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An Information Integration Theory of Consciousness

69 min read
Abstract Background Consciousness poses two main problems. The first is understanding the conditions that determine to what extent a system has conscious experience. For instance, why is our consciousness generated by certain parts of our brain, such as the thalamocortical system, and not by other parts, such as the cerebellum? And why are we conscious [...]

Summary: Seeing Blue

The previous examples show that the information integration theory is consistent with several empirical observations concerning the neural substrate of consciousness. Moreover, they show that the theory can provide a principled account of why consciousness is associated with certain parts of the brain rather than with others, and with certain global modes of functioning more than with others. To recapitulate the main tenets of the theory, it may be useful to reconsider the initial thought experiment.

Imagine again that you are comfortably facing a blank screen that is alternately on and off. When the screen turns on, you see a homogenous blue field, indeed for the sake of the argument we assume that you are having a “pure” perception of blue, unencumbered by extraneous percepts or thoughts (perhaps as can be achieved in certain meditative states). As you have been instructed, you signal your perception of blue by pushing a button. Now consider an extremely simplified scenario of the neural events that might accompany your seeing blue. When the screen turns on, a volley of activity propagates through the visual afferent pathways, involving successive stages such as retinal short wavelength cones, blue-yellow opponents cells, color constant cells, and so on. Eventually, this volley of activity in the visual afferent pathways leads to the firing of some neuronal groups in color-selective areas of the temporal lobe that, on empirical grounds, are our best bet for the neural correlate of blue: i) their activity correlates well with your perception of blue whether you see, imagine, or dream blue, in a way that is as stable and as susceptible to illusions as your perception of blue; ii) their microstimulation leads to the perception of blue; and iii) their selective lesion makes you unable to perceive blue. Let us assume, then, that these neuronal groups quickly increase their firing, and within a few tens of milliseconds they reach and then maintain increased levels of firing (see Appendix, xiv). We also assume that, at the same time, neuronal groups in neighboring cortical areas go on firing at a baseline level, largely unaffected by the blue light. These include neuronal groups in other visual areas that are selective for shape or movement; neuronal groups in auditory area that are selective for tones; and many others. On the other hand, the volley of activity originating in the retina does not exhaust itself by generating sustained activity in the color areas of the temporal lobe. Part of the volley proceeds at great speed and activates efferent motor pathways, which cause you to push the signaling button. Another part activates cortico-subcortico-cortical loops in your prefrontal cortex and basal ganglia, which almost make you speak the word “blue” aloud. In the meantime, many other parts of the brain are buzzing along, unaffected by what is going on in the visual system: cerebellar circuits are actively stabilizing your posture and gaze, and hypothalamic-brainstem circuits are actively stabilizing your blood pressure. What components in this simplified neural scenario are essential for your conscious experience of blue, and why?

The information integration theory makes several claims that lead to associated predictions. A first claim is that the neural substrate of consciousness as we know it is a complex of high Φ that is capable of integrating a large amount of information – the main complex. Therefore, whether a group of neurons contributes directly to consciousness is a function of its belonging to the main complex or not. In this example, the theory would predict that blue-selective neurons in some high-level color area should be inside the main complex; on the other hand, blue-sensitive neurons in afferent visual pathways, neurons in efferent pathways mediating the button-pressing response, neurons in cortico-subcortico-cortical and intracortical loops mediating subvocalization of the word “blue”, neurons in the cerebellum controlling posture and neurons in hypothalamic-brainstem circuits controlling blood pressure should be outside. This even though these neurons may be equally active when you see blue, and even though some of them may be connected to elements of the main complex. In principle, joint microstimulation and recording experiments, and to some extent an analysis of patterns of synchronization, could determine participation in the main complex and test this prediction. The theory also predicts that blue-selective neurons in the main complex contribute to the conscious experience of blue only if their activation is sufficiently strong or sustained that they can make a difference, in informational terms, to the rest of the complex. Additional predictions are that, if a group of neurons that is normally part of the main complex becomes informationally disconnected from it, as could occur through attentional effects or in certain phases of sleep, the same group of neurons, firing in exactly the same way, would not contribute to consciousness. Moreover, according to the theory, the other groups of neurons within the main complex are essential to our conscious experience of blue even if, as in this example, they are not activated. This is not difficult to see. Imagine that, starting from an intact main complex, we were to remove one element after another, except for the active, blue-selective one. If an inactive element contributing to “seeing red” were removed, blue would not be experienced as blue anymore, but as some less differentiated color, perhaps not unlike those experienced by certain dichromats. If further elements of the main complex were removed, including those contributing to shapes, to sounds, to thoughts and so forth, one would soon drop to such a low level of consciousness that “seeing blue” would become meaningless: the “feeling” (and meaning) of the quale “blue” would have been eroded down to nothing. Indeed, while the remaining neural circuits may still be able to discriminate blue from other colors, they would do so very much as a photodiode does (see Appendix, xv).

A second claim of the theory is that the quality of consciousness is determined by the informational relationships within the main complex. Therefore, how a group of neurons contributes to consciousness is a function of its informational relationships inside the complex and not outside of it. In this example, blue-selective neurons within the main complex have become blue-selective no doubt thanks to the inputs received from the appropriate afferent pathways, and ultimately because of some aspects of the statistics of the environment and the resulting plastic changes throughout the brain. However, the theory predicts that their present firing contributes the quale “blue” exclusively because of their informational relationships within the main complex. If connections outside the main complex were to be manipulated, including the afferent color pathways, the experience elicited by activating the blue-selective neurons within the complex would stay the same. Conversely, if the relationships inside the main complex were to change, as could be done by changing the pattern of connections within the color-selective area and with the rest of the complex, so would the conscious experience of blue. That is, activating the same neurons would produce a different conscious experience.

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