Does the prefrontal cortex play an essential role in consciousness? Insights from intracranial electrical stimulation of the human brain

Journal of Neuroscience 1 (41):2076-2087 (2021)
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A central debate in philosophy and neuroscience pertains to whether PFC activity plays an essential role in the neural basis of consciousness. Neuroimaging and electrophysiology studies have revealed that the contents of conscious perceptual experience can be successfully decoded from PFC activity, but these findings might be confounded by post- perceptual cognitive processes, such as thinking, reasoning, and decision-making, that are not necessary for con- sciousness. To clarify the involvement of the PFC in consciousness, we present a synthesis of research that has used intracranial electrical stimulation (iES) for the causal modulation of neural activity in the human PFC. This research provides compelling evidence that iES of only certain prefrontal regions (i.e., orbitofrontal cortex and anterior cingu- late cortex) reliably perturbs conscious experience. Conversely, stimulation of anterolateral prefrontal sites, often con- sidered crucial in higher-order and global workspace theories of consciousness, seldom elicits any reportable alterations in consciousness. Furthermore, the wide variety of iES-elicited effects in the PFC (e.g., emotions, thoughts, and olfactory and visual hallucinations) exhibits no clear relation to the immediate environment. Therefore, there is no evidence for the kinds of alterations in ongoing perceptual experience that would be predicted by higher-order or global workspace theories. Nevertheless, effects in the orbitofrontal and anterior cingulate cortices suggest a specific role for these PFC subregions in supporting emotional aspects of conscious experience. Overall, this evidence presents a challenge for higher-order and global workspace theories, which commonly point to the PFC as the basis for con- scious perception based on correlative and possibly confounded information.



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Author Profiles

Omri Raccah
New York University
Ned Block
New York University

Citations of this work

A Metacognitive Account of Phenomenal Force.Lu Teng - 2023 - Mind and Language 38 (4):1081-1101.
Conscious Perception and the Prefrontal Cortex A Review.Matthias Michel - 2022 - Journal of Consciousness Studies 29 (7-8):115-157.
The Conscious Theory of Higher-Orderness.Nicholas Silins - forthcoming - Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Mind.

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On a confusion about a function of consciousness.Ned Block - 1995 - Brain and Behavioral Sciences 18 (2):227-–247.
A Cognitive Theory of Consciousness.Bernard J. Baars - 1988 - New York: Cambridge University Press.
What is it Like to be a Bat?Thomas Nagel - 2003 - In John Heil (ed.), Philosophy of Mind: A Guide and Anthology. Oxford University Press.

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