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Is a worm conscious? How about a bumblebee? Does a computer that can play chess “feel” anything?

To Christof Koch, chief scientific officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, the answer to these questions may lie in the fabric of the universe itself. Consciousness, he believes, is an intrinsic property of matter, just like mass or energy. Organize matter in just the right way, as in the mammalian brain, and voilà, you can feel.

Koch, now 57, has spent nearly a quarter of a century trying to explain why, say, the sun feels warm on your face. But after writing three books on consciousness, Koch says researchers are still far from knowing why it occurs, or even agreeing on what it is. It’s a difficult problem (see “Cracking the Brain’s Codes”). That is one reason that Koch left his position at Caltech in 2011 to become part of a $500 million project launched by the billionaire Paul Allen, Microsoft’s cofounder.

The Allen Institute’s goal is to build a detailed atlas of every neuron and synapse in the mammalian brain. That would give neuroscience a firehose of data similar to what the Human Genome Project achieved.

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