The nature of consciousness and how to enjoy it while you can

Expand (credit: SEAN GLADWELL)

Unraveling how consciousness arises from particular configurations of organic matter is a quest that has absorbed scientists and philosophers for centuries. Now that artificial intelligence systems behave in surprisingly conscious ways, it is more important than ever to know who and what is capable of experiencing life on a conscious level. As Christof Koch writes in So I am the world“That you are intimately familiar with what life feels like is a brutal fact about the world that cries out for explanation.” His explanation, limited by the limits of current research and framed through Koch’s preferred theory of consciousness, is what he eloquently attempts to offer.

Koch, a physicist, neuroscientist and former president of the Allen Institute for Brain Sciences, has spent his career searching for the seat of consciousness, scouring the brain for physical traces of subjective experience. It turns out that the posterior hot zone, a region at the back of the neocortex, is closely connected to self-awareness and the experiences of sound, sight, and touch. Dense networks of neocortical neurons in this area connect in a loop configuration; The output signals are fed back into the input neurons, allowing the posterior hot zone to influence its own behavior. And here, Koch claims, lies the key to consciousness.

In the hot zone

According to integrated information theory (IIT), which Koch strongly prefers to a host of competing theories of consciousness, the Rosetta Stone of subjective experience is the ability of a system to influence itself: to use its past state to affect your present state and your current state. present state to influence its future state.

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