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5 extraordinary ideas about the mind and what it means to be conscious

Two years after opening our bureau in New York, we are delighted to share that New Scientist is launching a new live event series in the US. This kicks off on 22 June in New York with a one-day masterclass on the science of the brain and human consciousness. To celebrate, we have unlocked access to five in-depth features exploring mysteries of the human mind.

There is perhaps no bigger puzzle of human experience than consciousness. In the simplest terms, it is awareness of our existence. It is our experience of ourselves and the world.

Less clear is how and why this happens – and whether other creatures, or indeed machines and forms of artificial intelligence, can also experience consciousness in the way that we do.

For much of human history, the notion that we could somehow explain or fully understand consciousness seemed fanciful, beyond the reach of scientific inquiry, even. But in recent decades, we have got ever closer to pinning down the physical structures, mechanisms and neural networks responsible.

As neuroscientist Christof Koch had to concede last year, we aren’t there yet though. “When you’re young you gotta believe that things are simple,” Koch said, acknowledging that he had lost a 25-year-old bet with philosopher David Chalmers that by 2023 we would have pinned down exactly which set of brain cells give rise to our conscious experience of the world.

Still, Koch needn’t take it too hard: we are inching closer all the time, teasing out fresh insights into everything from what happens in our brains when we sleep and dream to the way that increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence is challenging what it means to be conscious – and how we could even recognise this in machines were it to happen.

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Emergence: The mysterious concept that holds the key to consciousness

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Can AI ever become conscious and how would we know if that happens?

It sounds far-fetched, but researchers are trying to recreate subjective experience in AIs, even if disagreement over what consciousness is will make it difficult to test

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