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SISSA Colloquium: Consciousness and our place in nature

The Integrated information theory

Double appointment at SISSA with Giulio Tononi, well-renown neuroscientist and psychiatrist of the University of Wisconsin, on the origin of consciousness and the use of Integrated information theory (IIT) as an attempt to explain it in a principled manner. On Wednesday 15 May at 4 pm in the School’s Main Lecture Hall, Tononi will give the first of this year’s SISSA Colloquia, entitled “Consciousness and our place in nature”. It will be followed on Thursday 16 May by the workshop “Integrated Information Theory: A principled approach to understanding what consciousness is and what it takes to have it“.

What is consciousness, and what is its neural substrate in the brain? Why are certain parts of the brain important for consciousness, but not others that have even more brain cells and are just as complicated? Why does consciousness fade with dreamless sleep even though the brain remains active? Does consciousness always fade when patients become unresponsive after brain damage, during generalized seizures, during general anesthesia, or even in deep sleep? And are newborns, animals, and intelligent computers conscious? Integrated information theory (IIT) is an attempt to answer these and other questions in a principled manner. IIT starts not from the brain, but from consciousness itself - the world of experience – and derives from it what it takes for a system to be conscious. The results of this exploration account for many empirical findings, generate counterintuitive predictions, and have already led to the development of promising new tests for the practical assessment of consciousness in non-communicative subjects. They also spur a reassessment of our own place in nature.

Tononi will go into more details during the workshop that will take place on Thursday 16 May from 10 am to 1 pm  in room 004 (TBC). More specifically Tononi will: i) introduce the basic notions of the integrated information theory (IIT) and discuss the theory’s axioms and postulates with the audience; ii) evaluate how IIT can be employed to account for the quality of experience, beginning with the phenomenology of space; iii) introduce measures of integrated information that can be applied to empirical data and discuss how they can be applied to evaluate the level of consciousness in wake, sleep, anesthesia, and disorders of consciousness; iv) discuss the problem of assessing the presence of consciousness in animals and machines, and how IIT can provide a principled approach; v) demonstrate how integrated information grows in animals adapting to a complex environment, thereby shedding light on the evolution of consciousness; vi) consider the explanatory, predictive, and inferential power of IIT; and vii) consider potential problems and future developments.