Ontogenetic emergence as a criterion for theories of consciousness: Comparing GNW, SOMA, and REFCON


Criteria for theories

How to Cite

Kirkeby-Hinrup, A., & Overgaard, M. (2023). Ontogenetic emergence as a criterion for theories of consciousness: Comparing GNW, SOMA, and REFCON. Philosophy and the Mind Sciences, 4. https://doi.org/10.33735/phimisci.2023.9902


In recent years increasing attention has been given to systematic comparison of theories of consciousness. Laudable practical projects have emerged in this regard, such as adversarial collaboration and the development of databases lending themselves to comparisons of empirical support for theories. In addition to the practical advances, theoretical advances have been made, such as a list of issues a theory of consciousness must address. We propose adding the issue of the ontogenetic emergence (O-emergence) of consciousness to the list of issues we use to evaluate theories of consciousness. O-emergence concerns how and when consciousness emerges ontogenetically in human beings. The underlying assumption is that there exists a point in the development of a human individual before which that individual is not and cannot be conscious. This assumption, in turn, depends on a widely shared assumption of cognitive neuroscience, which is that consciousness somehow depends on — or derives from — brain activity. In this paper, we lay out the O-emergence criterion and investigate whether it can be accounted for within the Global Neuronal Workspace theory, the Self-Organizing Meta-representational Account, and the Reorganization of Elementary Functions framework.



Albantakis, L. (2020). Integrated information theory. In Beyond neural correlates of consciousness (pp. 87–103). Routledge.

Barra, A., Carrière, M., Laureys, S., & Martial, C. (2020). From unconscious to conscious: A spectrum of states. In Beyond neural correlates of consciousness (pp. 16–43). Routledge.

Bayne, T., Hohwy, J., & Owen, A. M. (2016). Are there levels of consciousness? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20(6), 405–413.

Block, N. (2007). Consciousness, accessibility, and the mesh between psychology and neuroscience. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 30(5-6), 481-99; discussion 499-548. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X07002786

Block, N. (2011a). Perceptual consciousness overflows cognitive access. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15(12), 567–575. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2011.11.001

Block, N. (2011b). The higher order approach to consciousness is defunct. Analysis, 71(3), 419–431. https://doi.org/10.1093/analys/anr037

Block, N. (2014). Rich conscious perception outside focal attention. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18(9), 445–447.

Blum, L., & Blum, M. (2022). A theory of consciousness from a theoretical computer science perspective: Insights from the conscious turing machine. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 119(21), e2115934119. https://doi.org/doi:10.1073/pnas.2115934119

Brown, R., Lau, H., & LeDoux, J. E. (2019). Understanding the higher-order approach to consciousness. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 23(9), 754–768. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2019.06.009

Cabanac, M., Cabanac, A. J., & Parent, A. (2009). The emergence of consciousness in phylogeny. Behavioural Brain Research, 198(2), 267–272.

Chalmers, D. J. (1995). Facing up to the problem of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2(3), 200–219.

Chalmers, D. J. (2018). The meta-problem of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 25(9-10), 6–61.

Changeux, J.-P. (2017). Climbing brain levels of organisation from genes to consciousness. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 21(3), 168–181.

Ciaunica, A., Constant, A., Preissl, H., & Fotopoulou, K. (2021). The first prior: From co-embodiment to co-homeostasis in early life. Consciousness and Cognition, 91, 103117. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2021.103117

Ciaunica, A., Safron, A., & Delafield-Butt, J. (2021). Back to square one: The bodily roots of conscious experiences in early life. Neuroscience of Consciousness, 2021(2). https://doi.org/10.1093/nc/niab037

Cleeremans, A., Achoui, D., Beauny, A., Keuninckx, L., Martin, J.-R., Muñoz-Moldes, S., Vuillaume, L., & De Heering, A. (2020). Learning to be conscious. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 24(2), 112–123.

Cleeremans, A., Achoui, D., Beauny, A., Keuninckx, L., Martin, J.-R., Muñoz-Moldes, S., Vuillaume, L., & De Heering, A. (2021). Do you need to be conscious to learn to be conscious? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 25(1), 9–11.

