MODERATOR: Terry Moran
PARTICIPANTS: Nicholas Schiff, Mélanie Boly, Christof Koch, Colin McGinn
PROGRAM DATE: Thursday, May 30, 2013

It’s an old question: what is consciousness? Today, sophisticated brain imaging technologies, clinical studies, as well as the newfound ability to listen to the whisper of even an individual nerve cell, are bringing scientists closer than ever to the neurobiological basis of consciousness. Join some of the world’s leading researchers who are primed to determine if Homo sapiens are the only conscious species, if consciousness lives only within our brain or also outside of it, and ultimately, the fundamental biochemical processes underlying the life of the mind.

This program is part of the Big Ideas Series.

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ABC News Anchor

Terry Moran is a co-anchor of ABC News’ Nightline and covers the Supreme Court for the network from his base in Washington, DC. At Nightline Moran has led the program’s distinguished coverage of many of the major news stories over the past several years. Moran extensively covered the 2012 election for Nightline where he reported on the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, the Presidential and Vice Presidential debates, election night and the 2013 Inauguration. Additionally in 2012, he reported for Nightline and all ABC News programs on the Supreme Court’s historic ruling to uphold the Affordable Care Act.

In March of 2009, Moran underwent DNA testing to discover whether he carried genetic markers associated with Alzheimer’s disease, which runs in his family. The resulting story was an emotional account of the toll the disease takes in America, and a powerful call to action. Moran has written for several publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The New Republic Magazine—where he began his career in journalism.



Nicholas Schiff studied history and philosophy of science at Stanford University before training as a physician at Cornell University Medical College. Following a detour into further training in applied mathematics, he completed a residency in neurology and post-doctoral training in quantitative systems neurophysiology. He now directs the Laboratory for Cognitive Neuromodulation at Weill Cornell Medical College and is a professor of neuroscience, neurology and public health. His research program focuses on mechanisms underlying recovery of consciousness following brain injuries and bridges basic neuroscience and clinical investigative studies. A primary focus of his research program is the development of central thalamic deep brain stimulation as a therapeutic strategy for restoring critical functions of the brain arousal regulation systems. In 2007, he and colleagues demonstrated the first scientific proof-of-concept that such an approach could restore communication and other higher-integrative brain functions in a human subject following years of remaining in minimally conscious state.


Melanie Boly is a neurologist and postdoctoral research fellow at the Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research and at University of Wisconsin-Madison. She conducts research investigating the neural correlates of decreased consciousness during vegetative state, anesthesia, and sleep using functional neuroimaging techniques. For eleven years she has worked with Steven Laureys at the Coma Science Group at University of Liege in Belgium. In the past she has worked with Adrian Owen in Cambridge, UK to design active paradigms (such as ‘imagine playing tennis’) capable of detecting consciousness in unresponsive brain damaged patients. She completed her postdoc with Karl Friston at University College London in 2010. She is currently working at the Center for Sleep and Consciousness in Madison, Wisconsin with Giulio Tononi. Her present work aims to develop a theoretical approach to the study of the neural correlates of consciousness in states such as sleep, anesthesia, or brain damage using functional brain imaging.

Christof Koch_192px

Born in the American Midwest, Christof Koch grew up in Holland, Germany, Canada, and Morocco. He studied Physics and Philosophy and was awarded his Ph.D. in Biophysics. In 1987, Koch joined the California Institute of Technology as a Professor in Biology and Engineering. After a quarter of a century, he left academia for the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, where he is now President and Chief Scientific Officer, leading a decade-long, large-scale effort to build brain observatories to map, analyze, and understand the mouse and human cerebral cortex. Koch has authored more than 300 scientific papers and five books concerned with the way computers and neurons process information and the neuronal and computational basis of visual perception. Together with his longtime collaborator, Francis Crick, Koch pioneered the scientific study of consciousness. His latest book is Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist.


Colin McGinn is a professor and Cooper Fellow at University of Miami. In 2006, he joined the UM philosophy department, having taught previously at University of London, University of Oxford, and Rutgers University. He was the recipient of the John Locke Prize at Oxford University in 1973. His research interests are in philosophy of mind, philosophy of body, philosophy of language, philosophical logic, metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of physics, philosophy of film and literature, ethics, metaphilosophy, philosophy of sport, and Wittgenstein. He has published many articles, and is the author of 20 books, including: Mental Content; The Problem of Consciousness; The Character of Mind; Ethics, Evil and Fiction; The Mysterious Flame; Logical Properties; Consciousness and Its Objects; Mindsight: Image, Dream, Meaning; and Shakespeare’s Philosophy.