Uncovering Consciousness

What exactly is consciousness?
20 March 2019
Presented by Katie Haylor
Production by Katie Haylor.


A picture of a candle in the dark


This month, Naked Neuroscience is delving into the curious concept of consciousness - asking what exactly is it? Why should scientists study it? And what has the unconscious mind got to do with generating ideas? We speak to Cambridge University's Tristan Bekinschtein and scientist, screenwriter and author Leonard Mlodinow. Plus, we take a slice of the latest neuroscience news and digest it, with the help of local experts Duncan Astle from Cambridge University and Helen Keyes from Anglia Ruskin University...

In this episode

Brain schematic

01:14 - Is listening to music good for creativity?

We put a sample of the latest neuroscience news under the microscope...

Is listening to music good for creativity?
with Helen Keyes, Anglia Ruskin University; Duncan Astle, Cambridge University

Joining Katie Haylor to digest the latest neuroscience news were Anglia Ruskin's perceptual psychologist Helen Keyes and Cambridge University's cognitive neuroscientist Duncan Astle. First up, Helen looked into why listening to music whilst trying to get creative might not be the best idea...

Helen - These authors were interested in looking at whether background music would enhance creativity, perhaps because it would increase your mood, or perhaps because it would engage some sort of abstract thinking. Alternatively, they wondered whether the presence of any sort of distraction in the background would just disrupt your cognitive task performance and impair your creativity.

So in order to test this they run three separate experiments. Firstly they played people music that had foreign lyrics so for example English participants would listen to Spanish music, so there was no semantic interference here, the participants didn't understand the meaning of the words. And they gave participants a task - it was a word association task that’s used widely to measure your creativity. So for example, if you were given the words dress, dial, and flower you would have to come with the associated word which is sun - sundress, sundial, and sunflower, so this is considered to be an insight-based process, it's a creative process.

So in this first condition where people were listening to music with foreign lyrics, no meaning interference here, no semantic interference, people performed far better on this word association creativity task in the silent condition, compared to the music condition.

So then the authors went on to say well maybe it's the presence of a voice that's causing this disruption so they tried participants just with instrumental music in the background and, unfortunately, they found again that the presence of instrumental music impaired people's creativity, they performed worse on this insight-based creativity task.

The last experiment they ran then they looked at music that increase people's mood, so happy pop music and they measured that it did actually increase people's mood, to test the idea that music increases your engagement with a task because it increases your mood. And again, unfortunately, they found that playing the music impaired people's creativity yet again.

Katie - Is there a gradient of distraction? Is music without lyrics less distracting than music with?

Helen - They didn't do a direct comparison, but certainly their data would suggest that. But what's even more interesting is they ran a little extra study at the end looking at whether it was just noise itself that's causing the problem. And here they compared library background noise, which would be considered steady state noise, things aren't changing, it's very constant. They compared that with silence and with a music condition; music would be considered a changing state noise and they found that it was actually the music itself, the fact that it was a changing state noise that was causing the impairment to creativity, so the library noise didn't impair creativity at all.

Katie - It's kind of obvious what you would take from this study right? If you are planning to be creative you might want to turn off the headphones?

Helen - Well yeah. There's a slight caveat to this study so they only tested creativity using a very verbal task, or maybe a sub verbal task where you’d be rehearsing words, looking for words in your head. So it is possible that background music could enhance creativity for a more spatial based task, for example drawing. We don't know. There is some evidence to suggest that that might be the case so that could be helpful for some people, but in terms of studying a flat no, absolutely not, you should not be listening to any background music - it won't help.

Katie - Do you know anything about the people they tested this on? I'm just wondering how much individual variation there is, because I have some friends who swore by music through revising and some who didn't.

Helen - Yeah. Those friends were just wrong, I'm afraid!


Duncan Astle looked at a study addressing whether working memory is influenced by the emotional material that we might come across everyday...

