What Are the Most Compelling Theories of Consciousness to Date?
Consciousness is the defining trait of humankind. It is the state of being aware of our surroundings and, more importantly, of ourselves. In short, we can categorize everything we experience and perceive under the umbrella term of consciousness. From the pain you feel when you stub your toe to the wonderful sensation that washes over you when you think about a fond event from the past. The plans you make are conscious, as are your efforts to follow through with them.
As you can see from the lack of a concrete explanation, this notion escapes the confines of a single definition. What’s more, it is very difficult to put into words everything it encompasses. And yet, we do not really need to find such a definition. Every human can intuit what consciousness means to them. It is an inherent aspect of our existence, both mysterious and intimately familiar.
As such, it’s no surprise great thinkers have been trying to get to the bottom of it for millennia. In earlier times, people approached it from the philosophical or religious point of view. More recently, scientific breakthroughs have made it so that theories predominantly revolve around psychology and neuroscience.
However, the one thing that all of these theories have in common is that we are still no closer to a universally accepted model than we were centuries ago. Still, some ideas have gained more traction in the scientific community than others and are worth a closer look.
We will examine two such theories, both relatively recent, which do appear more compelling than most.
Integrated Information Theory
Italian-born neuroscientist Giulio Tononi is the creator of the integrated information theory (IIT) and he first introduced it to the general public in 2004. Since then, he has continued to refine and develop it with his collaborators.
If we were to simplify this theory to the extreme, we could say that it puts forward the idea that consciousness occurs when a system links together vast quantities of information. In the case of humans, that system is the brain, of course, but this theory has further possible implications.
But this idea warrants a much closer look. To begin with, this theory differs from others in its basic approach. Specifically, the standard method is to start from the brain and try to work out how it arrives to consciousness.
But IIT goes the opposite way. The first step is to accept that consciousness exists as a certainty. Then, IIT works its way back and attempts to explain the processes behind it.
In essence, consciousness occurs when our brain integrates all available varieties of information into an irreducible experience. This sounds complicated but is easier to understand with a concrete example.
Let’s say you were to turn on a faucet and put your hand under a cold stream of water. This experience is integrated because you have no option but to perceive each and every aspect of it. You can’t just decide to only feel the wetness without the cold. And this holds true for every other conscious moment of our lives.
The reason for this is our brain and how it works. It takes all our cognitive data (what we know) and sensory inputs (what we feel) and connects them into a web of sorts. It always operates this way and you cannot reduce how much it integrates information.
What’s more, IIT also introduces a numerical value called “phi” (Φ). You can use it to quantify the level of irreducibility a system possesses. When phi is zero, it means you can reduce a system to its individual components. Consequently, such a system has no consciousness.
Low phi indicates a small degree of consciousness and so on. As you would assume, the human brain has an extremely high phi value, indicating it is an extraordinarily conscious system.
This theory also entails that different beings have varying degrees of consciousness. This is interesting because it means that IIT, a very recent concept, has certain connections to one of the oldest consciousness theories out there. We are referring to panpsychism, the idea that all things possess a consciousness or mind (psyche). This view has been around for thousands of years and we can trace it to at least as far back as pre-Socratic Greece.
This is a bare-bones explanation of the integrated information theory. There is more to it (such as its axioms and postulates) but this should provide the basic idea. As expected, it has garnered a lot of support but also criticism. Still, it is one of the more acknowledged ideas at the moment.
Global workspace theory
The other consciousness model which has a lot of supporters nowadays is the global workspace theory (GWT). Bernard Baars, a neuroscientist born in Amsterdam, originally proposed it in 1988 and continued to work on it with his colleagues in the decades that followed.
A common way to explain GWT is to use the theater metaphor. In this "theater”, our selective attention points a spotlight on the stage. The content of this bright spot is the consciousness. The audience is in the dark (our unconsciousness), watching and receiving this information. Those behind the scene are in the dark as well. They influence the visible actions even though we can’t see them.
Another way to explain this is to compare our consciousness to computer memory. Our brain can store anything we perceive into its “memory bank”. These can be childhood recollections or the skills we learn. When needed, we can call up these experiences and send them to other areas of the brain which will process them in the appropriate manner. According to the theory, this very act of distributing data across the brain is what allows us to form our consciousness.
As you very well knew before you read even a single line of this text, consciousness is a supremely ethereal notion. It is difficult to explain or even talk about. However, we can all grasp its concepts on some primordial level.
These two theories are noble attempts to examine the inner workings of the human condition but are far from accepted truths. They have their shortcomings and critics who are happy to point those faults out.
Still, they can provide food for thought. They may not give you a definitive answer but can set you on the right path. And consciousness might just be one of those things we each need to define on our own.