The Study of Fundamental Consciousness Entering the Mainstream



Molecular ThoughtsThe world-renowned neuroscientist Christof Koch, spent nearly two decades working alongside the co-discoverer of the DNA molecule, Francis Crick. Their mission was to find the neurobiological basis of consciousness. They discovered many insights into cognition and the functioning of perception, yet the central enigma, the nature of consciousness itself, remained mysteriously elusive.

In 2009, Koch shocked the scientific community by publishing his conviction that consciousness probably isn’t just in brains, but is a fundamental feature of reality. This is a view known to philosophers as ‘panpsychism.’ The theory Koch is now dedicating his research to is called ‘Integrated Information Theory’ or ‘IIT.’ It is the brainchild of neuroscientist Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In explaining his theory, Tononi asks us to consider a simple light sensitive photo diode like those found in a digital camera. A simple diode might respond to just two states: light or dark. We could present our diode with any number of images, yet regardless of the picture, the diode conforms to one of only two possible states. Is it light, or is it dark?

Now consider yourself looking at the same picture, lets say, of the Eiffel Tower on a beautiful spring day in Paris. For us, looking at this image results in a reduction from a near infinity of possible states. Not an image of the Andromeda galaxy, not a childhood picture of your mother, not cells dividing in a Petri dish and so on.  Because of the vast number of images we are capable of recognizing, each one is highly informative. For Tononi, the vast amount of information capable of being integrated in the brain means that we have a comparatively huge capacity for consciousness.

Tononi’s theory, that consciousness is born out of networks with high integrated information, has novel ways of being tested in the laboratory.

In studies with sleeping participants, Tononi and his colleagues used transcranial magnetic stimulation to send a ripple of activity through the cortex of sleeping participants. The researchers found that when dreaming, this ripple reverberated through the cortex longer than when participants were in stages of dreamless sleep. This demonstrated that during dreaming, when the brain is conscious, the cortex has a higher degree of integration.

In another experiment, the researchers built tiny robots known as ‘animats’ that were placed into mazes. The animats used simple integrated networks capable of evolving over sequential generations. To their surprise, the greater the degree of integration that the animats evolved, the quicker they were able to escape the mazes. For Tononi this finding suggested that consciousness may play a more central role in evolution than had previously been thought.

The mathematical value of integrated information in a network is known as phi. But Tononi’s theory, now the topic of serious mainstream discussion, has an extraordinary implication. Phi didn’t just occur in brains, -it is a property of any network with a total informational content greater than its individual parts. Every living cell, every electronic circuit, even a proton consisting of just three elementary particles have a value of phi greater than zero. According to Integrated Information Theory, all of these things possess something, albeit but a glimmer of ‘what it is like’ to be them. Tononi states:

“Consciousness is a fundamental property, like mass or charge. Wherever there is an entity with multiple states, there is some consciousness. You need a special structure to get a lot of it but consciousness is everywhere, it is a fundamental property.”

Integrated information theory is in its infancy and there are still many questions it must face. Did the information of brains operate at the level of the neuron, or the protein, or something deeper still? The electromagnetic field of the brain, as observed by psi researcher Dean Radin, is always re-establishing its quantum connection to the entire universe. Could a much richer informational interaction exist than has yet been imagined?

Physicists such as John Wheeler have laid the groundwork for a radical new understanding of reality, in which matter, the laws and constants of nature, and indeed the entire universe is best described, not in terms of physical objects, but through the play and display of a fundamental dynamic information.

Quantum mechanics suggests that at the deepest level of nature, the entire physical universe is interconnected. Might the total information of the universe be integrated in some deep sense? Is it in a mysterious way conscious of itself?

As spiritual traditions throughout the ages have long asserted, instead of isolated and separate experiencing beings, we may experience on behalf of the greater evolving system in which we find ourselves.

In Koch’s highly anticipated 2012 book, ‘Consciousness – Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist’, he states:

“I do believe that the laws of physics overwhelmingly favored the emergence of consciousness. The universe is a work in progress. Such a belief evokes jeremiads from many biologists and philosophers but the evidence from cosmology, biology and history is compelling.”

Regardless of the validity of Tononi’s theory, today increasing numbers of scientists and academics are convinced that the existence of consciousness simply cannot be sensibly denied. The study of fundamental consciousness is now entering the mainstream. This movement consists of thinkers in and outside of the mind sciences. Yet despite their different academic backgrounds, they are united by two common convictions: that consciousness is an intrinsic rather than incidental emergence in the universe, and that any complete account of reality must include an explanation of it.

 Sources:

 Koch, C. (2009, August 18). A complex theory of consciousness: Is complexity the secret to sentience, to a panpsychic view of consciousness? Scientific American.

