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An Information Integration Theory of Consciousness

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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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Other brain regions with comparable numbers of neurons, such as the cerebellum, do not contribute to conscious experience

Consider now the cerebellum. This brain region contains more neurons than the cerebral cortex, has huge numbers of synapses, and receives mapped inputs from the environment and controls several outputs. However, in striking contrast to the thalamocortical system, lesions or ablations indicate that the direct contribution of the cerebellum to conscious experience is minimal. Why is this the case?

According to the theory, the reason lies with the organization of cerebellar connections, which is radically different from that of the thalamocortical system and is not well suited to information integration. Specifically, the organization of the connections is such that individual patches of cerebellar cortex tend to be activated independently of one another, with little interaction possible between distant patches [41, 42]. This suggests that cerebellar connections may not be organized so as to generate a large complex of high Φ, but rather to give rise to many small complexes each with a low value of Φ. Such an organization seems to be highly suited for both the learning and the rapid, effortless execution of informationally insulated subroutines.

This concept is illustrated in Fig. 4a, which shows a strongly modular network, consisting of three modules of eight strongly interconnected elements each. This network yields Φ = 20 bits for each of its three modules, which form the system’s three complexes. This example indicates that, irrespective of how many elements and connections are present in a neural structure, if that structure is organized in a strongly modular manner with little interactions among modules, complex size and Φ values are necessarily low. According to the information integration theory, this is the reason why these systems, although computationally very sophisticated, contribute little to consciousness. It is also the reason why there is no conscious experience associated with hypothalamic and brainstem circuits that regulate important physiological variables, such as blood pressure.

Figure 4

figure4

Information integration and complexes for other neural-like architectures. a. Schematic of a cerebellum-like organization. Shown are three modules of eight elements each, with many feed forward and lateral connections within each module but minimal connections among them. The analysis of complexes reveals three separate complexes with low values of Φ (Φ = 20 bits). There is also a large complex encompassing all the elements, but its Φ value is extremely low (Φ = 5 bits). b. Schematic of the organization of a reticular activating system. Shown is a single subcortical “reticular” element providing common input to the eight elements of a thalamocortical-like main complex (both specialized and integrated, Φ = 61 bits). Despite the diffuse projections from the reticular element on the main complex, the complex comprising all 9 elements has a much lower value of Φ (Φ = 10 bits). c. Schematic of the organization of afferent pathways. Shown are three short chains that stand for afferent pathways. Each chain connects to a port-in of a main complex having a high value of Φ (61 bits) that is thalamocortical-like (both specialized and integrated). Note that the afferent pathways and the elements of the main complex together constitute a large complex, but its Φ value is low (Φ = 10 bits). Thus, elements in afferent pathways can affect the main complex without belonging to it. d. Schematic of the organization of efferent pathways. Shown are three short chains that stand for efferent pathways. Each chain receives a connection from a port-out of the thalamocortical-like main complex. Also in this case, the efferent pathways and the elements of the main complex together constitute a large complex, but its Φ value is low (Φ = 10 bits). e. Schematic of the organization of cortico-subcortico-cortical loops. Shown are three short chains that stand for cortico-subcortico-cortical loops, which are connected to the main complex at both ports-in and ports-out. Again, the subcortical loops and the elements of the main complex together constitute a large complex, but its Φ value is low (Φ = 10 bits). Thus, elements in loops connected to the main complex can affect it without belonging to it. Note, however, that the addition of these three loops slightly increased the Φ value of the main complex (from Φ = 61 to Φ = 63 bits) by providing additional pathways for interactions among its elements.

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