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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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Consciousness can be split if the thalamocortical system is split

Studies of split-brain patients, whose corpus callosum was sectioned for therapeutic reasons, show that each hemisphere has its own, private conscious experience. The dominant, linguistically competent hemisphere does not seem to suffer a major impairment of consciousness after the operation. The non-dominant hemisphere, although it loses some important abilities and its residual capacities are harder to assess, also appears to be conscious. [5]. Some information, e.g. emotional arousal, seems to be shared across the hemispheres, probably thanks to subcortical common inputs.

Viewing consciousness as information integration suggests straightforward explanations for these puzzling observations. Consider the simplified model in Fig. 5a. A main complex having high Φ includes two sets of elements (“hemispheres”) having similar internal architecture that are joined by “callosal” connections (top panel). When the callosal connections are cut (bottom panel), the single main complex splits and is replaced by two smaller complexes corresponding to the two hemispheres. There is also a complex, of much lower Φ, which includes both hemispheres and a “subcortical” element that provide them with common input. Thus, there is a sense in which the two hemispheres still form an integrated entity, but the information they share is minimal (see Appendix, xii).

Figure 5

figure5

Information integration and complexes after anatomical and functional disconnections. a. Schematic of a split-brain-like anatomical disconnection. Top. Shown is a large main complex obtained by connecting two thalamocortical-like subsets through “callosum-like” reciprocal connections. There is also a single element that projects to all other elements, representing “subcortical” common input. Note that the Φ value for the main complex (16 elements) is high (Φ = 72 bits). There is also a larger complex including the “subcortical” element, but its Φ value is low (Φ = 10). Bottom. If the “callosum-like” connections are cut, one obtains two 8-element complexes, corresponding to the two “hemispheres”, whose Φ value is reduced but still high (Φ = 61 bits). The two “hemispheres” still share some information due to common input from the “subcortical” element with which they form a large complex of low Φ. b. Schematic of a functional disconnection. Top. Shown is a large main complex obtained by linking with reciprocal connections a “supramodal” module of four elements (cornerstone) with a “visual” module (to its right) and an “auditory” module (below). Note that there are no direct connections between the “visual” and “auditory” modules. The 12 elements together form a main complex with Φ = 61 bits. Bottom. If the “auditory” module is functionally disconnected from the “supramodal” one by inactivating its four elements (indicated in blue), the main complex shrinks to include just the “supramodal” and “visual” modules. In this case, the Φ value is only minimally reduced (Φ = 57 bits).

Some parts of the thalamocortical system may contribute to conscious experience at one time and not at another

Until now, we have considered structural aspects of the organization of the nervous system that, according to the information integration theory, explain why certain parts of the brain contribute directly to consciousness and others do not, or much less so. In addition to neuroanatomical factors, neurophysiological factors are also important in determining to what extent a given neural structure can integrate information. For example, anatomical connections between brain regions may or may not be functional, depending on both pathological or physiological factors. Functional disconnections between certain parts of the brain and others are thought to play a role in psychiatric conversion and dissociative disorders, may occur during dreaming, and may be implicated in conditions such as hypnosis. Thus, functional disconnections, just like anatomical disconnections, may lead to a restriction of the neural substrate of consciousness.

It is also likely that certain attentional phenomena may correspond to changes in the neural substrate of consciousness. For example, when one is absorbed in thought, or focused exclusively on a given sensory modality, such as vision, the neural substrate of consciousness may not be the same as when we are diffusely monitoring the environment. Phenomena such as the attentional blink, where a fixed sensory input may at times make it to consciousness and at times not, may also be due to changes in functional connectivity: access to the main thalamocortical complex may be enabled or not based on dynamics intrinsic to the complex [52]. Phenomena such as binocular rivalry may also be related, at least in part, to dynamic changes in the composition of the main thalamocortical complex caused by transient changes in functional connectivity [53]. At present, however, it is still not easy to determine whether a particular group of neurons is excluded from the main complex because of hard-wired anatomical constraints, or is transiently disconnected due to functional changes.

Figure 5b (top panel) shows a simple model obtained by taking three subsets of elements of (relatively) high Φ and connecting them through reciprocal connections. Specifically, the first subset, which stands for supramodal areas of the brain, is reciprocally connected to the second and third subsets, which stand for visual and auditory areas, respectively. In this idealized example, the visual and auditory subsets are not connected directly among themselves. As one can see, the three subsets thus connected form a single main complex having a Φ value of 61 bits. In the bottom panel, the auditory subset has been disconnected, in a functional sense, by mimicking a profound deactivation of its elements. The result is that the main complex shrinks and the auditory subset ends up outside the main complex. Note, however, that in this particular case the value of Φ changes very little (57 bits), indicating that it might be possible for the borders of the main complex to change dynamically while the amount of consciousness is not substantially altered. What would change, of course, would be the configuration of the space of informational relationships. These simulations suggest that attentional mechanisms may work both by changing neuronal firing rates, and therefore saliency within qualia space, as well as by modifying neuronal readiness to fire, and therefore the boundaries of the main complex and of qualia space itself. This is why the set of elements underlying consciousness is not static, but can be considered to form a “dynamic complex” or “dynamic core” [1, 9].

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