Duncan - So working memory is the ability to hold in mind and manipulate small amounts of information for brief periods of time. So, for example, if I gave you directions to the fish and chip shop you would hold those in mind whilst you navigate the way to the fish and chip shop. Now along the way you might have a slightly traumatic event, you might meet someone for instance whose very angry. That’s an emotional encounter and they were interested in whether that kind of emotional material can influence or impact upon your everyday cognition, in this case, working memory.

So to do that they used a meta-analysis -  that's a way of pooling across lots of different studies to get a very large sum plus size. In almost 5000 individuals the authors were able to show in healthy individuals, emotional material has a relatively small impact on working memory. Small but it's detectable when you put a sample of 5000 people.

Katie - What did they mean by emotional material? Were they looking at angry people in the street?

Duncan - Not in the street but they were in the majority of studies looking at angry faces. Faces are a really good way of experimental psychologists presenting ecologically valid emotional materials, so you can present different emotions versus a neutral face.

Importantly, in almost 700 of these people they also had neuroimaging data, and they found that brain areas like the prefrontal cortex, which is often involved in working memory maintenance and the amygdala which is often involved in emotional processing, activity in these areas was modulated during the working memory tasks by whether or not there was emotional stimuli present.

They also had data from just over 2000 individuals who had a history of mental health difficulties, and they found that in those individuals there was a significantly bigger impact of the emotional material on their working memory performance.

Katie -  Is this what you would expect?

Duncan - I don't know whether it is or isn't what you would expect. The interpretation that the authors give is that this might be what they call a trans-diagnostic symptom, so that's a kind of jargony term for a general symptom that might be common to lots of different mental health conditions. So if you are, for example, more susceptible to emotional material that you encounter during the day, then that might make you more vulnerable to mental health difficulty in the long run.

Now maybe that is or isn't what you would expect, but it's interesting that it might be trans-diagnostic, that it might span multiple different disorder categories. That's because if you want to try and develop an intervention, if you can target a trans-diagnostic symptom that is more likely to yield widespread benefits for lots of people.

Katie - Do the authors determine which way round the relationship goes? Is it the emotional disturbance having an effect on the memory or is it the memory that could be predisposing people?

Duncan - The data suggests that it's the emotional material that impacting upon the memory. But an interesting twist to that question is to think which comes first? Is it that people who are more prone to emotional material being presented to them are more likely to go on to develop mental health difficulties or is it something about experiencing a mental health difficulty that makes you more susceptible to the emotional material?

Now the authors seem to think that it's the first of those, that it's a symptom that can give rise to subsequent difficulties because these symptoms tend to present prior to episodes. But the direction of that relationship is difficult to disentangle.

Katie - So this is working memory, relatively short-term right? If I was to remember the directions to the fish and chip shop. Is there anything to suggest that mental health difficulties can impair long-term memory?

Duncan - There's good evidence that people who have experienced mental health difficulties, it’s not that their long-term memory is worse but it's biased. So it's biased towards more negative experiences and it tends to be less flexible. So if you think about the kind of generation task that Helen used earlier, where people have to generate the word that might fill the gap, you  can use something similar to ask them to generate memories when you give them a cue word. And you find that people who have experienced mental health conditions, for example depression, they tend to be more biased towards negative emotions and they tend to be less flexible about switching between different memories. So we think that there can be some strong relationships between long-term memories and mental-health difficulty.

Katie - Helen...

Helen - The study found out emotional material impacts on working memory. Is it any type of emotional material so could it be inducement of positive emotions or sadness or any type of emotion, or is it specifically threat emotions that intrude?

Duncan - In this study, they just classified them as negative and positive affective emotions. You're asking a really great question which is does the type of emotion, it is important? Now one of the constraints of studying it in the lab is that you have to kind of simplify things and stick to these emotional faces.

