On the dangers of conflating strong and weak versions of a theory of consciousness


Neural correlates of consciousness
Integrated information theory

How to Cite

Michel, M., & Lau, H. (2020). On the dangers of conflating strong and weak versions of a theory of consciousness. Philosophy and the Mind Sciences, 1(II). https://doi.org/10.33735/phimisci.2020.II.54


Some proponents of the Integrated Information Theory (IIT) of consciousness profess strong views on the Neural Correlates of Consciousness (NCC), namely that large swathes of the neocortex, the cerebellum, at least some sensory cortices, and the so-called limbic system are all not essential for any form of conscious experiences. We argue that this connection is not incidental. Conflation between strong and weak versions of the theory has led these researchers to adopt definitions of NCC that are inconsistent with their own previous definitions, inadvertently betraying the promises of an otherwise fruitful empirical endeavour.



Aaronson, S. (2014a). Giulio Tononi and Me: A Phi-nal Exchange. https://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=1823

Aaronson, S. (2014b). Why I am not an integrated information theorist (or, the unconscious expander). www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=1799

Aru, J., Bachmann, T., Singer, W., & Melloni, L. (2012). Distilling the neural correlates of consciousness. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 36(2), 737–746. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2011.12.003

Barrett, A. B., & Mediano, P. A. M. (2019). The phi measure of integrated information is not well-defined for general physical systems. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 26(1-2).

Barttfeld, P., Uhrig, L., Sitt, J. D., Sigman, M., & Jarraya, B. (2015). Signature of consciousness in the dynamics of resting-state brain activity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(37), E5219–E5220. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1515029112

Bayne, T. (2018). On the axiomatic foundations of the integrated information theory of consciousness. Neuroscience of Consciousness, 2018(1), 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1093/nc/niy007

Block, N. (2005). Two neural correlates of consciousness. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9(2), 46–52. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2004.12.006

Bodart, O., Amico, E., Wannez, S., Gomez, F., Casarotto, S., Rosanova, M., Casali, A. G., Gosseries, O., Laureys, S., Massimini, M., & Martens, G. (2017). Global structural and effective connectivity in patients with chronic disorders of consciousness. Brain Stimulation: Basic, Translational, and Clinical Research in Neuromodulation, 10(2), 353. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brs.2017.01.035

Brickner, R. M. (1952). Brain of patient A. After bilateral frontal lobectomy; Status of Frontal-Lobe Problem. Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry, 68(3), 293–313. https://doi.org/10.1001/archneurpsyc.1952.02320210003001

Casali, A. G., Gosseries, O., Rosanova, M., Boly, M., Sarasso, S., Casali, K. R., Casarotto, S., Bruno, M.-A., Laureys, S., Tononi, G., & Massimini, M. (2013). A theoretically based index of consciousness independent of sensory processing andbehavior. Science Translational Medicine, 5(198), 198ra105 LP–198ra105. http://stm.sciencemag.org/content/5/198/198ra105.abstract

Casarotto, S., Comanducci, A., Rosanova, M., Sarasso, S., Fecchio, M., Napolitani, M., Pigorini, A., G. Casali, A., Trimarchi, P. D., Boly, M., Gosseries, O., Bodart, O., Curto, F., Landi, C., Mariotti, M., Devalle, G., Laureys, S., Tononi, G., & Massimini, M. (2016). Stratification of unresponsive patients by an independently validated index of brain complexity. Annals of Neurology, 80(5), 718–729. https://doi.org/10.1002/ana.24779

Cerullo, M. A. (2015). The problem with phi: A critique of integrated information theory. PLoS Computational Biology, 11(9), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1004286

Chalmers, D. (2000). What is a neural correlate of consciousness ? In T. Metzinger (Ed.), Neural correlates of consciousness: Empirical and conceptual questions (pp. 17–39). MIT Press.

Cohen, M. A., Ortego, K., Kyroudis, A., & Pitts, M. (2020). Distinguishing the neural correlates of perceptual awareness and postperceptual processing. Journal of Neuroscience, 40(25), 4925–4935. https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0120-20.2020

Craver, C. (2007). Explaining the brain: Mechanisms and the mosaic unity of neuroscience. Oxford University Press.

Crick, F., & Koch, C. (1990). Towards a neurobiological theory of consciousness. Seminars in the Neurosciences, 2(263-275), 203.

Crick, F., & Koch, C. (1998). Consciousness and Neuroscience. Cerebral Cortex, 8(2), 97–107.

