The quest for consciousness

  • October 20, 2016
The quest for consciousness

Sridhar Jagannathan talks about his research into the hugely complex realm of human consciousness.

Consciousness is an issue that has been unsolved for hundreds of years. Humans are fascinated by the vastness of the space outside and by the deepness of the mind inside.

Sridhar Jagannathan

What is the process involved in losing consciousness in a natural way? In other words, what happens when you fall asleep every night? How can we be alert one minute and then suffer brain fade the next?

These are just some of the questions being addressed by Sridhar Jagannathan’s research into the hugely complex realm of human consciousness.

The implications are far-reaching, not just for those suffering from severe problems relating to consciousness, such as brain-injured patients or even those who have suffered from stroke, but for all of us, from those who need to stay alert during long working hours to those who suffer from insomnia.

Sri is investigating how people lose consciousness naturally, its effect on attention and whether the process of losing consciousness can be described in a mathematical model.

Sri's PhD in Psychology is made up of three parts. The first focuses on measuring brain activity at the moment of losing consciousness or alertness. “It can be very complex because this can be a very subjective thing. We are drawing up a method to characterise how alert we are,” says Sri. He presented his research at the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness conference in Buenos Aires this summer where he won the prize for the best poster in neuroscience.

Speaking about the wider implications of his research, he says: “We are looking to detect when a person is not as alert and what individuals’ characteristic sleep onset process is. That could have an application at work, for instance, for long distance train drivers.”

He adds that sleeplessness is a symptom of many diseases and that finding the key to how we fall asleep could be more impactful than other approaches.

The second area he is looking at is what happens to the attention of people when they are falling asleep. “When normal people are half asleep they make a lot of errors and this affects right-handed people more,” says Sri. “This is similar to people who suffer strokes – right-handed people suffer most. It seems that alertness could be related to a particular mechanism of attention in the brain. I am looking into the biological mechanism in the brain that causes that. It has implications for understanding how to address attention deficit in stroke patients.”

The third area is a more collaborative project using mathematical tools to characterise the dynamic process of transition from consciousness to unconsciousness. Sri says this could have applications for patients with brain injury who have periods when they are alert and others when they are not. At the moment it is impossible to predict when these periods of alertness will occur. Sri will begin work on this at the end of his second year.


Sri was born and brought up in Chennai, India. His parents ran a small shop. His mother, who had not gone to university herself, took her children’s education very seriously. “She always encouraged me,” says Sri. That included sending Sri and his sister to school an hour away from home in order to get a better education.

Sri struggled with mathematics in the beginning, as he didn’t enjoy learning by rote. However, he improved and excelled at geometry in particular. When he left school he was not sure what he wanted to do. He opted for an engineering degree mainly by default and when he had finished he worked for close to four years writing/debugging algorithms in car airbag systems for Bosch. However, he felt his problem-solving skills could be used to take on bigger challenges.

He became very interested in biomedicine – the newness of the field excited him and he was attracted to the potential for significant advancements in this field. He looked for master’s programmes that combined mathematics and biology. The Technical University of Eindhoven offered the possibility of learning how to apply maths to real world problems as well as research internships as part of its Electrical Engineering master’s. Moving to Holland was a big culture change and it took a while to adapt. In the end, he started to really like the place and now considers it to be his second home.

Sri has always been keen to follow his interests and not keep to the well-trodden path with regards to his academic work. As such he has not been afraid to change track to pursue what interests him. In Holland he switched his focus to neuroscience after doing an internship at the Maastricht University Medical Centre. His internship focused on people who had epileptic seizures but whose brains did not show the usual epileptic signals. He used mathematical techniques to look at whether there was a biological mechanism underpinning the seizures or whether they had a more psychogenic origin. Sri became so interested in the project that he stayed for three months, publishing a paper on his research. At the end of his first year Sri transferred to the Radboud University to do a research internship at the Donders institute of Brain, Cognition and Behaviour. While there he also completed a minor in cognitive neuroscience.

Embracing new ideas

After finishing his master’s he moved to Oxford University to work as a research assistant where he worked in the Department of Experimental Psychology on mathematical methods in neuroscience. After leaving Oxford, he moved back to Holland to do consultancy work along with a science outreach project. He says that, coming from India, he had a different mindset to his peers and wanted to focus on some of the bigger questions. He became interested in consciousness while working on the MindSong outreach project. It was run by the University of Cambridge’s Dr Tristan Bekinschtein, who is now Sri’s supervisor. The project involved using an EEG headset to transform brain activity into an experience of colours, lights and sound. “Dr Bekinschtein was open to addressing difficult problems such as consciousness. He is open to new ideas which appealed to me and I feel I can contribute with my analytical background” says Sri.

With the support of Gates Cambridge scholarship, he started his PhD in 2015. At Cambridge, he has been actively involved with the Gates Scholars Council as Treasurer. He has also worked with homeless people locally and helped organise a children’s party during Christmas. He feels the Scholarship’s mission of improving the lives of others is a perfect fit, given his interest in applied research on some of the world’s big unanswered questions.

He says: “Consciousness is an issue that has been unsolved for hundreds of years. Humans are fascinated by the vastness of the space outside and by the deepness of the mind inside.”    

Sridhar Rajan Jagannathan

Sridhar Rajan Jagannathan

  • Alumni
  • 2015
  • India
  • PhD Psychology
  • Churchill College

What differentiates the truly great people from the rest? I believe it is standing tall in the face of adversity. Growing up in one of the biggest cities (Chennai) in India, I saw the struggle my parents faced to provide a quality education to me. Despite never having been to a university, they strived hard to provide for my university education. To say it in the words of my mom "As humans we don't live forever, why don't we make something that lasts forever". This is my motivation for research. My quest took me from India to the Netherlands and then to UK. Here at Cambridge, I would be working on the entanglement between consciousness and attention. I aim to create a cognitive neuroscience inspired model on the deficits of attention during transitions of consciousness. Further to apply them in patients with attentional deficits like Stroke to predict their recovery prognosis. During my PhD, I would like to combine my expertise in clinical (Maastricht University), cognitive (Radboud University Nijmegen) neuroscience along with my knowledge in mathematical methods (University of Oxford) to provide a holistic approach to the problem in question. I'm truly humbled at this award and would like to thank my friends, family and my teachers for supporting me through thick and thin. I look forward to join the vibrant Gates Cambridge community and contribute my part to this noble cause.

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