Now when you look at more real-life reports you can see that it may be that there is some more selective relationship between the type of emotion, say for example threat, that might be linked to something more like anxiety versus something more like sadness related emotions that may be linked to something more like depression. So there may be some more specificity if you start to dig down, but it's hard to tease those things apart in the laboratory.

this is a picture of a head outline filled with connections like vessels or nerves

What is consciousness?
with Tristan Bekinschtein, Cambridge University

The quest to understand consciousness is an ancient one - one that wanders into the realms of history, religion and philosophy, to name a few. Tristan Bekinschtein heads up Cambridge University’s consciousness and cognition lab, where he and the team look at what’s going on in the brain while people do a range of processes, consciously or otherwise, and he spoke to Katie Haylor. First up, Katie asked, what does consciousness actually mean? 

Tristan - Consciousness is composed by three main factors: levels  - when you're conscious or unconscious by being awake or asleep, or by being awake or sedated/anaesthetised, or when you're awake normal or in coma. Conscious access, whether you're aware of something that happened in your environment are you not aware; you did not see the car coming, or the content of your mind, where you think of what you're thinking.

Katie - Now I understand that it's not as simple as saying “ah, the conscious mind is in this particular part of the brain”, how does consciously physically manifest itself in the brain?

Tristan - Consciousness manifests like an umbrella aspect of how you process complex stimuli. If you're trying to remember stuff and you put effort in trying to remember a particular aspect of a  scene, let's say a swimming competition and you are particularly interested in how they move their arms for you to get better at the stroke, you are making a conscious effort to look at that in a visual spatial task.

Katie - Okay. So it's going to be parts of the brain involved in processing images that are going to have to come into play here, right?

Tristan - And all of the other much more wider networks that are related to you consciously, effortfully doing something and it's stored in the memory, so in that case you have attention, memory, and visual/spatial processing. You are using consciousness-related brain networks to guide what you do with memory and attention and visual/spatial processing.

Katie -  Would it be fair to say that consciousness integrates a whole load of circuits at varying levels across your brain?

Tristan - So the most common theme of discussion between conscious and unconscious processing is how much we can integrate of a particular event or a scene unconsciously. Because it seems that we do very little unconsciously in terms of complex integration of information and we really need to be conscious to integrate information in a flexible manner. So very common definitions from people who work in consciousness is conscious processing is the capacity that we have to integrate complex stimuli and be able to report that.

Katie - Because, of course, things may happen that we pick up on that we aren't necessarily consciously aware of?

Tristan - That will be a discussion in the field of cognitive neuroscience, but I think there's quite a fair agreement that most of what we perceive, where we get into our senses, does not reach consciousness as the flexible part, so we have a lot of unconscious processing happening all the time. Some of that is processed consciously, usually guided by attention.

Katie - One of the things that you work on is understanding the different levels of consciousness, can you tell me a bit about well firstly what they are?

Tristan - So one is now, we're talking, we're awake. Later at night we might get a bit drowsy while playing Candy Crush or whatever is the bad thing in terms of sleep hygiene that you do. And then we'll sometimes actually stop reading or stop playing Candy Crush for a moment and we are in the transition at that time.

Katie - You realise you've read a sentence five times in your book and it's not going in?

Tristan - Yes, clearly it’s a state that isn’t stable, that transition. Low alertness, but you’re still trying to do stuff. It’s like a fight. You constantly try to do something but there is pressure from a brain system to actually go into another state, which is asleep. And then you reach light sleep and you have your eyes closed. You might be still holding the book. If this carries on into the normal transition to deeper sleep then you are in deep sleep. As the night progresses you may find yourself in what is called REM sleep. You will oscillate between light sleep, deep sleep and REM through the night and then you will wake up in the morning. If everything is well.

Katie - These transitions between different states is something that you're quite interested in. How much do we know about what changes in the brain when you're awake compared to when you start getting drowsy, compared to when you start drifting into that light sleep? Can we track those changes?

Tristan - Yeah I mean these changes are tracked thousands of times in many hospitals in the world as they do polysomnography which is putting an EEG, putting in something to measure your airways so to see how you breathe, your heartbeat, your muscles of your face. Polysomnography - many things about sleep. That's what it means.

