What it feels like to be a brain

Can be twisted and transformed, expanded and reduced. We want to uncover how.

The laws of physics quantify the fundamental behaviour of relatively simple systems. However, systems composed of many interacting agents can display behaviour that is not manifest in the rules governing the dynamics of each member of the collective. Even very simple underlying dynamics can lead to emergent complexity and diversity.

We are interested in the relationship between complexity and mind. The human brain, with its 1011 neurons and 1014 connections, is an archetypical example of a system with emergent complexity. Within this complexity lies a puzzling and non-archetypical property: a point of view that gives objective identity to “what it feels like to be a brain”. This property is what we call “consciousness”. We are currently not aware of other physical objects presenting consciousness, so we want to know what makes the brain so special among all complex systems found in nature.

We use experimental methods such as neuroimaging (fMRI, EEG, MEG) and the analysis of large datasets reflecting human behavior, in combination with theoretical tools from complex systems research (computational modeling, complex networks, time-series analysis, information theory, machine learning). We want to uncover how “what it feels like to be a brain” can be twisted and transformed, expanded and reduced, and for this aim we turn to physiological and pathological altered states of consciousness, ranging from sleep, anesthesia, and disorders of consciousness, to meditative practice and pharmacological manipulations based on psychedelics.

A final objective is to bridge the complexity found in the human brain with that found in other parts of nature and society to answer the important questions: are there universal principles governing the emergence of complex behaviour? And if so, how they relate to the seemingly unique phenomenon of consciousness in the brain?