Why we need to figure out a theory of consciousness

Why we need to figure out a theory of consciousness
All in the mind. Credit: Shutterstock

Understanding the biology behind consciousness (or self-awareness) is considered by some to be the final frontier of science. And over the last decade, a fledgling community of "consciousness scientists" have gathered some interesting information about the differences between conscious and unconscious brain activity.

But there remains disagreement about whether or not we have a theory that actually explains what is special about the brain activity which produces our miraculous inner worlds.

Recently, "Integrated Information Theory" has been gaining attention – and the backing of some eminent neuroscientists. It says that absolutely every physical object has some (even if extremely low) level of . Some backers of the theory claim to have a mathematical formula that can measure the consciousness of anything – even your iPhone.

These big claims are controversial and are (unfortunately) undermining the great potential for progress that could come from following some of the ideas behind the theory.

Integrated Information Theory starts from two basic observations about the nature of our conscious experiences as humans. First, that each experience we have is just one of a vast number of possible experiences we could have. Second, that multiple different components (colours, textures, foreground, background) are all experienced together, simultaneously.

Given these two observations, the theory says that associated with consciousness must therefore be ever-changing, consist of lots of different patterns, and involve a great deal of communication between different brain regions.

This is a really solid starting point for a theory, and to some extent, we have been able to test it. In one experiment, for example, researchers looked at brain responses to a short pulse of "", in which a magnetic coil is placed on top of the scalp, and a very brief pulse of magnetic field emitted.

The response was recorded from electrodes at locations all over the rest of the scalp. When fully awake, the response to the little burst of magnetic field would spread far and wide, in complex patterns of ripples.

But when participants were in deep sleep, or under general anaesthesia, the response did not spread very far from the magnet, and the shapes of the ripples were much more simple. These results support the theory. They demonstrate that when we're conscious, each region of the brain is doing something different, but are all managing to communicate.

So far so good. But it would be great to go further than this. Hence the attempt to find a formula that can give us a precise "level of consciousness" from detailed data. It is here that the serious controversy begins.

The theory claims that the ultimate formula will somehow quantify the information something contains. In this context, "information" means how much you can find out about the past and future of the object in question by looking in detail at the present.

For example, you record voltages from a bunch of neurons in the brain, and see how well you can use one result to predict earlier and later results. If you can make good predictions from using the readings from all neurons, but only poor predictions if you use just some neurons, then you score high.

Deep thinking

It is understandable to be perplexed by all of this – attempts at a formula have run into numerous problems, theoretical and practical. A candidate formula has been written down, but it doesn't work. There are example cases of it not giving a clear answer. And it would take far too long to compute for complex human data.

Some people think perhaps this theoretical mathematical endeavour should be shelved for now. Experimental research on consciousness is going well, so maybe we should all just focus on that. But we can't just do fact gathering experiments – we need a theory to understand what we've seen, and the basics of Integrated Information Theory do hold promise.

What about the theory's "panpsychist" position – the idea that everything is conscious? Can this be taken seriously? We need to be careful how to express this – talk of conscious spoons is unhelpful.

If there were already many competing plausible mathematical descriptions of consciousness, none of which could be tested, then there would be no value in creating another. But so far there are zero, and only a handful of researchers have been working on this.

Einstein's of gravity was utterly compelling, even before it could be tested. Integrated Information Theory is not yet compelling to the informed mathematician. But it is by far the most promising foundation from which to tackle the very roots of consciousness. And progress on this ultimate frontier is worth some more conscious effort.


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May 11, 2018
Understanding the biology behind consciousness (or self-awareness) ...


'Self-awareness' is not consciousness. Just why the authors of this article would think that is somewhat mysterious.

Computers are self aware, many electronic devices monitor themselves, simple feedback and self sensing is a common enough phenomena and completely independent of consciousness.

Self Awareness associated with consciousness is the awareness of being a conscious thinking being which is only confirmed in humans and suspected to exist to at least some degree in other species such as primates. By way of example "I am aware that I am thinking these thoughts".

May 11, 2018
On the rest of the article, formulas, like Einstein's gravitation, take one property of nature or one perspective, such as gravity and geometry, and formulate an algorithm from that.

When approaching such phenomena as Life or Consciousness researchers tend to single out one property of the phenomena and formulate that. OK so far.

But then they try to claim that the property identified IS the phenomena in question and that the property should be used to define the phenomena when in reality the phenomena is a composite of properties. Hence consciousness has been claimed to be the state of being conscious (favoured in medicine), self awareness, the ability for word thought (is a consequence of language), a particular kind of behaviour (ethology, behaviourism), and so on (there are many).

In each case many phenomena that are not conscious must be included when the other properties are ignored leading to some rather silly conclusions about the nature of consciousness.

May 12, 2018
Very right, RobertKarlStonjek.

I don't think this author has any chance to get anywhere. He is a typical limited CS guy who thinks a simple equation or model can describe every phenomenon.

Most likely we are dealing with the superposition of multiple analog and quasi digital, and random, and hormonal, etc. processes happening in a distributed brain.
While this conglomerate can produce a thought: " I think therefore I exist", describing this by an equation is a fools errand.
I am not saying that producing the conscious being is impossible; it is very probable at some point, but making a model of it?

To muddy the water, he also brings the straw man of panpsychic, etc. Typical.

May 12, 2018
The quest for consciousness in matter has it backwards. Better to look for the material world in consciousness. When you understand consciousness as the basis for everything, you no longer need to look for consciousness or explain it in terms of matter. You can then understand that our conception of the universe as matter is just that: a conception. Matter is a mental construct.

The scientific world view specifically excludes consciousness. Looking for consciousness in a system that axiomatically excludes it is fruitless.

May 13, 2018
This opinion piece nowhere answer its title question, defining "consciousness" based on observation and explaining a need for a theory of explaining those observations.

- If it is just brain activity, the theory as stated - "everchanging" - is rejected by deep leaning networks that identify the scenery of different people watching the same video - having the same conscious experience as it were. Brain activity is complex, what else is new; it is an open question if we can have a theory anymore than we have theories of deep learning network activity after training.

- If it is more precisely the observation of conscious experience involving larger regions, anesthesia shows how these are correlates.

May 13, 2018
@Robert: Yes, there are many proposals of consciousness, but that does not mean that all or any trait need to be explained by it. Medicine has an operational definition that corresponds to their need of diagnosing and treating patients. I agree with NS, this is Tonioni having a hammer trying to find a nail, while the system producing brain activity is utterly complex and predicting it possibly value free.

@Bob: Matter is observed; medicine is a science that does not exclude consciousness (and Robert mentions others).

Jun 01, 2018
The simplest form of self awareness and one that is used to establish self awareness in non-humans is the ability of animals to recognise those things which are part of their own body, so they don't chew their own leg off for instance.

And this is the kind of thing that gets into serious papers published in establish journals.

The reason for such funny ideas is that ALL properties of consciousness when considered independently include both conscious and non conscious phenomena. This leads to some researchers asking if fire is conscious and others, considering the same property of consciousness in isolation argue that consciousness does not exist at all because by the definition they are using even fire would be included!!

Only the convergence of properties can identify consciousness unambiguously. The risk is to include too many properties and wind up truncating consciousness, but that is far better than what we currently face on this issue.

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