An open mind, an open question…

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 [...]


i. The problem can also be posed in neural terms. When we see light, certain neurons in the retina turn on, as do other neurons higher up in the brain. Based on what we know, the activity of neurons in the retina is not directly associated with conscious experience of light and dark – they behave just like biological photodiodes that signal to higher centers. Somewhere in those higher centers, however, there seem to be some neurons whose activity is indeed tightly correlated with the conscious experience of light and dark. What is special about these higher neurons?

ii. Note that this information has nothing to do with how complicated the scene is, or how many different objects it appears to contain, but only with the number of alternative outcomes.

iii. This quantity is also called MIBcomplexity, for minimum information bipartition complexity. Note that, in most cases, the bipartitions for which the normalized value of EI will be at a minimum, everything else being equal, will be bipartitions that cut the system in two halves, i.e. midpartitions [2].

iv. Complexes can also be defined using mutual information instead of effective information, by exploiting the endogenous sources of variance that may exist in an isolated system [8]. A related measure could be constructed using the formalism of ε-machines [63]. Φ would then be related to the Hμ of the minimal ε-machine capable of reproducing the causal structure of a process, i.e. of the ε-machine that cannot be decomposed into a collection of lower Hμ ε-machines.

v. An elementary description of the qualia space is given by the author in [9], chapter 13.

vi. While the entries in the matrix contain all the relevant informational relationships defining this space, they do not reveal necessarily how the space is organized in an economical and explicit manner. This may be done by employing procedures akin to multidimensional scaling although, since the matrix is asymmetrical and involves high-order terms (among subsets of elements), this may not be easy. Satisfactorily mapping the phenomenological differences between modalities, submodalities and dimensions onto the structure of qualia space will require that we thoroughly characterize and understand the latter.

vii. Of course, sensory afferents usually play a role in determining which particular conscious experience we have at any given time (they better do so, if experience is to have an adaptive relationship to the environment). Nevertheless, particular experiences can be triggered even when we are disconnected from the environment, as in dreams.

viii. Note also that a “pure” sensation of blue defines a point in this N-dimensional qualia space as much as the experience of a busy city street, full of different objects, of sounds, smells, associations, and reflections defines another point.

ix. However, certain areas such as the posterior cingulate cortex and precuneus, some lateral parietal areas, and associated paramedian thalamic nuclei, may constitute strategic crossroads for coordinating the interactions among different sensory maps and frames of reference concerning the body and the environment. Bilateral lesions to such areas may lead to a virtual breakdown of information integration in the thalamocortical system [22, 24]. A global, persistent disruption of consciousness can also be produced by focal lesions of paramedian mesodiencephalic structures, which include the intralaminar thalamic nuclei. Most likely, such focal lesions are catastrophic because the strategic location and connectivity of paramedian structures ensure that distributed cortico-thalamic loops can work together as a system.

x. Statements about the lack of direct contributions to consciousness of basal ganglia loops need to be qualified due to the difficulty of evaluating the precise effects of their selective inactivation, as well as to the unreliability of introspective assessments about the richness of one’s experience, especially after brain lesions. Similar considerations apply to brain structures not discussed here, such as the claustrum, the amygdala, and the basal forebrain.

xi. A similar kind of analysis could be applied to other neurological disconnection syndromes.

xii. An explanation in terms of reduced degrees of freedom may also apply to loss of consciousness in absence and other seizures, during which neural activity is extremely high and near-synchronous over many cortical regions (Tononi, unpublished results).

xiii. While we do not yet have such a tight case for the neural correlate of blue, we are close to it with motion sensitive cells in area MT and in somatosensory cortex, at least in monkeys [64].

xv. In this sense, a particular conscious experience, its meaning, and the underlying informational relationships within a complex end up being one and the same thing. Such internalistic, relationally defined meanings generally relate to and ultimately derive from entities in the world. To the extent that the brain has a long evolutionary history and is shaped by experience, it is clear that internally specified meanings (and conscious states) bear an adaptive relationship to what is out there.

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