Crick, F., & Koch, C. (2003). A framework for consciousness. Nature Neuroscience, 6(2), 119–126. https://doi.org/10.1038/nn0203-119

Dehaene, S., & Changeux, J. P. (2011). Experimental and Theoretical Approaches to Conscious Processing. Neuron, 70(2), 200–227. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2011.03.018

Demertzi, A., Martial, C., Demertzi, A., Tagliazucchi, E., Dehaene, S., Deco, G., Barttfeld, P., Raimondo, F., Martial, C., Fernández-Espejo, D., Rohaut, B., Voss, H. U., Schiff, N. D., Owen, A. M., Laureys, S., Naccache, L., & Sitt, J. D. (2019). Human consciousness is supported by dynamic complex patterns of brain signal coordination. Science, 5(2), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aat7603

Doerig, A., Schurger, A., Hess, K., & Herzog, M. H. (2019). The unfolding argument: Why IIT and other causal structure theories cannot explain consciousness. Consciousness and Cognition, 72, 49–59.

Edelman, G. M., & Gally, J. A. (2001). Degeneracy and complexity in biological systems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98(24), 13763 LP–13768. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.231499798

Fallon, F. (2015). The integrated information theory of consciousness. In J. F. & B. Dowden (Ed.), The internet encyclopedia of philosophy. https://iep.utm.edu/int-info/

Faugeras, F., Rohaut, B., Weiss, N., Bekinschtein, T., Galanaud, D., Puybasset, L., Bolgert, F., Sergent, C., Cohen, L., Dehaene, S., & Naccache, L. (2012). Event related potentials elicited by violations of auditory regularities in patients with impaired consciousness. Neuropsychologia, 50(3), 403–418. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2011.12.015

Ferrarelli, F., Massimini, M., Sarasso, S., Casali, A., Riedner, B. A., Angelini, G., Tononi, G., & Pearce, R. A. (2010). Breakdown in cortical effective connectivity during midazolam-induced loss of consciousness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(6), 2681 LP–2686. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0913008107

Fleming, S. M., Ryu, J., Golfinos, J. G., & Blackmon, K. E. (2014). Domain-specific impairment in metacognitive accuracy following anterior prefrontal lesions. Brain, 137(Pt 10), 2811–2822. https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awu221

Illari, P. M., & Williamson, J. (2012). What is a mechanism? Thinking about mechanisms across the sciences. European Journal for Philosophy of Science, 2(1), 119–135. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13194-011-0038-2

Kandel, E. R., Schwartz, J. H., Jessell, T. M., Siegelbaum, S. A., & Hudspeth, A. J. (2012). Principles of neural science. McGraw-Hill Education.

Koch, C. (2004). The quest for consciousness: A neuroscientific approach. Roberts & Co.

Koch, C., Massimini, M., Boly, M., & Tononi, G. (2016). Neural correlates of consciousness: Progress and problems. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 17(5), 307–321. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn.2016.22

Mediano, P. A. M., Seth, A. K., & Barrett, A. B. (2019). Measuring integrated information: Comparison of candidate measures in theory and simulation. Entropy, 21(1), 1–30. https://doi.org/10.3390/e21010017

Michel, M., Beck, D., Block, N., Blumenfeld, H., Brown, R., Carmel, D., Carrasco, M., Chirimuuta, M., Chun, M., Cleeremans, A., Dehaene, S., Fleming, S. M., Frith, C., Haggard, P., He, B. J., Heyes, C., Goodale, M. A., Irvine, L., Kawato, M., Yoshida, M. (2019). Opportunities and challenges for a maturing science of consciousness. Nature Human Behaviour, 3(2), 104–107. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-019-0531-8

Michel, M., Fleming, S. M., Lau, H., Lee, A. L. F., Martinez-Conde, S., Passingham, R. E., Peters, M. A. K., Rahnev, D., Sergent, C., & Liu, K. (2018). An informal internet survey on the current state of consciousness science. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 2134. https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02134

Miracchi, L. (2017). Generative Explanation in Cognitive Science and the Hard Problem of Consciousness. Philosophical Perspectives, 31(1), 267–291. https://doi.org/10.1111/phpe.12095

Morales, J., & Lau, H. (2018). The neural correlates of consciousness. In U. Kriegel (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of the philosophy of consciousness. Oxford University Press.

