In witnessing the brain’s ‘aha!’ moment, scientists shed light on biology of consciousness

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Columbia scientists have identified the brain’s ‘aha!’ moment—that flash in time when you suddenly become aware of information, such as knowing the answer to a difficult question. Today’s findings in humans, combined with previous research, provide compelling evidence that this moment—this feeling of having decided—pierces consciousness when information being collected by the brain reaches a critical level. The results of this study further suggest that this piercing of consciousness shares the same underlying brain mechanisms known to be involved in making far simpler decisions. Importantly, this study offers new hope that the biological foundations of consciousness may well be within our grasp.

This research was reported today in Current Biology.

“The vast majority of thoughts circling in our brains happen below the radar of conscious awareness, meaning that even though our brain is processing them, we are not aware,” said Michael Shadlen, MD, PhD, a Principal Investigator at Columbia’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute and the paper’s senior author. “How some of that information bubbles to the level of consciousness, however, remains an unsolved mystery. But now, we’ve found a way to observe that moment in real time, and then apply those findings to our understanding of consciousness itself.”

For Dr. Shadlen, the most complex thoughts that the can experience—such as love, grief, guilt or morality—can be ultimately be boiled down to a series of decisions, made by the brain, to engage with the outside world. He has spent his career working to understand how signals sent by the brain’s billions of cells result in such decisions. In so doing, he hopes to unravel the mechanisms…

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