 Tononi, G. (2008). Consciousness as integrated information: A provisional manifesto. Biological Bulletin, 215(3), 216-242.

 Edlund, J. A., Chaumont, N., Hintze, A., Koch C., Tononi G., & Adami, C. (2011). Integrated information increases with fitness in the evolution of animats. PLoS Computational Biology, 7(10).

 Radin, D. I. (2006). Entangled Minds: Extrasensory experiences in quantum reality. New York: Simon & Schuster.

 Koch, C. (2012). Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist. MIT Press Books.

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12 comments on “The Study of Fundamental Consciousness Entering the Mainstream

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  3. Brett Owers

    The only way to outright deny consciousness is to claim “Nothing is conscious”. This can be interpreted two ways, however. Generally people will understand this to mean that nobody is conscious. This however, is not how I interpret it. I interpret it to mean that the fundamental fabric of everything, which is in essence, nothing, is conscious. Are you human, or is your body human? Is your body conscious, or are you conscious? I believe that consciousness exists on levels. The original conscious, from which all has developed from, is “nothing”. Another altered interpretation: “Nothing evolves”. This may seem like a rejection of scientific phenomenon that we can observe. I interpret this to mean that the embodiment of nothing, evolves into something. If nothing were to evolve, what would nothing evolve into? Something. And considering how much nothing there should have been at “the beginning”, this evolution would describe how nothing evolved into the fundamental particles of existence. The big bang. Follow me on twitter @owersbrett

  4. I have long believed this. Really it is the only sensible position. After all, how can you get meaning or the inner experience from a universe that has no inner experience or meaning? It’s the old problem of how humans have a soul/mind, yet evolved from soulless animals… science couldn’t figure this one out, so they threw out the idea of a soul altogether. But that’s silly, as the meaning of a soul is to say the inner experience, the mental, psychic world, and ultimately sentience altogether… which no person can deny. We are all conscious, words aren’t just sounds, but have meaning, etc.

    So, ultimately, the only way is to grant consciousness to all existence, as something that has, through evolution, been growing more complex, deeper, until humans, with their unbelievably complex brain networks, developed self-consciousness: the universe considering itself. It is a beautiful marriage of spirit and matter, welding the two together in Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s notion of a Within and a Without, two aspects, properties, or points of view: two sides of the same thing.

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  6. darwinsdog

    Consciousness is what the electrochemical functioning of a nervous system subjectively feels like to itself. That consciousness can be modified by disrupting the functioning of the nervous system by means of trauma, drugs, exhaustion, etc., demonstrates that consciousness isn’t something that exists independent of the nervous system that generates it. When the nervous system ceases to function consciousness ceases to exist.

  7. Amit Goswami wrote The Self Aware Universe way back in 1993 this is not knew just it takes decades for mainstream scientists to catch up. The Ancients knew this thousand of years ago Consciousness and not Matter is the primary stuff of the universe:

    If the body came into being because of consciousness that is a wonder, but if
    consciousness came in to being because of the body this is a wonder of wonders.
    The Gnostic Christ The Gospel of Thomas

    • Olaf

      Not only ancients knew it, but quantum physicists (which are Nobel prize laureates btw) came to the same conclusion. Here are two quotes by one of them. Max Planck:

      I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.

      - Max Planck (Founder of Quantum Physics, Nobel Prize Laureate), As quoted in The Observer (25 January 1931)

      and

      As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.

      - Max Planck, The Nature of Matter, speech at Florence, Italy (1944)

  8. I recently wrote on how Social networking is evolving into interactions that are more like those found between particles in fields of force.Your article Adrian is very timely in supporting what may be happening as described below…

    Dark Relationships, ‘Net’working and ‘Field’working

    There are different styles of interaction between people as well as structures of people organisation. Certainly networking is one way of interacting and usually happens through a spiders web type structure of relationships with each person as a node in that web. With networks, although relationships connect people like the fibres of a web, there is empty space between the relationships, where there is potential for exchange yet none has manifested.

    Scientists estimate that the observable universe is only 4% of the whole universe, 96% of which is ‘dark matter’ or ‘dark energy’. People Networks are very similar. They are mostly empty interactions with very little consisting of real transformative or supportive relationships. Even then the relationships that exist may be tenuous or may link together people who are unable to collaborate or make a difference to one another despite their bonds. The truth is as far as physics or psychology is concerned we are all connected and even the empty spaces around social relationships are teaming with hidden or ‘dark’ transformational or supportive energies. There are no nodes or people in those spaces, simply peoples hidden thoughts, perspectives, feelings as well as their visions, dreams, illusions, delusions and nightmares. Each of these must be engaged with through compassion so the emptiness lights up and people are illuminated as to what difference they can make as well as what difference they should not make.

