Where are all the consciousness scientists?

In <a href=https://vuorre.netlify.com/post/2017/quantitative-literature-review-with-r-part-i/>previous <a href=https://vuorre.netlify.com/post/2017/quantitative-literature-review-with-r-part-ii/>blog posts, I used metadata from a selection of ~20 Psychology journals to explore citations and publication numbers and to draw co-author networks. Today, I’m interested in looking at the distribution of interest in consciousness as a research topic. I’ll first look at the time-course of this topic in the psychological literature, and then visualize “consciousness hubs”, i.e. academic institutions that publish research on consciousness.

You might ask: “Why”? Some decades ago, scientific research on this topic was somewhat limited, or so I am told (e.g. Gray 2004). Today there are at least two scientific conferences (which I frequent) on the topic, and it is not uncommon to find “consciousness” listed on an early career researchers webpage as a research interest. It is then natural to ask how this interest has changed over time in the literature, and if there are institutions, cities, or countries where this research interest is particularly common. I used data from the psychLit R data package to address these questions.

Interest in consciousness across time

I first asked if there was, across all the 20 journals in the database, any obvious change in how often the term “consciousness” was mentioned.

Number of articles where 'consciousness' was used in either the keywords or abstracts.

Figure 1: Number of articles where ‘consciousness’ was used in either the keywords or abstracts.

The upward trend after 1995 or so, in Figure 1, seems to verify the anecdote that for many decades, this topic was off limits for mainstream psychology. Or does it? Maybe there are now more articles overall. To find out, we can compare the term to another one, such as “attention”:

Number of articles where 'consciousness' was used in either the keywords or abstracts, compared to the number of articles on 'attention'.

Figure 2: Number of articles where ‘consciousness’ was used in either the keywords or abstracts, compared to the number of articles on ‘attention’.

Figure 2 instead suggests that the term ‘consciousness’ now appears more often because there is an overall increase in the number of published articles. Perhaps counting articles is the wrong approach in the first place. It might be better to look at the proportion of articles on consciousness for each year.

Proportion of articles where 'consciousness' was used in either the keywords or abstracts.

Figure 3: Proportion of articles where ‘consciousness’ was used in either the keywords or abstracts.

Figure 3 shows that interest in consciousness peaked at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, and has only declined since. Here’s an example William James quote to illustrate how the word was used a hundred years ago:

“Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.”

Consciousness hubs

Next, let’s take a look at where these articles were published. Below, I’ll show 15 institutions with the highest proportion1 of consciousness articles; these are the ‘consciousness hubs’.

Map of top 15 consciousness hubs (Pasadena seems to be misplaced). Each blue dot's size and opacity is proportional to the proportion of consciousness articles within that city's institutions.

Figure 4: Map of top 15 consciousness hubs (Pasadena seems to be misplaced). Each blue dot’s size and opacity is proportional to the proportion of consciousness articles within that city’s institutions.

I am surprised to see Turku in Figure 3, although I knew that there are a few active researchers on this topic at University of Turku.

Find the source code for these figures at GitHub.

References

Gray, J. A. (2004). Consciousness: Creeping Up on the Hard Problem. Oxford University Press.


  1. Because the number of articles varies dramatically between institutions (e.g. an institution may have 2 articles in the database, and if one of those was on consciousness, the institution’s proportion would erroneously be inferred as .5) I used empirical Bayes estimation to get the proportions.

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