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Can functional brain imaging discover consciousness in the brain?

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If we assume that consciousness is a natural biological phenomenon in the brain, should we expect the current brain sensing and imaging methods to somehow ‘discover’ consciousness? The answer depends on the following points: What kind of level of biological organization do we assume consciousness to be? What would count as the discovery of this level? What are the levels of organization from which the currently available research instruments pick signals and acquire data? Single-cell recordings, PET, fMRI, EEG and MEG pick different types of signals from different levels of organization in the brain. However, it seems they do not manage to pick signals that would allow the direct visualization and reconstruction of the higher levels of electrophysiological organization that are crucial for the empirical discovery and theoretical explanation of consciousness. The message of the present paper is twofold: On the one hand, we should be aware of the practical limitations of the currently available methods of cognitive neuroscience and not read too much into the images produced by them. On the other hand, the present limitations could be overcome by more sophisticated methods in the future. Therefore, contrary to what several philosophers have argued, the empirical discovery of consciousness in the brain is not impossible in principle.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Philosophy, Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, University of Turku, FIN-20014 Turku, Finland.

Publication date: 2001-03-01

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