Dr Alexander De Foe

Consciousness researcher

Research

Currently I am interested in exploring the functional role of altered states, how they are perceived via intrapersonal schemas, and how they can help us to better understand the nature of human consciousness. I have a particular interest in the nature of embodiment, out-of-body experiences, and the relationship between body and self.

I apply a range of modern technologies to explore these topics. Our lab is typically equipped with multitiered equipment including virtual reality devices, body swapping setups, and various otherĀ apparatus.

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.

William James in 1902

A memorandum for consciousness studies

Psychology often does not articulate well the problem of global or holistic states of consciousness, as they are difficult to study experimentally. Unlike access consciousness — the awareness of being conscious of something — the phenomenological nature of consciousness itself is not easily conceptualised. Pioneer theorists in psychology such as William James speculated that the nature of mind or consciousness is one of the most important topics, if not the most important topic, that we ought to grapple with.

One reason that many researchers have shied away from this topic of inquiry is that it seemingly presents a hard research problem, not easily approachable by the standard measurements and techniques of empirical science. I’ve proposed that this is not necessarily the case, and the broader nature of consciousness is well-worth investigating further in modern research.

Arguments to consider for the exploration of ASC

  • The consciousness problem is not a hard research issue but rather an under-examined one, with insufficient unified models across disciplines
  • Altered states are not ineffable but rather poorly understood from a phenomenological standpoint — most theories offer categorical rather than spectral explanations for global states
  • There are likely more obvious clues in cousin areas of inquiry, such as that of autobiographical memory and feature integration research that will reveal the phenomenal characteristics of consciousness in time
  • State-changes such as those found in OBE and psi-related experience offer a rich, often underexamined source of data on the broad spectrum of altered states
  • Meaningful methodological tools, such as the use of VR, psychotropic substances, and sensory deprivation should be further refined as a means of studying the consciousness problem

Alex's research: In the media

Current projects

About 10% of people have had an out-of-body experience (OBE) at least once in their lifetime. Despite the prominence of this altered state, the experience is still not well understood due to conflicting understanding within the literature.

The VeridicalMind (VM) project demonstrated that OBEs are often not mystical or imaginary dream-like states, but rather spontaneous changes in one’s frame of perception. Approaching these accounts from this unique vantage point has afforded new opportunities to explore what OBEs can illustrate about human perception and consciousness.

Phase 2 of the project is running in 2019/20 and will focus on the hypnotic induction of OBEs to study the perceptual changes in participants at closer depth.

Textbooks often tangle the idea of self-awareness with that of consciousness, although we know that children experience the stream of consciousness far before a coherent sense of self develops. Likewise, those who experience psychedelic or meditative states often report a loss of identity and self-referential consciousness — yet there is a distinct presence of alertness and conscious mind clearly in-tact.

Our research team is exploring the evolutionary basis of higher-order and lower-order cognitive functions and their role the functional components of consciousness.

Virtual reality (VR) is on track to becoming a well-accepted and popular tool for training and psychotherapy in a myriad imaginable contexts. Yet, there exist few clinical and research guidelines in VR treatment and administration.

We are currently interested in developing best-practice methodologies in clinical VR research, as well as best-practice therapeutic applications of VR within clinical environments.

Opportunities to work with Alex

Available student projects

Alex predominantly works with researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne CBD, but also has wide-reaching collaborations with colleagues at Monash University in Clayton, Federation University in Gippsland, Swinburne University of Technology in Hawthorn, as well as nationally and internationally.

Click on a project for more detail

This project will involve development and testing of new conceptual models relevant to consciousness, ToM, executive control, and moral development. Empirical work may relate to intervention-centric, transtheoretical, or translation-based approaches to examine the relationships between these constructs. A psychology or cognitive science candidate with an interest in philosophical models of human action will be well-suited to take part in this project. As a student working on this project, you will join a team of researchers who are striving to understand the relationship between states of consciousness and pro-social behaviour within an applied health context.

You will conduct 3-4 experimental studies in an area related to cognitive science or mental health research. A research-track student will design a series of studies focused on the topics of perceptual integration, sense of self, and absorption in VR with relation to health and safety outcomes. A clinically-trained psychology student will develop a set of studies oriented on assessment, treatment, or other clinical outcomes in high-prevalence disorders that are faced by the broader Australian population, such as social anxiety, learning disabilities/disorders, or cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s disease.

A candidate with a social media research and psychology background will be well suited to take part in this project. Approximately 4-7 studies will be conducted, which will involve predominantly the application of questionnaires, longitudinal tracking or ecological momentary assessments (EMAs), case studies, qualitative reports, attitudinal research, and/or technology-centric research. Specific populations that are of interest within this scope are those with high-level body-image concern, trait/state narcissism, and pro/anti-social behaviours. Mediators such as personality covariates (e.g., introversion/extraversion) are also of potential interest within this project.