A 2021 study by the University of Michigan reveals the gateway to conscious awareness in the brain. They found that a critical area in the cortex helps process sensory stimuli and, therefore, our conscious experiences.
While we’re awake, the brain must filter through a near-constant stream of sensory information. For years, scientists have pondered why our conscious awareness picks up specific signals and overlooks others. They wanted to know what part of the brain separates unconsciousness from consciousness.
Who Conducted the Study on Conscious Awareness?
So, scientists from the Department of Anesthesiology and Center for Consciousness Science at Michigan Medicine decided to investigate. Their findings first published in the journal Cell Reports.
“Information processing in the brain has two dimensions: sensory processing of the environment without awareness and the type that occurs when a stimulus reaches a certain level of importance and enters conscious awareness,” explains Zirui Huang, Ph.D., research investigator in the Department of Anesthesiology.
Huang, along with lead researcher Anthony Hudetz, Ph.D. and colleagues, aimed to verify the location of this ‘gateway’ in the brain. They determined that this switch occurs in the brain region called the anterior insular cortex. It acts as a filter of conscious awareness between low-level sensory information and higher awareness.
Researchers gave participants the anesthetic drug propofol for the study, which caused loss of consciousness. Then, they placed participants inside an fMRI machine to monitor brain activity. As they gradually lost consciousness, the team asked volunteers to imagine themselves doing various activities. These included playing tennis, walking down a path, and squeezing their hand. They were also asked to complete a motor response activity (squeezing a rubber ball).
Prior research discovered that mental imagery activates similar areas in the brain as actually performing the activity. So, when participants imagined themselves playing tennis, the part of the brain that controls movement (frontal lobe) lit up. Other brain regions become deactivated as mental energy shifts toward the activity.
Doctor Explains How The Brain Can Unlock Conscious Awareness
Researchers observed that deactivations occurred less often in the study as participants lost consciousness. When they lost consciousness completely, their brain regions didn’t light up during mental imagery tasks. However, when they regained some consciousness, these brain areas became a bit more active. With full consciousness, their brain returned to normal activation.
As the team analyzed their brain activity during varying stages of consciousness, they discovered the anterior insular cortex governed conscious awareness.
“A sensory stimulus will normally activate the anterior insular cortex,” says Hudetz. “But when you lose consciousness, the anterior insular cortex is deactivated, and network shifts in the brain that support consciousness are disrupted.” He added that the anterior insular cortex might influence conscious awareness by filtering trivial information.
The team wanted to confirm the findings with another well-known psychological experiment. For this second experiment, researchers flashed a person’s face on a screen for just three-hundredths of a second. Then, they showed participants a high contrast image designed to interrupt conscious awareness of the face. Afterward, the team asked volunteers whether they saw a face on the screen. Researchers determined that participants saw the image if their anterior insular cortex was activated.
“Anterior insular cortex has continuously fluctuating activity,” says Huang. “Whether you can detect a stimulus depends upon the state of the anterior insula when the information arrives in your brain: if the insula’s activity is high at the point of stimulus, you will see the image. Based on evidence from these two experiments, we conclude that the anterior insular cortex could be a gate for conscious awareness.”
The brain is the most complex organ in our bodies, but scientists continue to uncover more of its mysteries each day. Since we’re a projection of consciousness, understanding the brain can help us unlock our full potential.
How to Expand Your Conscious Awareness
Since the dawn of time, humans have longed to experience higher states of consciousness. It’s in our nature to desire knowledge, bliss, and love, but our material environment limits us. However, we can access greater conscious awareness through meditation. Sages and saints throughout history have become enlightened or achieved full consciousness through various forms of meditation.
If you want to practice meditation, Kriya Yoga offers one of the best ways to enhance consciousness. Paramahansa Yogananda, considered the Father of Yoga in the West, taught this technique to Americans in 1920. It involves various deep breathing exercises, body relaxation, and contemplation to achieve higher awareness. While it takes practice and dedication, it’s worth the effort to realize your full potential.