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 [...]
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Background

Consciousness is everything we experience. Think of it as what abandons us every night when we fall into dreamless sleep and returns the next morning when we wake up [1]. Without consciousness, as far as we are concerned, there would be neither an external world nor our own selves: there would be nothing at all. To understand consciousness, two main problems need to be addressed. [2, 3]. The first problem is to understand the conditions that determine to what extent a system has consciousness. For example, why is it that certain parts of the brain are important for conscious experience, whereas others, equally rich in neurons and connections, are not? And why are we conscious during wakefulness or dreaming sleep, but much less so during dreamless sleep, even if the brain remains highly active? The second problem is to understand the conditions that determine what kind of consciousness a system has. For example, what determines the specific and seemingly irreducible quality of the different modalities (e.g. vision, audition, pain), submodalities (e.g. visual color and motion), and dimensions (e.g. blue and red) that characterize our conscious experience? Why do colors look the way they do, and different from the way music sounds, or pain feels? Solving the first problem means that we would know to what extent a physical system can generate consciousness – the quantity or level of consciousness. Solving the second problem means that we would know what kind of consciousness it generates – the quality or content of consciousness.

Presentation of the hypothesis

The first problem: What determines to what extent a system has conscious experience?

We all know that our own consciousness waxes when we awaken and wanes when we fall asleep. We may also know first-hand that we can “lose consciousness” after receiving a blow on the head, or after taking certain drugs, such as general anesthetics. Thus, everyday experience indicates that consciousness has a physical substrate, and that that physical substrate must be working in the proper way for us to be fully conscious. It also prompts us to ask, more generally, what may be the conditions that determine to what extent consciousness is present. For example, are newborn babies conscious, and to what extent? Are animals conscious? If so, are some animals more conscious than others? And can they feel pain? Can a conscious artifact be constructed with non-neural ingredients? Is a person with akinetic mutism – awake with eyes open, but mute, immobile, and nearly unresponsive – conscious or not? And how much consciousness is there during sleepwalking or psychomotor seizures? It would seem that, to address these questions and obtain a genuine understanding of consciousness, empirical studies must be complemented by a theoretical analysis.

Consciousness as information integration

The theory presented here claims that consciousness has to do with the capacity to integrate information. This claim may not seem self-evident, perhaps because, being endowed with consciousness for most of our existence, we take it for granted. To gain some perspective, it is useful to resort to some thought experiments that illustrate key properties of subjective experience: its informativeness, its unity, and its spatio-temporal scale.

Information

Consider the following thought experiment. You are facing a blank screen that is alternately on and off, and you have been instructed to say “light” when the screen turns on and “dark” when it turns off. A photodiode – a very simple light-sensitive device – has also been placed in front of the screen, and is set up to beep when the screen emits light and to stay silent when the screen does not. The first problem of consciousness boils down to this. When you differentiate between the screen being on or off, you have the conscious experience of “seeing” light or dark. The photodiode can also differentiate between the screen being on or off, but presumably it does not consciously “see” light and dark. What is the key difference between you and the photodiode that makes you “see” light consciously? (see Appendix, i)

According to the theory, the key difference between you and the photodiode has to do with how much information is generated when that differentiation is made. Information is classically defined as reduction of uncertainty among a number of alternatives outcomes when one of them occurs [4]. It can be measured by the entropy function, which is the weighted sum of the logarithm of the probability (p) of alternatives outcomes (i): H = – Σpilog2pi. Thus, tossing a fair coin and obtaining heads corresponds to 1 bit of information, because there are just two alternatives; throwing a fair die yields log2(6) ≈ 2.59 bits of information, because there are six equally likely alternatives (H decreases if some of the outcomes are more likely than others, as would be the case with a loaded die).