    In physics, ‘empty space’ is not really empty but full of hidden energy locked up in a force field. It is that field between bits of visible matter that makes up most of the universe. Within it is locked up all the dark matter and energy. It is also from that field that the visible matter and energy materialises from. In the universe it may appear that there are nodes of matter joined by fields of force but the reality is that there are mostly fields of force that in rare instances are dense enough to become matter. There is no network but a field of energy.

    Humans are currently busy ‘net’working as if there is a net of energy to work. The reality is that there is no net but a field of influence which happens to sometimes be concentrated enough to be visible or able to be experienced from one person. There is no net to work but a ‘field’ of energy to work.

    Fieldworking then is more powerful than Networking. For a start, unlike Networking, there is no ‘six degrees of separation’ between any two people because the field overlaps the space between contacts and even extends beyond them, even beyond ‘six degrees of separation’ that ultimately connects any two people together in a network. That means any one person can affect any other without going through a chain of command in between.

    The more people experience separation the more they are working their net rather than their field. Organisations can choose the level of experience of this separation. They have the ability to define accessibility of any one person by another as well as the level of influence of the collective on the individual as well as the field effect of any one person on the collective. However, even with no organisation or constructed relationships, individuals, through the field, can still affect people beyond their relationships and tribes of people can affect individuals that are not members.

    I recently had a paper/demo peer reviewed and published by the British Computer Society. It explores the migration from a ‘Networking’ way of people socialising and developing to a ‘Fieldworking’ future. A two page summary…

    Advancing Traditional Relevance Based Social Networking to Resonance Driven Social Fieldworking using Mindfulness Visualisation
    http://ewic.bcs.org/content/ConWebDoc/51030

    Is Networking then becoming an outmoded, Newtonian way of connecting and transforming between people? Is a ‘field’ or ‘quantum’ approach to people engaging with one another more complete and realistic? The pins on a map that mark important places are not reality. The canvas of the map though is more complete an image of reality but even then is still an approximation, a model. The world the canvas of the map represents has much more richness and is not fixed in some static medium but instead flows through a field of ever shifting transformative energy of many dimensions..

    A PDF of this post can be found at
    http://www.energydiamond.com/docs/fieldworking.pdf

    • waltinseattle

      jazz…it ever was so as regards fieldworking et al. we now have the broad spread vocabulary to think of it and than to see it for the first time. and forget about 6 degrees of separation. i claim it is no more than 2 for active, engaged netizens.

      and those degrees are in effect all the time, not just when we play the classic “pass along this message” game which is the basis of the idea.

      i mean that our thoughtd pass mind to mind not as word strings but as memes. attitudes. visions. the details are not important. the major vector tendor etc forces are elsewehere…meme. attitude…vision.

      this is like the anarchistic coherency of birds and fish. we know water seeks its level. we can not chart the particles and their order in the sinking. a perfect map is a replica of the terrain and thus useless. the only computationsl devise that can predict the universe is…..the universe!

      lets return to the topic of “consciousness”. i detest how this and almost every discussion goes blabbing with no agreement of meaning. is water conscious of sinking? neuroscience is coming to the understsnding that we are barrly conscious. thst we are barely aware of our motivations. that the self is the last part of brsin to know what the body is about to do and why.

      this term “consciousness” what does it mean. what does it point to. what action demonstrates it? how does it relate to or differ from “selfawareness” . and what about this “self” if we never step in the same river twice…

      concluding…i cant put faith in questionable constructs to prop up outdated religious leftovers. field i understand. meme i ubderstand. consciousness awareness self….please define. it is NOT good enough to say we all know.

      • Yes. The heart of what you say implies we need clarity in order for us to be able to capitalise on our field and its innate sensitivities. We don’t need to be associate it with spiritual, mystical or religious purpose but simply be precise and practical. Understanding is not a necessity as much of what becomes clear can only do so when many memes come together to form new perspectives -sometimes not over time as a geometry over space, sometimes over neither but over a field of awareness from which seeds of mind grow into crops of enlightenment. A union of perspective and precision will enable us to build a road along which others can follow.

        • Anonymous

          fear, rejection, doubts, are the only cause of limited experience. Hence it is obvious to tell, we know very little. One have to open the dictionary of history and should be open mind. Cause world is too big and too vast, one has to open a big door of mind and heart. People must understand as life is not to get any graduation or awards or settlements, these things happen even if we bother less, but about different dimensions and our cause of birth to death, real mystics and adventures starts from here and i don’t think our age really matter to any practical experiment.

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