Noel, J.-P., Ishizawa, Y., Patel, S. R., Eskandar, E. N., & Wallace, M. T. (2019). Leveraging non-human primate multisensory neurons and circuits in assessing consciousness theory. bioRxiv, 584516. https://doi.org/10.1101/584516

Odegaard, B., Knight, R. T., & Lau, H. (2017). Should a few null findings falsify prefrontal theories of conscious perception? The Journal of Neuroscience, 37(40), 9593–9602. https://doi.org/10.1101/122267

Oizumi, M., Albantakis, L., & Tononi, G. (2014). From the phenomenology to the mechanisms of consciousness: Integrated information theory 3.0. PLoS Computational Biology, 10(5). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003588

Pautz, A. (2019). What is the integrated information theory of consciousness? A catalogue of questions. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 26(1-2).

Pitts, M. A., Padwal, J., Fennelly, D., Martinez, A., & Hillyard, S. A. (2014). Gamma band activity and the P3 reflect post-perceptual processes, not visual awareness. NeuroImage, 101, 337–350.

Polger, T. W., & Shapiro, L. A. (2016). The multiple realization book. Oxford University Press.

Rosanova, M., Gosseries, O., Casarotto, S., Boly, M., Casali, A. G., Bruno, M.-A., Mariotti, M., Boveroux, P., Tononi, G., Laureys, S., & Massimini, M. (2012). Recovery of cortical effective connectivity and recovery of consciousness in vegetative patients. Brain, 135(4), 1308–1320. https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awr340

Ruiz de Miras, J., Soler, F., Iglesias-Parro, S., Ibáñez-Molina, A. J., Casali, A. G., Laureys, S., Massimini, M., Esteban, F. J., Navas, J., & Langa, J. A. (2019). Fractal dimension analysis of states of consciousness and unconsciousness using transcranial magnetic stimulation. Computer Methods and Programs in Biomedicine, 175, 129–137. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cmpb.2019.04.017

Sarasso, S., Boly, M., Napolitani, M., Gosseries, O., Charland-Verville, V., Casarotto, S., Rosanova, M., Casali, A. G., Brichant, J.-F., Boveroux, P., Rex, S., Tononi, G., Laureys, S., & Massimini, M. (2015). Consciousness and complexity during unresponsiveness induced by propofol, xenon, and ketamine. Current Biology, 25(23), 3099–3105. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.10.014

Sasai, S., Boly, M., Mensen, A., & Tononi, G. (2016). Functional split brain in a driving/listening paradigm. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(50), 14444 LP–14449. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1613200113

Silverstein, B. H., Snodgrass, M., Shevrin, H., & Kushwaha, R. (2015). P3b, consciousness, and complex unconscious processing. Cortex, 73, 216–227. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cortex.2015.09.004.

Tagliazucchi, E., Wegner, F. von, Morzelewski, A., Brodbeck, V., Jahnke, K., & Laufs, H. (2013). Breakdown of long-range temporal dependence in default mode and attention networks during deep sleep. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(38), 15419 LP–15424. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1312848110

Tajima, S., Yanagawa, T., Fujii, N., & Toyoizumi, T. (2015). Untangling brain-wide dynamics in consciousness by cross-embedding. PLoS Computational Biology, 11(11), 1–28. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1004537

Tononi, G. (2014). Why scott should stare at a blank wall and reconsider (or, the conscious grid). https://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=1823

Tononi, G., Boly, M., Massimini, M., & Koch, C. (2016). Integrated information theory: from consciousness to its physical substrate. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 17(7), 450–461. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn.2016.44

Tononi, G., & Koch, C. (2015). Consciousness: Here ,There ,and Everywhere? Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 31(1), 12–19. https://doi.org/10.1111/var.12057.Digital

Tononi, G., Sporns, O., & Edelman, G. M. (1999). Measures of degeneracy and redundancy in biological networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 96(6), 3257 LP–3262. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.96.6.3257

Tsuchiya, N. (2017). ”What is it like to be a bat ?” — a pathway to the answer from the integrated information theory. Philosophy Compass, 12, 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1111/phc3.12407

Tsuchiya, N., Taguchi, S., & Saigo, H. (2015). Using category theory to assess the relationship between consciousness and integrated information theory. Neuroscience Research, 107, 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neures.2015.12.007

Voytek, B., Davis, M., Yago, E., Barcelo, F., Vogel, E. K., & Knight, R. T. (2010). Dynamic neuroplasticity after human prefrontal cortex damage. Neuron, 68(3), 401–409. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2010.09.018

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.