The New York Times had a fun article on neuroscientist Giulio Tononi last week. Tononi is one of the most creative researchers in cognitive science right now. Many of my views on consciousness, which I partly summarized here, have been strongly influenced by his ideas.
Here is an excerpt from the article:
New York Times: Consciousness, Dr. Tononi says, is nothing more than integrated information. Information theorists measure the amount of information in a computer file or a cellphone call in bits, and Dr. Tononi argues that we could, in theory, measure consciousness in bits as well. When we are wide awake, our consciousness contains more bits than when we are asleep.
For the past decade, Dr. Tononi and his colleagues have been expanding traditional information theory in order to analyze integrated information. It is possible, they have shown, to calculate how much integrated information there is in a network. Dr. Tononi has dubbed this quantity phi, and he has studied it in simple networks made up of just a few interconnected parts. How the parts of a network are wired together has a big effect on phi. If a network is made up of isolated parts, phi is low, because the parts cannot share information.
But simply linking all the parts in every possible way does not raise phi much. “It’s either all on, or all off,” Dr. Tononi said. In effect, the network becomes one giant photodiode.
Networks gain the highest phi possible if their parts are organized into separate clusters, which are then joined. “What you need are specialists who talk to each other, so they can behave as a whole,” Dr. Tononi said. He does not think it is a coincidence that the brain’s organization obeys this phi-raising principle.
Dr. Tononi argues that his Integrated Information Theory sidesteps a lot of the problems that previous models of consciousness have faced. It neatly explains, for example, why epileptic seizures cause unconsciousness. A seizure forces many neurons to turn on and off together. Their synchrony reduces the number of possible states the brain can be in, lowering its phi.