The person who's going to look at this - a sleep physiologist - and the technicians will say “oh this person is awake, look and they’re getting drowsy. Look at this brain activity and muscles and etc etc. Oh look he sleeps”. And they will characterize these things. So this has been done since the 1940s in you know the definition of brain related sleep things have been done. Now what do we know more from the research point of view, it's of course more than just identifying particular brain signals. We know a bit more because we know more about how to ask the brain networks how they're doing, rather than just finding little signatures in the brain activity.

We do have competing networks between what is called resting state brain network and active attention network. These are simplistic views of what the brain networks are doing but in the end there are two different networks in the brain that we can see with EEG and functional MRI and other techniques. We can image that and capture these two networks. The one that it's mainly about idling and mainly about paying attention, doing something related to the external world, so the attention one.

Katie - OK so using imaging techniques like magnetic resonance imaging or EEG you can lock into which bits of the brain are active in particular states of consciousness?

Tristan - Yeah, you can actually characterize the state by looking at those different networks and you can characterize the state also by their responsivity, because if you're asleep and I call your name, most likely I will need to call your name louder and many times until you actually respond. So sleeping in a way is also a threshold of responsiveness state right? It’s how much energy you have to give to the system to obtain or respond from it. Of course we can characterize the brain activity while I call you several times and you're asleep, and we can see that your brain activity as you respond to your name compared to other names in sleep still is different. You do have a brain signature for your name even if you don't wake up and say “hey what's up Jason?”.

Katie - Really?

Tristan - Yes. Many people disregard the experiment as trivial because they say “well if you have kids you know that with a little cry, very specific stimuli, you would wake up immediately”. But if there's a crash two blocks a way and is much louder, much more salient but not relevant to you then you do not necessarily wake up. So these aspects of relevance to your life, it's not a minor point. Being unconscious by sleep, that doesn't mean your cognition is shut down.

Katie - Devil's advocate question for someone who's an expert in consciousness -  why study the thing in the first place?

Tristan - Do you want to know who you are? It seems to be that you asked the question “Who am I” or “who are humans, when we’re conscious?”, so can we actually understand how we think? Sure. That's cognitive neuroscience. Can we actually understand how we think in terms of conscious beings? Well then it'd be nice to know in research wise, not just philosophers in an armchair saying “well we are conscious and this is blah blah blah” and then you know ask cognitive scientist, we say “oh can we check that beautiful claim?”.

It’s just another aspect of cognition - memory, attention,  language, other aspects of cognition and you have consciousness.

this is a picture of a light bulb within a thought bubble on a chalk board

The elastic behind light bulb moments
with Leonard Mlodinow

Have you ever had a lightbulb moment? These brilliant ideas or sudden realisations may appear to come from nowhere, but they’ve actually been filtered up through the vastness of your unconsciousness into your consciousness. So says physicist, screenwriter and science author Leonard Mlodinow, who has recently written a book on what he calls elastic thinking, and he told Katie Haylor about it...

Leonard - Human thinking can be put on a spectrum and at one end is logical, analytical, rational thought, that's conscious thinking, it's rule based thinking where you start with premise and the assumption you go from A to B to C and you reach some conclusion. But in order to do that, the situation has to be already framed. You have to know what questions you're asking, what your goals are, what your assumptions are.

And at the other end of the thinking spectrum is elastic thinking, and that's where that comes from. Elastic thinking isn't about following rules it's about making up the rules that you'll follow later when you use the analytical thinking. It's about how you see a situation, figure out what to ask about it and it's about how you adapt and approach a novel situation or challenge.

You need both because without the logical analytic you don't know what to do with the ideas. But in today's world more than ever, we need to emphasize elastic thinking and unfortunately it's not being emphasized. If you look at schools, the way our education system is designed, and even what companies look for, they often don't look for elastic thinking. In the world we're bombarded with new challenges all the time. Our workplace is changing. It used to be you worked for the same company your whole career and then you would work or at least in the same industry and then you changed but you keep kind of similar jobs.

