The question of what conscious perception is for remains a key, largely unanswered, question for the scientific study of consciousness and indeed for our whole understanding of mind. In fact, a substantial part of the scientific study of consciousness has focused on showing how sophisticated subconscious processing can be, seemingly leaving little room for a “special” purpose for conscious experience.
We have recently presented evidence that the subconscious brain is limited in its capacity to represent episodic information (Avilés, Bowman & Wyble, 2020; Bowman & Avilés, In Press; Bowman et al, 2014). By episodic, we particularly emphasize the capacity to associate percepts with the passage of time, something that we humans do so easily consciously that we hardly notice it. This work uses Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP) to present stimuli on the fringe of awareness. In Avilés et al (2020), we showed that the capacity to consciously perceive a stimulus does not benefit from being repeated until it has been consciously perceived. Repetition is a key episodic property, i.e. to know that a stimulus presentation is a repetition, the brain has to have a memory of a previous episode of experiencing the stimulus. Additionally, if the RSVP stream is slowed down sufficiently that all stimuli are consciously perceived, it becomes trivially easy to detect the repeating item.
The strong claim, then, is that a specific capacity provided by conscious perception is to lay down freely-recallable episodic memories of previous experiences. We now have extensive behavioural evidence for this hypothesis. We are thus at a perfect stage to 1) characterise the neural correlates that support this formation of episodic memories, and 2) explain these findings with the Simultaneous Type/ Serial Token (STST) model (Bowman & Wyble, 2007). We are proposing a PhD to work on one or both of these topics.
The 1st of these directions could employ fMRI, MEG or EEG (all are available). This could take our existing RSVP behavioural paradigms and identify neural components engaged when a stimulus presentation leads to the later detection of a repetition. This would give a new way to identify the neural components that are specific to conscious processing, with relevance to debates concerning whether the neural correlates of conscious processing reside in the sensory pathways or at a later, brain-scale, stage. Oscillatory correlates of conscious processing and episodic memory formation are of particular interest (Parish, Hanslmayr & Bowman, 2018).
The 2nd research activity would involve simulating the repetition effects and resulting correlates of conscious processing, with the STST model, a well attested theory of temporal attention and episodic encoding into working-memory (Bowman & Wyble, 2007). This neural-network model is consistent with brain-scale state theories of conscious perception, such as the global-workspace.
This PhD can fund both UK and overseas students; for more details, see,