Posts tagged ‘Koch’

Picture: ephaptic consciousness. The way the brain works is more complex than we thought. That’s a conclusion that several pieces of research over recent years have suggested for one reason or another: but some particularly interesting conclusions are reported in a paper in Nature Neuroscience (Anastassiou, Perin, Markram, and Koch). It has generally been the assumption that neurons are effectively isolated, interacting only at synapses: it was known that they could be influenced by each other’s electric fields, but it was generally thought that given the typically tiny fields involved, these effects could be disregarded. The only known exceptions of any significance were in certain cases where unusually large fields could induce ‘ephaptic coupling ‘ interfering with the normal working of neurons and cause problems.

Given the microscopic sizes involved and the weakness of the fields, measuring the actual influence of ephaptic effects is difficult, but for the series of experiments reported here a method was devised using up to twelve electrodes for a single neuron. It was found that extracellular fluctuation did produce effects within the neuron, at the minuscule level expected: however, although the effects were too small to produce any immediate additional action potentials, induced fluctuations in one neuron did influence neighbouring cells, producing a synchronisation of spike timing. In short, it turns out that neurons can influence each other and synchronise themselves through a mechanism completely independent of synapses.

So what? Well, first this may suggest that we have been missing an important part of the way the brain functions. That has obvious implications for brain simulations, and curiously enough, one of the names on the paper (he helped with the writing) is that of Henry Markram, leader of the most ambitious brain simulation project of all,Blue Brain.  Things seem to have gone quiet on that project since completion of ‘phase one’; I suppose it is awaiting either more funding or the advances in technology which Markram foresaw as the route to a total brain simulation. In the meantime it seems the new research shows that like all simulations to date Blue Brain was built on an incomplete picture, and as it stood was doomed to ultimate failure.

I suppose, in the second place, there may be implications for connectionism. I don’t think neural networks are meant to be precise brain simulations, but the suggestion that a key mechanism has been missing from our understanding of the brain might at least suggest that a new line of research, building in an equivalent mechanism to connectionist systems could yield interesting results.

But third and most remarkable, this must give a big boost to those who have suggested that consciousness resides in the brain’s electrical field: Sue Pockett, for one, but above all JohnJoe McFadden, who back in 2002 declared that the effects of the brain’s endogenous electromagnetic fields deserved more attention. Citing earlier studies which had shown modulation of neuron firing by very weak fields, he concluded:

By whatever mechanism, it is clear that very weak em field fluctuations are capable of modulating neurone-firing patterns. These exogenous fields are weaker than the perturbations in the brain’s endogenous em field that are induced
during normal neuronal activity. The conclusion is inescapable: the brain’s endogenous em field must influence neuronal information processing in the brain.

We may still hold back from agreeing that consciousness is to be identified with an electromagnetic field, but he certainly seems to have been ahead of the game on this.


Picture: Phi. I was wondering recently what we could do with all the new computing power which is becoming available.  One answer might be calculating phi, effectively a measure of consciousness, which was very kindly drawn to my attention by Christof Koch. Phi is actually a time- and state-dependent measure of integrated information developed by Giulio Tononi in support of the Integrated Information Theory (IIT) of consciousness which he and Koch have championed.  Some readable expositions of the theory are here and here with the manifesto here and a formal paper presenting phi here. Koch says the theory is the most exciting conceptual development he’s seen in “the inchoate science of consciousness”, and I can certainly see why.

The basic premise of the theory is simply that consciousness is constituted by integrated information. It stems from the phenomenological observations that there are vast numbers of possible conscious states, and that each of them appears to unify or integrate a very large number of items of information. What really lifts the theory above the level of most others in this area is the detailed mathematical under-pinning, which means phi is not a vague concept but a clear and possibly even a practically useful indicator.

One implication of the theory is that consciousness lies on a continuum: rather than being an on-or-off matter, it comes in degrees. The idea that lower levels of consciousness may occur when we are half-awake, or in dogs or other animals, is plausible and appealing. Perhaps a little less intuitive is the implication that there must be in theory be higher states of consciousness than any existing human being could ever have attained. I don’t think this means states of greater intelligence or enlightenment, necessarily; it’s more  a matter of being more awake than awake, an idea which (naturally enough, I suppose) is difficult to get one’s head around, but has a tantalising appeal.

Equally, the theory implies that some minimal level of consciousness goes a long way down to systems with only a small quantity of integrated information. As Koch points out, this looks like a variety of panpsychism or panexperientialism, though I think the most natural interpretation is that real consciousness probably does not extend all that far beyond observably animate entities.

One congenial aspect of the theory for me is that it puts causal relations at the centre of things: while a system with complex causal interactions may generate a high value of phi, a ‘replay’ of its surface dynamics would not. This seems to capture in a clearer form the hand-waving intuitive point I was making recently in discussion of Mark Muhlestein’s ideas.  Unfortunately calculation of Phi for the human brain remains beyond reach at the moment due to the unmanageable levels of complexity involved;  this is disappointing, but in a way it’s only what you would expect. Nevertheless, there is, unusually in this field, some hope of empirical corroboration.

I think I’m convinced that phi measures something interesting and highly relevant to consciousness; perhaps it remains to be finally established that what it measures is consciousness itself, rather than some closely associated phenomenon, some necessary but not sufficient condition. Your view about this, pending further evidence, may be determined by how far you think phenomenal experience can be identified with information. Is consciousness in the end what information – integrated information – just feels like from the inside? Could this be the final answer to the insoluble question of qualia? The idea doesn’t strike me with the ‘aha!’ feeling of the blinding insight, but (and this is pretty good going in this field) it doesn’t seem obviously wrong either.  It seems the right kind of answer, the kind that could be correct.

Could it?