Bitwise consciousness

1 minute read

Carl Zimmer writes about theories of consciousness in today’s Science NY Times, and describes the work of my Wisconsin colleague, Giulio Tononi.

But Dr. Tononis theory is, potentially, very different. He and his colleagues are translating the poetry of our conscious experiences into the precise language of mathematics. To do so, they are adapting information theory, a branch of science originally applied to computers and telecommunications. If Dr. Tononi is right, he and his colleagues may be able to build a consciousness meter that doctors can use to measure consciousness as easily as they measure blood pressure and body temperature. Perhaps then his anesthesiologist will become interested.

That’s fortuitous because I’m lecturing about information theory tomorrow in my “Biology of Mind” course. The article goes on about how to measure consciousness using information theory terms. I’m not sure it’s a practical theory of conscious experience, yet, but I think the information theory concepts are fundamentally important to understanding the adaptive evolution of brains on a more basic level.

I’m always impressed reading back through Darwin, who a hundred years before information theory began to consider what we might describe as transmission properties of animal communication.

As far as Tononi’s ideas – there is a logic here that is very appealing. Information is about encoding and transmission. Cryptography, for example, requires that we study the transmission properties of a channel to try to understand the encoding. That is, in a sense, what Tononi is proposing. Where most people have considered only the encoding properties, he proposes understanding the transmission properties.