Now people hop around so much and your company is always coming across new challenges. In our personal lives too. In order to thrive we have to really learn to adapt because society and culture is changing at a very rapid rate. And for that we need elastic thinking. The kind of thinking that you use to address a situation you haven't seen before, where you have to understand what you need to do, you need to frame the questions you ask, you need to understand what your goals are and in this situation need to get new ideas and how to approach a problem.

Katie - And how does this type of thinking manifest itself in the brain? Which bits are we talking about?

Leonard - Well in your brain, in your conscious mind you execute logical analytical thinking which is rule based and your problem solving. But your unconscious mind is really an idea generator. Every time you see something, you hear something, every time you think something, your unconscious mind is making different associations. These associations and ideas don't come to your conscious mind because if they did you would just drown in them. You would have so many ideas that you couldn't function and you wouldn't know which were good which were bad.

So your brain fortunately has filters which keep many of the new ideas that your brain comes up with out of your conscious mind and only pass to your consciousness the ones that seem most promising.

Katie - Are these kind of like search filters if you're doing an internet search?

Leonard - What you would think of as intelligent search filters, so they would cut out the stuff that doesn't seem promising, or that is unconventional or different. It passes along the ones that it decides are most likely to succeed. But when those filters are working in your brain they're going on past experience. So the ideas that tend to pass to your consciousness are the more conventional tried and true ideas and they keep out a lot of silly bad ideas. But along with those silly and bad ideas, are other original ideas that may seem unpromising at first but really are the most original and creative ideas that you have.

Katie - Say I do something every day, say I walk to work, same journey I've done it for years, I'm guessing my filters will be filtering out ridiculous notions like “oh what if I fly to work?”

Leonard - Do somersaults on your way! You see kids, they don't have the filters and kids are not developed. So kids do stuff like that right? You'll see a kid walking somewhere and suddenly they’ll start skipping right. You as an adult get those ideas too but those filters kill them which is unfortunate. On the other hand it's also fortunate because a lot of the ideas are just plain silly and counter-productive.

So there's a balance between the filters letting in creative, original ideas and not letting in silly, stupid ideas.

Katie - Because actually there's no way I'd be able to fly to work, but actually if I skipped to work I might get there quicker and be able to go home quicker!

Leonard - Skipping might be good, flying might be bad. But along with the great idea of skipping comes flying and crawling and all sorts of other ideas you don't want to have to consider every time you go to work

Katie - One of the things that really interested me in your book was this idea, frankly sometimes how being bored is actually not a bad thing?

Leonard - Well sure so when you're not focused on something, when your conscious mind is not directing your attention somewhere, that's when your unconscious is most free to operate and to generate new ideas. So if you have a problem in life or at work or some issue you're trying to deal with, and you stop thinking about it, then your unconscious mind is free to generate its ideas all its ideas about that. And what will happen is sometimes those ideas will pop into your consciousness, when your filters are relaxed and quiet. That's when some of those great ideas that are going in your unconscious mind can come to your consciousness and you experience that consciously as a sudden insight. You ever have a eureka moment? That's what's happening, but it's not sudden at all, it's happening while you're relaxing and while you're chilling out, your mind is generating these things and when it's ready the idea will pop into your consciousness.

Katie - Does that suggest then that actually we need to be mentally quite healthy to be able to make the most of this elastic thinking, this idea generation?

Leonard - Well to make the most of it you need to have a healthy logical analytical side of your mind and a healthy elastic side of your mind. But today it’s the elastic side that we need more than ever. In the past, we thought that artists and writers, musicians they needed new ideas they needed to be able to adapt and to look at things in different ways. But for everyday life you don't need that so much. But in today's world you do. You need to be an artist in your own life, if you really want to thrive.

Katie - Are some people just better at doing this elastic thinking?

