientists from different disciplines, including physics, computer science, mathematics, virtual reality, neuroscience, psychology, psychiatry and even philosophy, all seeking to understand the phenomena of consciousness: a kind of collective super-brain, tallying data and discoveries. the last 25 years has seen a flourishing of research on consciousness. Alongside philosophical discussions, a new science of consciousness has taken shape which integrates experimental and theoretical work across many fields including neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science, artificial intelligence, computer science, neurology, and psychiatry. Developing a naturalised account of the rich experiential tapestry of consciousness is now recognised as a major objective for twenty-first century science.
The Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science was founded in 2010 to unravel the biological basis of consciousness and generate new clinical applications. In the clinical theme of research, the theoretical and basic science within the Sackler Centre extends through cognitive and affective neuroscience to preclinical, clinical, and experimental medicine studies. One of the key areas of research is on interoceptive awareness in states of anxiety. Interoception refers to the sensing of internal bodily sensations, such as being aware of one’s heartbeat. This sensitivity to internal bodily sensations through body-brain interactions can influence cognition in a multitude of ways. In a major body of work undertaken at the Sackler Centre, psychophysiological investigations combined with neuroimaging have begun to reveal new insights into the body-brain basis of interoception (Garfinkel et al, 2014), and to inspire important theoretical models of interoceptive inference (Seth, 2013). This core strength of interoception research within the Sackler Centre provides important theoretical foundations for further strands of clinical work, including research into dissociation in psychosis and action control in TouretteSyndrome. Our clinical research on cardiac feedback and novel treatment options in anxiety disorders also makes strong use of Sackler Centre expertise in virtual reality technology.
In people experiencing a first episode of psychosis, there may be greatly heightened symptoms of dissociation, notably derealisation and depersonalisation.
In schizophrenia, multiple aspects of consciousness become dysfunctional. Alongside the cardinal features of hallucinations and delusions, people with schizophrenia may often experience a feeling of dissociation from their bodies or from the world around them. For example, they may report feelings of depersonalisation, in which they feel detached from their mind and body, or derealisation, in which the world seems somehow altered and unreal. In a longitudinal project conducted in collaboration with colleagues at the School of Psychology and Sussex Partnership Trust, the centre is investigating the neuroscientific basis of dissociation in people with first-episode psychosis, and the impact that such dissociative experiences may have long-term.
People with Tourette Syndrome famously experience involuntary tics, associated with a strong urge to move or vocalise. Despite the involuntary nature of tics, people may sometimes be able to consciously suppress them. The Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science has a body of research investigating these processes in Tourette Syndrome. In our research at the Sackler Centre, we are using a combination of neuroimaging techniques to better understand the neuroscience of involuntary tics and voluntary tic suppression. We aim to address why tics happen, where in the brain they come from, and why they can be hard to stop.
Key Research Staff at the Sackler Centre
Professor Anil Seth is Professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex and Founding Co-Director of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science. Anil’s research interests include, amongst other things, theoretical and computational models of consciousness, predictive coding and active inference, virtual and augmented reality, time perception and clinical studies of disorders of consciousness.
Professor Hugo Critchely is, along with Anil, the co-director of the centre, specialising in psychiatry and neuroscience, and linking the Sackler centre to the Sussex Partnership Trust, the medical area of the research work.
Charlotte Rae focuses on questions of how prefrontal networks that support key aspects of consciousness become dysfunctional in brain disorders, such as Tourette Syndrome, depersonalisation in first-episode psychosis, and the impact of physiological state on impulsivity. Charlotte is also affiliated with the Department of Neuroscience at Brighton and Sussex Medical School.
Sarah Garfinkel studies cognitive and emotional processes shaped by the dynamic integration of brain and body, interoception, how heart and brain interact to alter emotion and cognition, specifically with PTSD and Schizophrenia.
Keisuke Suzuki creates augmented reality environments. Keisuke’s Ph.D degree was on the subject of artificial life; he then carried out research into human cognitive functions in virtual reality environments and researches ‘conscious presence’, i.e. subjective feeling of being “here and now.”
And Lionel Barnet, who has a background in applied mathematics, uses mathematics to analyse data from psychedelic experiments, or, ‘the influence of spatial embedding on the structure and dynamics of complex networks.’
As both a photographer and an Art Psychotherapist, working within the Sussex Partnership Trust, I am very interested in the overlap between the science of the mind and the psychology of self. In particular, I am keen to explore the myriad ways in which consciousness science links in with neuroscience and is then applied in treatment settings to help people who are experiencing/suffering complex mental health conditions. My photography work has always focussed upon the ambiguity of what is seen and the psychological impact of the image and for this project I am particularly interested in the ambiguity and mystery that surrounds consciousness, especially when our experiences can in fact hamper our functioning, for instance through depression, psychosis and emotional intensity (bi-polar).
I have positioned models within various research labs, including a Faraday Cage and an fMRI scanner, to explore the ambiguity of what is seen, as a photographic image, and what is perceived by the viewer. This heightened by the very rigid, mechanical style of portraiture. I have also photographed the researchers involved in this research work, in their labs and in their offices. And I have photographed the public engaging with the science at various science fairs to capture the excitement and curiosity generated by this cutting edge science: both the serious side of the research work and the playful nature of this enquiry: how simulated experiences can both trick the mind and reveal the complex mechanisms of consciousness. All of these images relate to both the pure research aspect of the Sackler Centre and the vast clinical possibilities that they can be applied to.