The Research Project: The future of The Beach

The Beach EEG Project will examine what happens in the brain during mindfulness meditation and analyse which aspects of consciousness can be altered intentionally.

Can we intentionally alter our state of consciousness?

We know that external influences can affect our state of consciousness, but is it possible for us to intentionally alter it? In this installation you will be guided through a mindfulness meditation session while wearing an EEG headset to measures your brain activity. This data will directly feed into a current study on consciousness conducted at Cambridge University.

Here are some of the questions we hope to find answers to during this project:

  • Which aspects of consciousness can we control?
  • How quickly can we learn to control them?
  • To what extent does our initial emotional state predict our ability to control it?

How do we study consciousness?

The question of how consciousness arises in humans has intrigued philosophers, theologians and scientists throughout history, and definitions have changed drastically. In the broadest sense it has been defined as:

‘the totality in psychology of sensations, perceptions, ideas, attitudes and feelings of which an individual is aware at any given time or within a particular time span’

This definition indicates that consciousness can be altered. Drugs can change our perception and therefore our state of consciousness. Accidents may cause a person to fall into a coma or vegetative state.

But changes of consciousness can also be a lot more subtle and frequent: most people fall asleep every night and wake up the next day. Some of you may have experienced lucid dreams, sleep paralysis or out-of-body-experiences.

Consciousness can be studied by comparing aspects of these different states.

Recent research at Cambridge

The colour-coded lines represent distinct functional networks. Functional networks in vegetative state patients (left and centre) might give us clues on their awareness levels, when we compare them to the healthy brain (right). One of the vegetative state patients was able to imagine playing tennis (centre). Image Credit: Dr Srivas Chennu, University of Cambridge
The colour-coded lines represent distinct functional networks. Functional networks in vegetative state patients (left and centre) might give us clues on their awareness levels, when we compare them to the healthy brain (right). One of the vegetative state patients was able to imagine playing tennis (centre). Image Credit: Dr Srivas Chennu, University of Cambridge

Dr Srivas Chennu, Dr Tristan Bekinschtein and their team use cutting-edge techniques to investigate states of consciousness in health and disease.

In their recent work, they have been able to link dynamic functional network activity to awareness levels in vegetative state patients. Some patients, despite being unresponsive, have well preserved functional networks. Using functional imaging the group showed that some patients are even able to follow complicated commands like playing tennis.

Their aim is to gain a better understanding of the consciousness levels of these patients, to assist healthcare professionals in treating them appropriately and making accurate prognoses.

The same techniques to find patterns of brain activity in different states of consciousness have been developed for sleeping volunteers and sedated participants.

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