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      An information integration theory of consciousness

      research-article
      1 ,
      BMC Neuroscience
      BioMed Central

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          Abstract

          Background

          Consciousness poses two main problems. The first is understanding the conditions that determine to what extent a system has conscious experience. For instance, why is our consciousness generated by certain parts of our brain, such as the thalamocortical system, and not by other parts, such as the cerebellum? And why are we conscious during wakefulness and much less so during dreamless sleep? The second problem is understanding the conditions that determine what kind of consciousness a system has. For example, why do specific parts of the brain contribute specific qualities to our conscious experience, such as vision and audition?

          Presentation of the hypothesis

          This paper presents a theory about what consciousness is and how it can be measured. According to the theory, consciousness corresponds to the capacity of a system to integrate information. This claim is motivated by two key phenomenological properties of consciousness: differentiation – the availability of a very large number of conscious experiences; and integration – the unity of each such experience. The theory states that the quantity of consciousness available to a system can be measured as the Φ value of a complex of elements. Φ is the amount of causally effective information that can be integrated across the informational weakest link of a subset of elements. A complex is a subset of elements with Φ>0 that is not part of a subset of higher Φ. The theory also claims that the quality of consciousness is determined by the informational relationships among the elements of a complex, which are specified by the values of effective information among them. Finally, each particular conscious experience is specified by the value, at any given time, of the variables mediating informational interactions among the elements of a complex.

          Testing the hypothesis

          The information integration theory accounts, in a principled manner, for several neurobiological observations concerning consciousness. As shown here, these include the association of consciousness with certain neural systems rather than with others; the fact that neural processes underlying consciousness can influence or be influenced by neural processes that remain unconscious; the reduction of consciousness during dreamless sleep and generalized seizures; and the time requirements on neural interactions that support consciousness.

          Implications of the hypothesis

          The theory entails that consciousness is a fundamental quantity, that it is graded, that it is present in infants and animals, and that it should be possible to build conscious artifacts.

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          Most cited references59

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          Dynamic predictions: oscillations and synchrony in top-down processing.

          Classical theories of sensory processing view the brain as a passive, stimulus-driven device. By contrast, more recent approaches emphasize the constructive nature of perception, viewing it as an active and highly selective process. Indeed, there is ample evidence that the processing of stimuli is controlled by top-down influences that strongly shape the intrinsic dynamics of thalamocortical networks and constantly create predictions about forthcoming sensory events. We discuss recent experiments indicating that such predictions might be embodied in the temporal structure of both stimulus-evoked and ongoing activity, and that synchronous oscillations are particularly important in this process. Coherence among subthreshold membrane potential fluctuations could be exploited to express selective functional relationships during states of expectancy or attention, and these dynamic patterns could allow the grouping and selection of distributed neuronal responses for further processing.
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            The distinct modes of vision offered by feedforward and recurrent processing.

            An analysis of response latencies shows that when an image is presented to the visual system, neuronal activity is rapidly routed to a large number of visual areas. However, the activity of cortical neurons is not determined by this feedforward sweep alone. Horizontal connections within areas, and higher areas providing feedback, result in dynamic changes in tuning. The differences between feedforward and recurrent processing could prove pivotal in understanding the distinctions between attentive and pre-attentive vision as well as between conscious and unconscious vision. The feedforward sweep rapidly groups feature constellations that are hardwired in the visual brain, yet is probably incapable of yielding visual awareness; in many cases, recurrent processing is necessary before the features of an object are attentively grouped and the stimulus can enter consciousness.
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              Cortical plasticity: from synapses to maps.

              It has been clear for almost two decades that cortical representations in adult animals are not fixed entities, but rather, are dynamic and are continuously modified by experience. The cortex can preferentially allocate area to represent the particular peripheral input sources that are proportionally most used. Alterations in cortical representations appear to underlie learning tasks dependent on the use of the behaviorally important peripheral inputs that they represent. The rules governing this cortical representational plasticity following manipulations of inputs, including learning, are increasingly well understood. In parallel with developments in the field of cortical map plasticity, studies of synaptic plasticity have characterized specific elementary forms of plasticity, including associative long-term potentiation and long-term depression of excitatory postsynaptic potentials. Investigators have made many important strides toward understanding the molecular underpinnings of these fundamental plasticity processes and toward defining the learning rules that govern their induction. The fields of cortical synaptic plasticity and cortical map plasticity have been implicitly linked by the hypothesis that synaptic plasticity underlies cortical map reorganization. Recent experimental and theoretical work has provided increasingly stronger support for this hypothesis. The goal of the current paper is to review the fields of both synaptic and cortical map plasticity with an emphasis on the work that attempts to unite both fields. A second objective is to highlight the gaps in our understanding of synaptic and cellular mechanisms underlying cortical representational plasticity.
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                Author and article information

                Journal
                BMC Neurosci
                BMC Neuroscience
                BioMed Central (London )
                1471-2202
                2004
                2 November 2004
                : 5
                : 42
                Affiliations
                [1 ]Department of Psychiatry, University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA
                Article
                1471-2202-5-42
                10.1186/1471-2202-5-42
                543470
                15522121
                f706718f-ff24-42d1-9848-04fa5f9a217c
                Copyright © 2004 Tononi; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.

                This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License ( http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

                History
                : 10 August 2004
                : 2 November 2004
                Categories
                Research Article

                Neurosciences
                Neurosciences

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