When the blank screen turns on, the photodiode enters one of its two possible alternative states and beeps. As with the coin, this corresponds to 1 bit of information. However, when you see the blank screen turn on, the state you enter, unlike the photodiode, is one out of an extraordinarily large number of possible states. That is, the photodiode’s repertoire is minimally differentiated, while yours is immensely so. It is not difficult to see this. For example, imagine that, instead of turning homogeneously on, the screen were to display at random every frame from every movie that was or could ever be produced. Without any effort, each of these frames would cause you to enter a different state and “see” a different image. This means that when you enter the particular state (“seeing light”) you rule out not just “dark”, but an extraordinarily large number of alternative possibilities. Whether you think or not of the bewildering number of alternatives (and you typically don’t), this corresponds to an extraordinary amount of information (see Appendix, ii). This point is so simple that its importance has been overlooked.

Integration

While the ability to differentiate among a very large number of states is a major difference between you and the lowly photodiode, by itself it is not enough to account for the presence of conscious experience. To see why, consider an idealized one megapixel digital camera, whose sensor chip is essentially a collection of one million photodiodes. Even if each photodiode in the sensor chip were just binary, the camera as such could differentiate among 21,000,000 states, an immense number, corresponding to 1,000,000 bits of information. Indeed, the camera would easily enter a different state for every frame from every movie that was or could ever be produced. Yet nobody would believe that the camera is conscious. What is the key difference between you and the camera?

According to the theory, the key difference between you and the camera has to do with information integration. From the perspective of an external observer, the camera chip can certainly enter a very large number of different states, as could easily be demonstrated by presenting it with all possible input signals. However, the sensor chip can be considered just as well as a collection of one million photodiodes with a repertoire of two states each, rather than as a single integrated system with a repertoire of 21,000,000 states. This is because, due to the absence of interactions among the photodiodes within the sensory chip, the state of each element is causally independent of that of the other elements, and no information can be integrated among them. Indeed, if the sensor chip were literally cut down into its individual photodiodes, the performance of the camera would not change at all.

By contrast, the repertoire of states available to you cannot be subdivided into the repertoire of states available to independent components. This is because, due to the multitude of causal interactions among the elements of your brain, the state of each element is causally dependent on that of other elements, which is why information can be integrated among them. Indeed, unlike disconnecting the photodiodes in a camera sensor, disconnecting the elements of your brain that underlie consciousness has disastrous effects. The integration of information in conscious experience is evident phenomenologically: when you consciously “see” a certain image, that image is experienced as an integrated whole and cannot be subdivided into component images that are experienced independently. For example, no matter how hard you try, for example, you cannot experience colors independent of shapes, or the left half of the visual field of view independently of the right half. And indeed, the only way to do so is to physically split the brain in two to prevent information integration between the two hemispheres. But then, such split-brain operations yield two separate subjects of conscious experience, each of them having a smaller repertoire of available states and more limited performance [5].

Spatio-temporal characteristics

Finally, it is important to appreciate that conscious experience unfolds at a characteristic spatio-temporal scale. For instance, it flows in time at a characteristic speed and cannot be much faster or much slower. No matter how hard you try, you cannot speed up experience to follow a move accelerated a hundred times, not can you slow it down if the movie has decelerated. Studies of how a percept is progressively specified and stabilized – a process called microgenesis – indicate that it takes up to 100–200 milliseconds to develop a fully formed sensory experience, and that the surfacing of a conscious thought may take even longer [6]. In fact, the emergence of a visual percept is somewhat similar to the developing of a photographic print: first there is just the awareness that something has changed, then that it is something visual rather than, say, auditory, later some elementary features become apparent, such as motion, localization, and rough size, then colors and shapes emerge, followed by the formation of a full object and its recognition – a sequence that clearly goes from less to more differentiated [6]. Other evidence indicates that a single conscious moment does not extend beyond 2–3 seconds [7]. While it is arguable whether conscious experience unfolds more akin to a series of discrete snapshots or to a continuous flow, its time scale is certainly comprised between these lower and upper limits. Thus, a phenomenological analysis indicates that consciousness has to do with the ability to integrate a large amount of information, and that such integration occurs at a characteristic spatio-temporal scale.

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