Scientists at Yale have given us the most detailed look yet at what happens to our brains during the crucial split second that we decide to pay attention to something. They say a wave of electricity engulfs our brains as we go from unconscious to aware.
So, for example, sometimes a face could enter your field of vision and you might not notice. But sometimes it catches your attention.
Dr. Hal Blumenfeld, a Yale neuroscientist, says, “We’re being bombarded all the time with different sorts of events. Sometimes we are aware of things that happen around us.”
Blumenfeld wanted to pinpoint that moment of awareness, so he and his team asked nine subjects to watch a short film and notice the faces. “We looked at brain activity for faces that appeared in people’s visual field, and we asked people afterward whether they saw individual faces or not. ”
Blumenfeld and his team compared the brain activity in that very first second among people who noticed the faces. They saw this wide electrical wave sweep through our brains.
“The wave is a sort of sequence of processing that happens in the brain, from simple basic elements of what the eye receives, to become more and more sophisticated signals that eventually form in the brain, an image of a face.”
This all happens in less than a second as our brains switch off the feeds to lots of other visual signals that might compete with the wave. Blumenfeld says this information could help us understand more about disorders like epilepsy and schizophrenia that relate to how our brains process information. But it could also help us with an even bigger question.
“Everyone wants to know what consciousness is. It’s what makes life meaningful: that we have experiences, that we have things that happen to us that we can describe and remember afterwards. So understanding how that happens to the brain is one of the fundamental mysteries of the world, really.”
Blumenfeld says no matter how detailed a picture we can paint of the brain, he suspects there will always be more mysteries to be solved about consciousness.