by Adrian D. Nelson
August 8, 2013
The world-renowned neuroscientist
Christof Koch, spent decades working alongside the co-discoverer
of the DNA molecule, Francis Crick.
For decades these two men searched for
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
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 that 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 an image, 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
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
Tononi's theory, that consciousness is born out of networks with
high degrees of integrated information, has novel ways of being
tested in the laboratory.
In studies with sleeping participants, Tononi and his colleagues
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 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 they 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
But Tononi's theory, now the topic of serious
mainstream discussion, has an extraordinary implication. Phi didn't
just occur in brains, it was 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
According to Integrated Information
Theory, all of these things possess something, albeit but a
glimmer of 'what it is like' to be them.
"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
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 the entire physical universe is
potentially interconnected at a deep level of nature. So is the
total informational content of the universe 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
In Koch's highly anticipated 2012 book, 'Consciousness
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
This movement consists of thinkers in
and outside of the mind sciences.
Yet despite their different backgrounds,
these academics are united by two common convictions:
Koch, C. (2009, August 18). A
complex theory of consciousness: Is complexity the secret to
sentience, to a panpsychic view of consciousness? Scientific
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.