– Peter Moseley, 25th July 2019
Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness – London, Ontario, June 2019
I recently attended the 23rdconference of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness in London, Ontario. Although not directly related to hallucinations, there were lots of interesting and relevant presentations.
The conference kicked off with a provocative keynote from Thomas Metzinger, who made the forceful argument that no-one *really* knows whether we can create artificial consciousness or not – but if we can there is a risk that we could create a large amount of suffering, perhaps without even realizing. (So, a pretty cheery way to start off.) Most provocatively, he argued for a ‘30-year moratorium on research into the creation of synthetic phenomenology’, until we’ve had a proper debate about these ethical issues.
Other keynotes focused on sleep and cognition. Jennifer Windt arguing for a new framework for understanding different sleep stages, and how conscious we may or may not be during dreamless sleep. Sid Kouider showed data suggesting that participants in lighter (Stage 2 – non-rapid eye movement) sleep stages are still capable of a fairly sophisticated amount of information integration.
Shorter scheduled presentations addressed issues more directly relevant to hallucinations research. Nadine Dijkstra from the Donders Institute in Nijmegen presented results using an interesting paradigm requiring participants to engage in visual imagery while conducting a visual discrimination task (based on this paradigm). She found that imagery can bias task performance, but also reported large individual differences in priming or adaptation effects (see here for the preprint). This work complements some of my ownindicating that mental imagery can affect what we perceive. Timo Torsten Schmidt from the Freie Universitat in Berlin talked about work using the Ganzfeld procedure, in which the participant is presented with homogeneous visual and auditory stimuli (using headphones and cut-in-half ping pong balls!). This procedure often induces unusual perceptual experiences in participants, and Schmidt and colleagues showed that this seems to be linked with thalamocortical decoupling – which, interestingly, is the opposite effect you would see after use of psychedelics.
Michael Lifshitz, from the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University, presented some preliminary research into the phenomenon of Tulpamancy, where people use techniques similar to meditation and lucid dreaming to create imaginary friends (‘tulpas’), which after extensive training, are experienced as having their own personality and can take on their own agency. Lifshitz and colleagues are conducting detailed phenomenological interviews, cognitive assessments and neuroimaging with people who report having created tulpas, and it’ll be fascinating to see where the research goes over the next couple of years.
Finally, a really interesting presentation by Bigna Lenggenhager at the University of Zurich showed a new paradigm in which the participant is presented with a recording of their own voice recorded using a dummy head, which creates a realistic recording allowing the listener to perceive spatial characteristics of the recording. In this study, the participant listened to recordings of their own voice move around themselves, compared to their own voice through a standard binaural recording. Questionnaire responses indicated that the dummy head recordings could induce feelings of felt presence, although there was no such difference in self-identification of the voice, or feelings of agency over the voice.
I always enjoy the ASSC conference – from the point of view of a hallucinations researcher – there are some interesting directly relevant talks, but also it makes me think a lot about different experimental paradigms that would be interesting to use in my research to test new hypotheses about hallucinations, and psychosis more broadly.