Ahhh consciousness, the most baffling mystery in the science of the mind. There is nothing that we know more intimately than conscious experience, but there is nothing that is harder to explain.
Indeed, why do we experience consciousness? Why hasn’t evolution produced a bunch of ‘intelligent’ robots without it? Philosophers argue that human consciousness is underpinned by our unique abilities to become self-aware and to develop a concept of the self (e.g., with identities, values and goals) and many believe that self-awareness is generated by language, which is often expressed in inner speech (e.g., “I am angry”).
Consciousness is a broad subject, so we try to understand it in the special case of auditory verbal hallucinations (AVHs). AVHs are ‘distorted’ conscious experiences of hearing voices that don’t exist in the outside world. Evidently these voices must be generated by the brain but aren’t recognised as coming from ’the self’. How so?
To understand this better, we build paradigms that can experimentally induce hallucination-like responses, such as detecting a spoken word in noise when no word is spoken. We tweak different parameters of the paradigms and see what factors can increase or decrease false perception of speech and explore how they are implemented neurocomputationally. By doing so, we can test to what extend our conscious reality is driven by expectation (what the brain wants to experience) and how much is supported by perception (what the brain receives from the senses).
As usual, many questions remain unanswered at this point of history:
To what extend are verbal halluciantions mis-attribuetd inner speech vs. intrusive memories of speech vs. mis-interpretation speech perception?
Do hallucinators experience the self differently from non-hallucinators?
Do people with language disorders (e.g., dyslexia, aphasia) experience the self differently?
Can you generate self-awareness in artificial intelligence by giving it a form of natural language?
If consciousness is something that tickles your fancy, please do get in touch for a chat :)