Conscious union

February 28, 1997

PHILOSOPHERS and psychologists are putting their heads together in a cross-university project examining consciousness.

The project, run by Warwick University in collaboration with researchers at Oxford, Cambridge and University College London, has received Pounds 250,000 from the Humanities Research Board to investigate what makes people aware of themselves and the world around them.

It aims to unite philosophical understanding of consciousness with empirical research based on work with mental patients and other subjects.

Initial studies will concentrate on four areas: point of view, attention, autobiographical memory and bodily awareness. The project will try to find links between first-person experience and psychological and biological explanations of perception.

Project director Naomi Eilan said: "An important part of the project is that it is interdisciplinary. There has been massive progress in the understanding of the brain and how it works but for most people the connection between that and what it is to be a conscious being is unknown. We believe we can only approach the abstract questions properly by looking at particular mechanisms involved."

Psychologists will examine "blind sight", a condition suffered by some people with mental damage, where they are not conscious of seeing but invariably "guess" the position of an object. They will also look at "neglect", which involves patients losing awareness of part of themselves to the extent that they may, for example, fail to dress completely.

Schizophrenics, who claim their thoughts are not their own, and amnesiacs with no autobiographical memory, will also be studied. While the project's emphasis will be on finding out about the process of consciousness, its psychological findings could be of practical help in the treatment of these mental illnesses.

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