Leonard - As a species we're all really good at it compared to any other species. It's really one of the qualities that allowed us to survive and keep from becoming extinct. But there are individual differences, so everyone can be put on a spectrum in some way along different dimensions of elastic thinking. Some of those dimensions are for instance neophilia or love of the new. Mindfulness which is your awareness of how you're thinking, is important. There's different dimensions along which one can measure how good you are at elastic thinking and I provide tests in the book where you can measure yourself and then exercises where if you want to nurture that you can do it.

Katie - I'm not so great at elastic thinking, I'm going to see if I can try to improve on that. How can we do that then?

Leonard - Well let's take neophilia. So some people are more comfortable when things aren't changing and they're not as exploratory as other people. If you're too exploratory that's not good. You might go off too far off the deep end you know, when you were in the wild, that meant maybe you fell off a cliff or got eaten by a bear.

On the other hand if you're too conventional and you sit still, never go anywhere when you have a challenge where food becomes scarce or the water dries up, you don't know where the other supplies are. So it takes a balance. And in today's world when you get a new app or a new operating system or some new instructions at work, you have to quickly adapt to that and learn how to deal with that and learn how to learn and how to use new ideas to handle those situations.

It's important to have that affinity for something new and that broadening of your mind, so that you can handle new things when they come up. There's no magic bullet for that, but there's a number of things you can do that if you integrate into your life they will in general make you a more elastic thinker. For instance often people when you go to a restaurant you order the same thing, because you know you like it. Well when I go to a restaurant always order something different. Ask what's unpopular? What's the weirdest thing you have here? You may end up liking the meal, which is the benefit of neophilia. You make those great discoveries. On the other hand, you may get the other side of neophilia, and have a really bad meal and go “Oh that was not good”.

But what will happen for sure is your mind will grow. It broadened my thinking, and the same thing is true in your interactions with people. Don't stay just within your sphere of acquaintances, try and punch out of it, try and talk to people who are as different from you as possible, who believe different things, listen to them, listen to new ideas even if you don't accept those ideas. If you listen to them they will broaden your thinking and you'll be more creative when you need to be in other areas.

A very important part of elastic thinking is to get rid of the fear of failure, to not mind being wrong. To be able to take chances because when these ideas come to you, some of them are going to be good, some are gonna be bad and you don't always know. But the idea is to loosen up those filters that are keeping your ideas from coming to your conscious mind. Whenever you're afraid of failure, those filters get tighter and they let less through.

Katie - So are you saying then that thinking positively will help you to loosen those filters in and of itself?

Leonard - Psychologists have found that’s a broadening experience. When you have negative emotions such as fear and anxiety that focuses you and has the effect of blotting out things that are not directly relevant to the threat. But when you're in a happy, open mood where there is no threat and you're open to the world, then you’re broadening your mind and you get more new ideas.

Katie - One of the points you make in your book is that mental exhaustion seems to be quite a good time to think elastically. Why on Earth would that be the case?

Leonard - When you're mentally exhausted one of the aspects of your mind that's exhausted is what's called the executive function, the part of your brain that filters out ideas. By being exhausted you think that you have no energy, but your brain is also settling down and what happens is those police, they take a break too. And that's when you get the most insight and the best ideas. So sometimes being exhausted while it's not great for analytical logical thinking which takes a lot of effort, is wonderful for elastic thinking which happens on the unconscious level.

Katie - Can elastic thinking help us to do better science?

Leonard - That's the key to science. Take Einstein with special relativity. The mathematics of special relativity, any high school kid can do it. But what he did was he looked at a problem that others were looking at within the framework of Newtonian theory, which was the theory of physics back then. And he said “well what assumptions are they making, what framework are they looking at? They're looking at this Newtonian framework. Are there other frameworks we can look at these questions at. Where does that lead?”. And voila in a couple of weeks he came up with special relativity. That was not a tour de force of logical analytical thinking as much as it was brilliant elastic thinking.


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