A Brief Overview of Integrated Information Theories of Consciousness

I have posted before on the proposed relationship between information theory and conscious, phenomenal states. For a brief background, consider the following: Information states have two fundamental attributes, one being intrinsic and the other extrinsic, the latter of which can also be called “relational.” Take, for example, one bit of information, say 11001101. In this bit, a sequence of 1s and 0s stands to mean something when it is called upon. The individual 1s and 0s can be labelled as the intrinsic elements. The extrinsic aspect, then, refers to the internal structure of the bit, which is where the term relational comes in. Each element has a definite position within the bit—there is a 1 in the first position, and a 0 in the third position—which marks where it is relative to all of the other elements. We can apply this to consciousness research, some say, by thinking of the intrinsic elements as the subjective side of an issue, or what it is like to be something. On the other hand, the relational parts represent the third-person perspective that we take when we study physics (that is, when the study the relations between fundamental things. This is why, as I have commented before, physics is utterly hopeless when it comes to understanding phenomenal consciousness).

Now, the view of Integrated Information theorists takes this a step further. (If we weren’t to clarify the relationship between information and consciousness, then it might seem like we were saying that anything and everything that has an information state—e.g., a thermostat—is therefore conscious, in some, perhaps limited, fashion. Some, the panpsychists, do say this, but this is not necessarily the view from Integrated Information.) They claim that the phenomena of consciousness, while in some ways fundamental to information states, also depends on the integration and differentiation of those information states. Our brains, along with those of many mammals and “lower” species, do an excellent job of fulfilling these requirements. Through less-than-clear mechanisms, our brains are able to both synchronize activity at a global level, but also keep information very well stratified throughout the layers and structures contained therein. For a counterexample, think of the brain during an epileptic seizure: information is everywhere, with electrical signals firing at multiple locations simultaneously. It could be said that this represents a form of integration, but this situation also clearly does away with any sort of differentiation. As predicted, seizures are generally accompanied by a loss of consciousness, or a diminished conscious state at most.

It is still hard to see how exactly the tenets of this theory might explain the “why” of consciousness, but it presents, at the least, some interesting ways to think about the “how.”


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