Psychology 391SC: Scientific Studies of Consciousness

Fall, 2016

Tuesday and Thursday, 2:30 – 3:45 pm
Tobin 307

Instructor: Kyle Cave

office: 432 Tobin
phone: 413-545-2787
office hour: Wednesdays 2:00-3:00 pm

(This page last updated 6 Sep 2016.)

Everything here is subject to change.

Research in Cognitive Psychology and Neuroscience is constantly revealing new facts about how we see, hear, speak, move, recognize, remember, learn, and reason. The goal of these scientific studies is to explain these mental processes thoroughly and completely. However, many people feel that there is something about our consciousness or inner mental life that can never be explained by any scientific theory, no matter how advanced. In this seminar, we will ask what consciousness is, and will assess what current science can tell us about it. We will consider the different ways in which philosophers have tried to explain consciousness and the relationship between mind and body. Then we will examine how far science has progressed in explaining the workings of the mind, considering evidence from many different sources, including psychological experiments, brain imaging, neuronal recordings, and the effects of brain damage and drugs on experience and behavior. Finally, we will examine what is still unexplained, and will ask whether Science can ever explain everything about the mind.

Schedule and Readings:

There is one short textbook for this course, available at Amazon. There is also a copy on reserve in the library.

Blackmore, Susan. (2005) Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction.Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Most or all of the other assigned readings will be available on the course Moodle site, which can be accessed at The Moodle site will also have the class schedule, which lists the different topics to be covered.

Over the years there have been many experiments exploring consciousness, and a number of different theories have been proposed. Therefore, the reading list for this course is fairly extensive. Many of the readings will be research papers from scientific journals. Be prepared to spend some time reading them carefully and thinking through the details of the experiments they describe. There may be terms you do not understand, or details of the experiments that are not fully explained. If you have questions about a reading, post them on the Moodle discussion boards or contact me.

 Communicating Outside of Class:

Use the course email address at the top of this page to contact me. Also note my office hours and phone number. If I need to reach you in between classes, I will send you e-mail. Announcements for the entire class will be posted on Moodle. For some topics there will be notes available on Moodle. If the notes are available before class, you may find it helpful to print them out and bring them to class.

Thought Questions:

For some topics, there will be a thought question posted on Moodle. Be sure to submit your answer to the thought question before the posted deadline.

Unless specified otherwise, your answer to the thought question should be no more than 300 words, not including references.

Because of the short word limit, you will want to think carefully about how to convey the most information possible in just a few words, and in a clear and reliable way.

As with all assignments, you should include references telling which sources provided the information that you have included.

Don't just express your opinions, but justify them in a way that will convince readers that you are right.


We will have two debates. For each round of each debate, there will be two teams, each taking a different side of a question.

Each team will write a statement of no more than 300 words (not including references) defending their side.

After the two team statements are posted on Moodle, there will be an online discussion in which everyone can post their thoughts and observations on the question. Members of the teams can post their own comments defending their positions. Everyone who is not on a team for this debate must post at least one comment on each round.

After the online discussion, another set of two teams will write their own statements, taking into account the previous statements and everything that was said in the online discussion. After these new statements are posted, there will be another round of online discussion.

Sign up for your debate team on Moodle between 7:00 am on Sep 15 and 11:55 pm on Sep 21.


Many of the classes will include a student presentation. Each presentation will be given by a pair of students working together.

Your presentation should be based on sources beyond the required course readings. There are some suggestions for relevant sources on Moodle.

You should send me a list of your sources two weeks before your presentation. If you find other sources after you send me the list, you are free to include them as well.

Your presentation will be graded on its informativeness and its organization. Be sure to give careful thought as to how to structure your presentation so that it is clear and easy to understand.

Each presentation should be about 20-30 minutes long.

A computer and projector will be available for your presentation. After your presentation, you should upload a file with the slides you displayed during your presentation to the discussion board on Moodle.

Sign up for your presentation on Moodle between 7:00 am on Sep 9 and 11:55 pm on Sep 14.


You will write a paper on some topic within the scientific study of consciousness. Your paper must show a good deal of research and thought, and it must draw on a sizable amount of material beyond the class readings and lectures. Consult with me about appropriate topics before you start. It should be no more than 2700 words, not including references.

Your paper can be on the same topic as your presentation, but can also be on a completely different topic. It should be written independently of the other student that you work with on your presentation. You can include ideas that came from your presentation partner, as long as you give appropriate acknowledgement.

You should turn in your paper topic and list of sources by Oct 11. The final, completed paper is due on Dec 16. Both can be handed in via Moodle.

See the Guide to Writing the Paper.

Other Assignments:

There may be other assignments throughout the class. They will include your written thoughts and questions about one of the readings or a class discussion, other short written assignments, and quizzes. I may encourage you to discuss these assignments with other students (except, of course, the quizzes). However, unless I specifically say otherwise, the work you turn in for the assignments must be entirely your own.

Avoiding Plagiarism:

All students are expected to adhere scrupulously to the University policy concerning academic honesty in their written assignments and in their presentations. For guidelines about plagiarism, see If you are ever in doubt about when and how to give credit for the ideas and experimental results you include in your written assignments and presentations, consult me.

Experimental Participation:

By participating in experiments done within the Psychology Department, you can learn first hand how experimental psychology is done, you can contribute to the advancement of the field, and you can improve your grade through extra credit.

You will receive one credit for each half-hour of experimental participation. Each credit will add one-third of one percent to your total number of points.

The total amount of extra credit you can receive is 9 credits, which will take 4.5 hours, and will add 3% to your point total.

If you sign up for an experiment, be sure to show up at the appointed time. If an emergency arises that prevents you from showing up, contact the experimenter as soon as you can. If you fail to show up for three different expreiments, you will lose your privelege to earn extra credit.

Extra credit cannot make a failing grade into a passing grade.

If you want to earn extra credit but do not want to participate in experiments, see me about an alternative.

Instructions for signing up for experiments can be found at Note the option for earning credits through prescreening, which is only available early in the semeseter.


If you need special accommodations because of a documented disability, please get the official notification to me by Sep 19.


Final Grade:

paper: 30%

presentation: 25%

thought questions: 30%

debates and other assignments: 15%

Extra credit is available through experimental participation. See above.

Relevant Sources on the Web:

Here is a list of web sites with relevant information on scientific studies of consciousness.


An updated version of syllabus is available on the World Wide Web at:

Psych 391SC: Consciousness Kyle Cave Dept. of Psych and Brain Sci. U. Mass.