A short, meditative film I directed and produced with Professor Nicholas Humphrey exploring the scientific significance of consciousness and the problems we face in understanding its existence.
After working with each other last year Nick and I were keen to explore consciousness in a short form piece – quite the challenge considering the complexity of the subject matter.
Our intention was not to be too heavy handed with the facts and figures, but instead to present the viewer with some of the key questions and problems that scientists face in understanding consciousness from the perspectives of evolution and neuroscience.
One of the greatest challenges with this piece was always going to be in constructing compelling images to go alongside the narration and pieces to camera. It was with this in mind that we chose the Botanic Gardens as the lush and colourful backdrop in which to explore these ideas against.
The film was shot primarily on a Canon 6D over a couple of days, on location at Cambridge University Botanic Gardens and at the Royal Institution. I was really impressed with the footage coming out of the 6D (aside from a few moire problem) and it received very little grading. I also paid a little extra attention to the audio, mastering it outside of FCPX and in Ableton Live – just to give it a bit more polish!
Using a new imaging method scientists from the University of Manchester have constructed a three-dimensional sequence of the brain as it loses consciousness. The small study used a new technique called ‘functional electrical impedance tomography of evoked response’ (fEITER), which is basically a new way of measuring changes in the brain’s electrical conductivity. This is useful because changes in electrical conductivity are believed to reflect changes in the brain’s electrical activity and by knowing where abouts in the brain this activity is occurring, we can better understand how the brain operates under different conditions; in this case unconsciousness. What’s great about this new method is that it has an extremely fast response, performing it’s imaging process 100 times a second, allowing the team to monitor the brain’s activity in real time!
The team used fEITER to scan the brains of 20 healthy volunteers as they were administered an anaesthetic and imaged changes in the brain’s electrical conductivity as it moved from a conscious to an unconscious state. The team found that a loss in consciousness corresponded with changes in electrical activity deep within the brain. The findings support a theory proposed by Professor Susan Greenfield which suggests that consciousness is formed from the unhindered communication between groups of brain cells called ‘neural assemblies’. The findings appear to show that when someone is anaesthetised, these small neural assemblies either work less well together or inhibit communication with other neural assemblies.
The use of fEITER is a great advance and a first for neuroimaging, allowing scientists to witness the brain’s transition into unconsciousness in real-time. However there is still a lot of work to be done to understand exactly how and why the brain behaves differently in an unconscious state. The fEITER device used will also have a significant impact in many areas of medical imaging, but will be particularly useful in helping us understand anaesthesia, sedation and unconsciousness. Perhaps the most useful application of this device will be in diagnosing neuronal changes which occur in head injury, stroke and dementia patients.