Tutorials - 23rd Annual Conference of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness June 25 – 28, 2019, Conference by The Conference Services at Western University. Division of Housing and Ancillary Services at Western University
23rd Annual Meeting of ASSC

June 25 - June 28, 2019 | Western University, London, ON, Canada


All tutorials will take place on Tuesday 25th of June

Tutorial Abstracts

9 a.m – 12 p.m.

Presenters: William Marshall, Larissa Albantakis, Marcello Massimini

Recent theoretical developments, and new experimental methods have made causal analysis a viable tool for neuroscience research. This tutorial will introduce methods for causal analyses and describe their application in consciousness research. Specifically, the tutorial will: i) introduce the framework of causal networks; ii) discuss the problem of estimating causal networks from observed data; iii) present empirical studies using causal analysis to study consciousness; and finally, iv) discuss the “neural correlates” paradigm in light of the presented material.

In contrast to Bayesian networks, causal networks are graphical models whose edges explicitly represent causal dependencies between nodes. In the context of neuroscience, the brain can be thought of as a causal network of interacting neurons. For consciousness research, a benefit of the causal network approach is that it makes explicit the distinction between the network of interacting elements (neurons), and exogenous background conditions (e.g., oxygen). In general, it is not possible to estimate a causal network using correlations in observed data. We discuss how experimental manipulations can be used to establish causal relationships and estimate causal networks. We describe the use of perturbation (brain stimulation) to estimate causal relationship from neuroimaging data. The results of such experiments demonstrate a link between causal power in a network and its level of consciousness. Finally, we will discuss the “neural correlates” paradigm in light of a causal approach – in particular, whether a specific type of neural mechanism can be considered as a neural correlate, and how causal thinking can inform our search for neural correlates in the brain.

The Causation in Consciousness Research workshop is intended for a general audience. There will be no assumed knowledge about causation, or causal networks, although some knowledge of neuroimaging will be useful for interpreting the results of empirical work.

Presenters: Elisa Filevich, Kristian Lange

Compared to standard laboratory settings, collecting data online is cost- and time-efficient, and has the advantage of reaching a more diverse pool of study participants. Further, the high-end consumer-grade hardware that many potential study participants nowadays use makes it possible to present stimuli and collect data with high temporal precision. Consequently, many different tools are now available that support different aspects of conducting experiments online, like oTree, jsPsych, PsiTurk, JATOS, Lioness. In this tutorial, we will show how to set up and conduct an experiment online. We will use one free and open-source tool that we have developed (JATOS, www.jatos.org). We will describe how to set up a (cloud-based) server, write JavaScript codes and manage participants. We will focus on three aspects: (1) JavaScript requirements for accurate timing of stimulus presentation and response collection; (2) alternatives to collect longitudinal (or multi-session) data for a single participant, and (3) group studies, where several participants interact with each other. While all examples provided will be specific for JATOS, participants in the tutorial will learn general principles of writing JavaScript code that can be used with any of the tools available.

Presenters: Asael Y. Sklar, Ariel Y. Goldstein

Studies examining the processing of non-consciously (subliminally) presented stimuli have been critical to understanding consciousness and non-conscious processes. It is almost inevitable in such studies however that some participants become aware of subliminally presented stimuli. A common solution to this problem is unaware subsample analyses, in which only the results of the sub-sample of participants who did not become aware of the stimuli are analyzed. Yet, the use of this analysis can often lead to a bias, a statistical over-estimation of non-conscious processing, which calls into question the conclusions. In this tutorial we will show several new statistical methods we have developed for estimating this bias, accurately classifying participants’ awareness level, and estimating the true non-conscious processing effect. Using a frequentist approach, we mathematically elucidate the bias, and show that it is likely that a large portion of the literature studying unconscious processes has been impacted by it to some degree. We then develop a simple statistical solution that researchers studying non-conscious processing can implement in analyses of both past and future experiments in order to correct for the bias. Next, using a Bayesian approach, we develop tools for estimating the unconscious effect based on the researcher interpretation of the awareness measuring results. We address three different approaches, first, sub selecting unaware participants according to their and their peers’ performance. Second, measuring unconscious effect in the presence of partial awareness. And third, measuring unconscious effect in the presence of conscious trials. As part of this tutorial, we will make available code for implementing the various tools we describe and training in its use. The tools we cover are necessary for accurate conclusions in unaware subsample analyses, which are common in the study of non-conscious processes, and should therefore become common practice in the field.

