Sunday, September 26, 2010

Quantifying Consciousness

Dr. Giulio Tononi is attempting to measure consciousness to help us better understand what consciousness is.

Tononi sees consciousness as refined information. Adapting information theory, originally applied to computers and telecommunications, Tononi is trying to build a “consciousness meter” to measure consciousness like we measure blood pressure and temperature. Information theory basically measures how much uncertainty is reduced from an amount of information a signal gives off. For example, a photodiode distinguishes between light and dark, but it cannot distinguish between different kinds of light. Because it cannot process more complex amounts of information, photodiodes awareness remains limited.

Brain neurons are fancy photodiodes, producing electric bursts in response to incoming signals. But the conscious experiences they produce have much more information than in a single diode ... i.e. they reduce much more uncertainty. A photodiode is in 1 of 2 states, our brain can be in one of trillions.

Tononi also says that consciousness is not only information, but the integration thereof. Think of our brain neurons as specialized people who speak the same language ... we have trillions of "experts" communicating with each other every second so we understand more than any other living thing. The more isolated the brain's parts, the lower the phi because the parts cannot share information.

The theory is still in its infancy because the brain has billions of neurons and trillions of possible connections.

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