Brain structural complexity and consciousness


Brain structural complexity
Individual differences
Multimodal brain imaging

How to Cite

Song, C. (2021). Brain structural complexity and consciousness. Philosophy and the Mind Sciences, 2.


Structure shapes function. Understanding what is structurally special about the brain that allows it to generate consciousness remains a fundamental scientific challenge. Recently, advances in brain imaging techniques have made it possible to measure the structure of human brain, from the morphology of neurons and neuronal connections to the gross anatomy of brain regions, in-vivo and non-invasively. Using advanced brain imaging techniques, it was discovered that the structural diversity between neurons and the topology of neuronal connections, as opposed to the sheer number of neurons or neuronal connections, are key to consciousness. When the structural diversity is high and the connections follow a modular topology, neurons will become functionally differentiable and functionally integrable with one another. The high levels of differentiation and integration, in turn, enable the brain to produce the richest conscious experiences from the smallest number of neurons and neuronal connections. Consequently, across individuals, those with a smaller brain volume but a higher structural diversity tend to have richer conscious experiences than those with a larger brain volume but a lower structural diversity. Moreover, within individuals, a reduction in neuronal connections, if accompanied by an increase in structural diversity, will result in richer conscious experiences, and vice versa. These findings suggest that having a larger number of neurons and neuronal connections is not necessarily beneficial for consciousness; in contrast, an optimal brain architecture for consciousness is one where the richest conscious experiences are generated from the smallest number of neurons and neuronal connections, at the minimal cost of biological material, physical space, and metabolic energy.


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