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This Contest Put Theories of Consciousness to the Test. Here’s What It Really Proved

Science routinely puts forward theories, then batters them with data till just one is left standing. In the fledgling science of consciousness, a dominant theory has yet to emerge. More than 20 are still taken seriously.

It’s not for want of information. Ever since Francis Crick, the codiscoverer of DNA’s double helix, legitimized consciousness as a subject for study greater than three a long time ago, researchers have used a wide range of advanced technologies to probe the brains of test subjects, tracing the signatures of neural activity that would reflect consciousness. The resulting avalanche of information must have flattened no less than the flimsier theories by now.

Five years ago, the Templeton World Charity Foundation initiated a series of “adversarial collaborations” to coax the overdue winnowing to start. This past June saw the outcomes from the primary of those collaborations, which pitted two high-profile theories against one another: global neuronal workspace theory (GNWT) and integrated information theory (IIT). Neither emerged because the outright winner.

The results, announced just like the end result of a sporting event on the twenty sixth meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness (ASSC) in New York City, were also used to settle a 25-year bet between Crick’s longtime collaborator, the neuroscientist Christof Koch of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and the philosopher David Chalmers of New York University, who coined the term “the hard problem” to challenge the presumption that we will explain the subjective feeling of consciousness by analyzing the circuitry of the brain.

Onstage at NYU’s Skirball Center, following interludes of rock music, a rap performance on consciousness, and the presentation of the outcomes, the neuroscientist conceded the bet to the philosopher: The neural correlates of consciousness had not yet been nailed down.

Nevertheless, Koch proclaimed, “It’s a victory for science.”

But was it? The event has received mixed reviews. Some researchers point to the failure to meaningfully test the differences between the 2 theories. Others highlight the success of the project in driving consciousness science forward, each by delivering large, novel, skillfully executed data sets and by inspiring other contestants to have interaction in their very own adversarial collaborations.

The Correlates of Consciousness

When Crick and Koch published their landmark paper “Towards a Neurobiological Theory of Consciousness” in 1990, their aim was to put consciousness—for two,000 years the stomping ground of philosophers—onto a scientific footing. Consciousness in its entirety, they argued, was too broad and controversial an idea to function a start line.

Instead, they focused on one scientifically tractable aspect of it: visual perception, which involves becoming conscious of seeing, as an example, the colour red. The scientific goal was to seek out the circuitry that correlated with that have, or, as they put it, the “neural correlates of consciousness.”

Decoding the primary stages of visual perception had already proved a fertile ground for science. Patterns of sunshine falling on the retina send signals to the visual cortex at the back of the brain. There, upwards of 12 distinct neural modules process the signals corresponding to edges, color, and movement in the pictures. Their output combines to accumulate a final dynamic picture of what we consciously see.

What clinched the usefulness of visual perception for Crick and Koch was that the ultimate link in that chain—consciousness—could possibly be detached from the remainder. Since the Seventies, neuroscientists have known of individuals with “blindsight,” who don’t have any experience of vision because of injury to their brain yet can navigate a room without bumping into obstacles. While they maintain the flexibility to process a picture, they’re missing the flexibility to take heed to it.

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