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Functional brain imaging offers new opportunities for the study of that most pervasive of cognitive conditions, human consciousness. Since consciousness is attendant to so much of human cognitive life, its study requires secondary analysis of multiple experimental datasets. Here, four preprocessed datasets from the National fMRI Data Center are considered: Hazeltine et al., Neural activation during response competition; Ishai et al., The representation of objects in the human occipital and temporal cortex; Mechelli et al., The effects of presentation rate during word and pseudoword reading; and Postle et al., Activity in human frontal cortex associated with spatial working memory and saccadic behavior. The study of consciousness also draws from multiple disciplines. In this article, the philosophical subdiscipline of phenomenology provides initial characterization of phenomenal structures conceptually necessary for an analysis of consciousness. These structures include phenomenal intentionality, phenomenal superposition, and experienced temporality. The empirical predictions arising from these structures require new interpretive methods for their confirmation. These methods begin with single-subject (preprocessed) scan series, and consider the patterns of all voxels as potential multivariate encodings of phenomenal information. Twenty-seven subjects from the four studies were analyzed with multivariate methods, revealing analogues of phenomenal structures, particularly the structures of temporality. In a second interpretive approach, artificial neural networks were used to detect a more explicit prediction from phenomenology, namely, that present experience contains and is inflected by past states of awareness and anticipated events. In all of 21 subjects in this analysis, nets were successfully trained to extract aspects of relative past and future brain states, in comparison with statistically similar controls. This exploratory study thus concludes that the proposed methods for "neurophenomenology" warrant further application, including the exploration of individual differences, multivariate differences between cognitive task conditions, and exploration of specific brain regions possibly contributing to the observations. All of these attractive questions, however, must be reserved for future research.


Originally published in Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 2002 Aug 15;14(6):818-31.

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