This week I watched a lecture by consciousness and sleep researcher Dr. Giulio Tononi. Tononi has made it his life work to understand the complex phenomenon of consciousness. In class we have explored certain aspects of consciousness or changes in consciousness (NDE etc.), but not much thought has been given to what consciousness is, how it is created and how it works. Dr. Tononi has pondered these questions and developed an all encompassing theory to explain consciousness. First he outlines how current thought has failed to produce results in the field of consciousness. Freud developed the thought that even when we completely understand the localization of the brain’s functions, this will still not explain consciousness or its origin. It may be interesting to see which parts of the brain control which functions, but we have yet to determine how those neurons in our brain produce the highly developed and intertwined experience of consciousness. Tononi also demonstrates that if we were to judge an individual’s consciousness strictly by their brain activity then we would be wrong. He showed a graph of EEG readings for an individual in a wakeful state transitioning into sleep, which did not show a drop off when the individual went into a non-dreaming sleep state. Tononi asserts that consciousness can be best thought of as all of the time spent outside of sleep, especially if one is not dreaming. Therefore, the EEG readings cannot explain how we do not experience consciousness because our brains our still active during this subdued state of consciousness where we experience nothing, not even dreams.

Dr. Tononi’s integrated information  theory of consciousness rests upon two assumptions. The first being that every conscious state contains a huge amount of information to be processed. Tononi gives his standard example of a movie frame as seen through a human and a photodiode. A photodiode can differentiate whether something is light or dark so a photodiode may see a blank screen (during a dark part in the movie) and register as ‘dark’, whereas a human will register this as a break in a movie which he or she is watching at a specific location and time, among other things that someone may be thinking about during a film. The same could be said about a light part in the film. In a specific scene the human mind will differentiate between characters on the screen, their location and what is specifically occurring, unlike the photodiode which will simply say it is ‘light’. The second assumption to Tononi’s theory is that this massive amount of information is highly integrated. The human mind can integrate the information found on the movie screen seamlessly. For example, if there was a man wearing a blue t-shirt the human mind can instantaneously process this as a man wearing a blue t-shirt as opposed to strictly a man or blue or a t-shirt.

The integrated information theory takes these two assumptions and makes the following claim. A physical system with large amounts of information and integration will produce a measurable level of consciousness. He measures consciousness using a complex set of algorithms with an end result denoted by ‘phi’. For example, human consciousness is so low during sleep because there is a decreased amount of information. It also explains why epileptic seizure patients cannot remember their seizures; it is because the brain’s neurons are not well integrated. In theory this could mean that the internet, as an informative and integrated system is conscious. Some would disagree with this example, however, and remind us that the internet is not constantly connected like a human brain is so it could not develop a large level of consciousness.

I think this theory is compelling, yet I cannot help but think that this takes the animalistic perspective out of consciousness, if it is true. It would have major implications for non-living systems of information that I am not sure would be possible. Although, I am not the only skeptic out there, as many researchers have expressed their doubts. Many, including Tononi, have stated that this theory is in its infancy and needs further development.

Leave a Reply