This contest tests theories of consciousness. This is what it really showed


the original version of this story appeared in Quanta Magazine.

Science routinely posits theories and then bombards them with data until only one remains standing. In the emerging science of consciousness, a dominant theory has not yet emerged. More than 20 are still taken seriously.

It is not due to lack of data. Since Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the DNA double helix, legitimized consciousness as a subject of study more than three decades ago, researchers have used a variety of advanced technologies to probe the brains of test subjects, tracking signatures of neural activity that could reflect consciousness. The resulting avalanche of data should have already flattened at least the flimsiest theories.

Five years ago, the Templeton World Charity Foundation began a series of “adverse collaborations” to get the overdue cleanup started. Last June saw the results of the first of these collaborations, which pitted two high-profile theories against each other: global neural workspace theory (GNWT) and integrated information theory (IIT). Neither of them was an absolute winner.

The results, announced as the result of a sporting event at the 26th meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness (ASSC) in New York City, also served to settle a 25-year bet between Crick’s longtime collaborator , the neuroscientist Christof Koch of the Allen Institute for Brain Sciences and philosopher David Chalmers of New York University, who coined the term “the hard problem” to challenge the assumption that we can explain the subjective feeling of consciousness by analyzing brain circuits.

On the stage of the Skirball Center at New York University, after interludes of rock music, a rap performance about consciousness and the presentation of the results, the neuroscientist accepted the philosopher’s bet: the neural correlates of consciousness had not yet been been defined.

However, Koch proclaimed: “It is a victory for science.”

But was it? The event has received mixed reviews. Some researchers point out that the differences between the two theories have not been significantly proven. Others highlight the project’s success in advancing consciousness science, both by offering large, novel, and skillfully executed data sets and by inspiring other contestants to engage in their own adversarial collaborations.

The correlates of consciousness

When Crick and Koch published his emblematic article In “Toward a Neurobiological Theory of Consciousness” in 1990, his goal was to place consciousness (for 2,000 years the domain of philosophers) on a scientific basis. They argued that consciousness as a whole was too broad and controversial a concept to serve as a starting point.

Instead, they focused on a scientifically tractable aspect: visual perception, which involves becoming aware of seeing, for example, the color red. The scientific goal was to find the circuits that correlated with that experience or, as they said, the “neural correlates of consciousness.”

Deciphering the early stages of visual perception had already proven to be fertile ground for science. Light patterns hitting the retina send signals to the visual cortex at the back of the brain. There, more than 12 different neural modules process the signals corresponding to the edges, color and movement of the images. Their results are combined to build a final dynamic image of what we consciously see.

What confirmed the usefulness of visual perception for Crick and Koch was that the last link in that chain (consciousness) could be separated from the rest. Since the 1970s, neuroscientists have known people with “blindsight,” who have no visual experience due to brain damage but can navigate a room without colliding with obstacles. While they retain the ability to process an image, they lack the ability to be aware of it.

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