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See Inside June/July 2007

Betting on Consciousness

Gambling may offer a way to test conscious awareness without disturbing it

MUCH OF WHAT we do goes on outside the pale of consciousness: whether we adjust our body posture or decide to marry someone, we often have no idea why or how we do the things we do. The Freudian notion that most of our mental life is unconscious is difficult to establish rigorously. Although it seems easy to answer the question “Did you (consciously) see the light turn on?” more than 100 years of research have shown otherwise. The key problem is defining consciousness such that one can measure it independently of the internal state of an individual’s brain while still capturing its subjective character.

One common experimental assessment of consciousness—or awareness of sensation, perception or thought—is based on “confidence.” For instance, a subject has to judge whether a cloud of dots on a computer screen moves to the left or to the right. He then reports how confident he is by assigning a number—for example, 1 to indicate pure guessing, 2 for some hesitation and 3 for complete certainty. This procedure assumes that when the subject has little awareness of the dots’ direction of motion his confidence is low, whereas if he clearly “saw” the motion his confidence is high.

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