Presenter: Timo Torsten Schmidt

The experimental induction of altered states of consciousness (ASCs) constitutes a unique research opportunity to relate changes in phenomenological states to underlying neuronal mechanisms. A variety of pharmacological as well as non-pharmacological methods, such as breathing techniques or sensory deprivation, can induce ASCs in humans. Subjective reports suggest that ASCs, even when induced by different methods, share certain aspects of experiences. To clarify if shared subjective experiences also share neuronal mechanisms, an accurate psychometric assessment of subjects’ experiences is necessary. Multiple questionnaires have been developed based on qualitative reports and philosophical conceptualizations to quantify the phenomenology of ASCs. Here, I present an overview on available psychometric tools, their theoretical background, and validation. I will discuss the questionnaires which cover a broad range of different experiences in contrast to those that were designed to assess induction method specific effects, e.g., the effects typical to hallucinogens. Addressing a broad range of ASC experiences is required for the identification of common phenomenological structures of differently-induced ASCs. Based on their phenomenological scope and on how much they have been used in previous studies, I present recommendations for questionnaires to assess ASC phenomena in future neuroscientific experiments. Common standards for this rapidly extending body of research will foster comparability across different phenomenological states (‘phenomenological patterns’) and different studies. The comparison across studies represents an empirical framework to test how alterations in subjective experiences can be mapped onto brain functions and related to current theories on global brain function.

12:45 p.m. – 3:45 p.m.

Presenter: Paula Droege

What exactly is consciousness? How can subjective experience be investigated scientifically? If this is your first time at ASSC, this tutorial will introduce you to the central concepts and theories that will be presented at the conference. The tutorial will begin with a discussion of the definition of consciousness. We will reflect on our own conscious experience to consider what elements seem necessary and how our views disagree. Disagreement about the nature of consciousness appears in philosophical theories, such as the debate between higher-order and first-order theories of consciousness. Another fundamental disagreement is whether zombies are possible.

Important to notice is the way scientific study of consciousness is shaped by these debates. Worries about the subjective nature of consciousness have long restricted researchers to claim evidence only for neural correlates of consciousness. Objections by advocates of an embodied cognition approach have led to new dynamic systems theories for analyzing the brain as a prediction engine for action. Recent developments of no-report paradigms address concerns about the distinction between phenomenal and access consciousness. We will look at the terms of these disputes to better understand the issues.

Additional issues will be included in the tutorial to introduce particular themes of ASSC 23. For example, we will discuss the keynote topics of emotions, AI, dreams and sleep. Particular concerns of tutorial participants can also be incorporated. In keeping with the title, our interactions will be as conversational as possible. Rather than delving deeply into particular theories, the goal will be an overview of the field and a discussion of questions raised by the scientific study of consciousness.

Presenter: Thomas Metzinger

MPE is the abbreviation for ‘minimal phenomenal experience’. The main goal of the research project to be introduced is to develop a “minimal model explanation” for conscious experience. One background assumption is that self-consciousness, time representation, and self-location in a spatial frame of reference are not necessary conditions for consciousness to occur. Currently, the project uses an investigation of the phenomenology and neural correlates of specific subjective experiences in meditation as its main entry point, experiences which are later often described as episodes of ‘pure consciousness’.

