Professor Timothy Bayne

Image: Professor Timothy Bayne
Image courtesy: Provided by Professor Bayne

Professor Timothy Bayne—a 2015 Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellow—is a philosopher based at Monash University, who is bridging the gap between philosophy and neuroscience, to get a practical grip on the multifaceted nature of consciousness. In doing so, he is bringing new insights from the latest technological breakthroughs in neuroscience to some of the oldest and hardest questions in philosophy.

“Neuroscientists are developing increasingly sophisticated ways to measure brain activity. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and Electroencephalography (EEG) are getting more sophisticated, the data analysis is getting better and is technically impressive,” says Professor Bayne.

“However, what people care about at the end of the day is subjective experience. What is it like to be a patient coming out of a comatose state? What is it like to be a neonate (foetus), a nematode, a frog or a honeybee? And what (if anything) is it like to be a machine with artificial intelligence (AI)?"

Professor Bayne first studied consciousness at the University of Arizona, and explored the way different experiences are integrated together under the supervision of Professor David Chalmers, a 2004 ARC Federation Fellow. He took up a position as lecturer in Philosophy at Macquarie University, where he led an ARC Linkage International project that explored the formation of beliefs and delusions, in collaboration with philosophers in Europe and philosophers and cognitive scientists in Australia, including Professor Max Coltheart, a 2002 ARC Federation Fellow.

Professor Bayne then moved to the United Kingdom to take up a position as University Lecturer in the Philosophy of Mind at Oxford University, where he continued to work with neurologists and cognitive neuroscientists in the UK, convening workshops on the disorders of consciousness.

New interest in this crossover of fields had been sparked by an influential paper published in 2006 by the English neuroscientist Adrian Owen, which demonstrated that conscious awareness can exist in patients who were clinically regarded as being in a vegetative state.  In one experiment, the brain activity of a 23-year-old woman, who was in a vegetative state following a road accident, was measured using fMRI while she was instructed to engage in motor imagery or spatial navigation. The neural responses of the woman were found to be the same as that observed in healthy volunteers listening to the same stimuli.

Further confirmatory experiments using new technology have opened up many significant philosophical and ethical questions which impact on clinical care, diagnosis, and legal decisions for those who are charged with caring for patients in a coma or vegetative state, many of which seem to hinge on our definition of consciousness.

“Many scientists working on consciousness assume that you have to define consciousness before you can study it properly, but I think that that’s a mistake. In science, you do not generally define something before you study it. We didn’t define water as H2O before we studied it. We studied water and then it turned out to be H2O, so that’s what we need to do with consciousness. You should not try to define it, but we do have to be able to point to it, and try to avoid the problem of talking past each other.

“Rather than treating any one test as a gold standard, we should embrace converging methods. In fact, there are lots of tasks that we think require consciousness. There is a long list that neurologists appeal to when defining consciousness, or for instance in epileptic absence seizures there is a list of symptoms which are used to determine the level of consciousness. If you look at the pattern, then consciousness is a node underlying those things."

Professor Bayne’s Future Fellowship project, ‘Measuring the mind’, is developing a new framework for measuring consciousness. He hopes to develop parameters that will underpin new categories of consciousness in neuroscience. This could inform clinical guidelines, or be used as a ‘cheat sheet’, for the objective assessment of consciousness in the context of post-coma brain injury, anaesthesia, epileptic absence seizures, infancy and non-human animals. The project is also providing the theoretical groundwork to validate and resolve social and public policy issues around the effective provision of health care resources.

“With a lot of scientific questions, you know what data you need, but you can’t get the data, so you need to build the instruments. With respect to consciousness what makes it more puzzling is that we have the instruments, but we don’t know what data we need to collect the clues about whether something is conscious.

“That’s what makes it a philosophical problem."

Now in collaboration with the philosopher Nicholas Shea at the University of London, Professor Bayne is challenging ideas that consciousness is something that can only be understood from the first-person perspective.

“Just as the scientific revolution changed our understanding of water, we are defending the idea that a new understanding of consciousness can also be revealed through technology.”