A new methodological approach to explaining a complex target phenomenon is to define a minimal model - for example, of conscious experience as such. Is “pure awareness” a form of phenomenal character sui generis, which cannot be reductively defined or subsumed under a higher-order concept, a distinct class of conscious experiences? Does it exist? In the spirit of Blanke and Metzinger (2009), who introduced the concept of “Minimal Phenomenal Selfhood” (MPS; cf. TICS 13(1): 7-13), the MPE-project brings together philosophy of mind, the phenomenology of meditation, and a neurocomputational model of “pure consciousness”. The tutorial will also sketch a predictive processing model of MPE and derive some testable predictions, for example about the phenomenon of “lucid dreamless sleep” (LDS; cf. Windt, Nielsen & Thompson (2016): Does consciousness disappear in dreamless sleep? TICS, 20(12), 871–82). One idea is that MPE exists, but it is not “pure”, because it actually has an intentional object – namely, tonic alertness. It is a predictive model the organism uses to control its own level of cortical arousal. This creates an implicit kind of phenomenal character sui generis, which can at times be made explicit and which possibly underlies all other forms of phenomenal experience and which has long been known by humankind’s contemplative traditions. If the model proposed is correct, then it can perhaps serve as a basis for theoretical unification within consciousness research.

Presenters: Megan Peters, Brian Odegaard

The ASSC annual meetings increasingly attract elegant and nuanced empirical studies informed by philosophical insights, which reveal fundamental truths about the nature of conscious awareness and its neural substrates. With the depth and breadth of ideas now represented, it is apparent that the ASSC community could benefit greatly from a more widespread and comprehensive understanding of computational approaches to the scientific study of consciousness.

Computational modeling uses generative models to refine and comprehensively test competing theories about cognition and behavior across diverse fields, from perception to language to neural representations. Modeling can also be used to probe the computations and biologically-plausible substrates giving rise to awareness.

But computational modeling can also be daunting. For those with less formal mathematical training, or less-developed coding skills, understanding the powerful ways in which computational models can reveal fundamental truths about cognition may seem to require an overly-steep learning curve. Our goal is to make the fundamentals of generative modeling -- and the exciting insights it can provide -- accessible to ASSC members with all levels of technical expertise. This hands-on tutorial will therefore present both theoretical foundations and practical approaches to building generative models. For some this may facilitate better understanding of the computational literature, while others may ultimately undertake modeling approaches to their own data.

Rapidly increasing focus across many disparate fields is now directed toward using modeling to understand metacognition, confidence, and uncertainty. The time is ripe for the consciousness community to take better advantage of this burgeoning field. Our tutorial last year on this topic was very well received and attended by over 50 individuals; we aim to incorporate feedback from that experience to make this approach accessible to our community again, following a similar timetable and format.

Presenter: Rocco J. Gennaro

The notion of ‘representation’ is central to many philosophical theories of consciousness and also figures importantly in psychology and neuroscience. Some questions raised by the role of representation in these fields are: What does it mean to say that a mental state is ‘representational’? What is the difference between a first-order representation and a higher-order (or meta-) representation? This tutorial will begin with a discussion of how the concept ‘representation’ is used in the philosophical literature on consciousness. In addition, various senses of ‘conscious’ are distinguished and explained. The key question then becomes: What makes a mental state a conscious mental state? We shall survey a number of leading representational theories of consciousness found in the current literature: First-Order Representational Theory of Consciousness (Tye), Higher-Order Perception (HOP) Theory (Armstrong, Lycan), Higher-Order Thought (HOT) Theory (Rosenthal), Dual Content Theory (Carruthers), and Self-Representational Theory (Kriegel). As the main tenets of each approach are presented, we shall discuss the arguments for and against the theory. Significant attention will be paid to well-known objections to each theory, for example, the problem of misrepresentation, the question of animal consciousness, and how these theories might address the “hard problem” of consciousness. Finally, there will be some discussion of how these models might be realized in the brain. Also important is the reductionist motive of most representational theorists: Can any of these theories offer a viable reductionist account of consciousness?

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