Coleman, S. (2014). The real combination problem: Panpsychism, micro-subjects, and emergence. Erkenntnis, 79(1), 19–44. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10670-013-9431-x

Dehaene, S., & Naccache, L. (2001). Towards a cognitive neuroscience of consciousness: Basic evidence and a workspace framework. Cognition, 79(1–2), 1–37. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0010-0277(00)00123-2

Delafield-Butt, J. T., & Gangopadhyay, N. (2013). Sensorimotor intentionality: The origins of intentionality in prospective agent action. Developmental Review, 33(4), 399–425. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dr.2013.09.001

Delafield-Butt, J., & Trevarthen, C. (2022). Consciousness generates agent action. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 45, e44. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X2100203X

Doerig, A., Schurger, A., & Herzog, M. H. (2020). Hard criteria for empirical theories of consciousness. Cognitive Neuroscience, 12(2), 41–62.

Fink, S. B. (2016). A deeper look at the “neural correlate of consciousness.” Frontiers in Psychology, 7. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01044

Fleming, S. M., & Dolan, R. J. (2012). The neural basis of metacognitive ability. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 367(1594), 1338–1349. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2011.0417

Frith, C. D., & Frith, U. (2006). The neural basis of mentalizing. Neuron, 50(4), 531–534. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2006.05.001

Frohlich, J., Bayne, T., DallaVecchia, A., Kirkeby-Hinrup, A., Mediano, P. A., Moser, J., Talar, K., Gharabaghi, A., & Preissl, H. (2023). Not with a “zap” but with a “beep”: Measuring the origins of perinatal experience. Neuroimage, 120057.

Frohlich, J., Toker, D., & Monti, M. M. (2021). Consciousness among delta waves: A paradox? Brain, 144(8), 2257–2277.

Gallagher, H. L., & Frith, C. D. (2003). Functional imaging of “theory of mind.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7(2), 77–83.

Gennaro, R. J. (2016). Higher-order thoughts, neural realization, and the metaphysics of consciousness. In Consciousness: Integrating eastern and western perspectives (pp. 83–102). New Age Publishers.

Goff, P. (2009). Why panpsychism doesn’t help us explain consciousness. Dialectica, 63(3), 289–311.

Hakamada, S., Hayakawa, F., Kuno, K., & Tanaka, R. (1988). Development of the monosynaptic reflex pathway in the human spinal cord. Developmental Brain Research, 42(2), 239–246.

Hayat, T. T., & Rutherford, M. A. (2018). Neuroimaging perspectives on fetal motor behavior. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 92, 390–401.

Kirkeby-Hinrup, A. (2024). Interdisciplinary consciousness studies needs philosophers of science. Filosofiska Notiser, 11(1), 3–18.

Kirkeby-Hinrup, A., & Fazekas, P. (2021). Consciousness and inference to the best explanation: Compiling empirical evidence supporting the access-phenomenal distinction and the overflow hypothesis. Consciousness and Cognition, 94, 103173.

Knotts, J., Odegaard, B., Lau, H., & Rosenthal, D. (2019). Subjective inflation: Phenomenology’s get-rich-quick scheme. Current Opinion in Psychology, 29, 49–55.

Koch, C., & Preuschoff, K. (2007). Betting the house on consciousness. Nature Neuroscience, 10(2), 140–141.

Kouider, S., De Gardelle, V., Sackur, J., & Dupoux, E. (2010). How rich is consciousness? The partial awareness hypothesis. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14(7), 301–307.

Lagercrantz, H. (2009). The birth of consciousness. Early Human Development, 85(10), S57–S58.

Lagercrantz, H., & Changeux, J.-P. (2009). The emergence of human consciousness: From fetal to neonatal life. Pediatric Research, 65(3), 255–260.

Lamme, V. A. F. (2004). Separate neural definitions of visual consciousness and visual attention; a case for phenomenal awareness. Neural Networks, 17(5-6), 861–872. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neunet.2004.02.005

Lau, H., & Rosenthal, D. (2011). Empirical support for higher-order theories of conscious awareness. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15(8), 365–373. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2011.05.009

Levine, J. (1983). Materialism and qualia, the explanatory gap. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 64(4), 354–361. ://WOS:A1983SU49200007

Mashour, G. A., Roelfsema, P., Changeux, J.-P., & Dehaene, S. (2020). Conscious processing and the global neuronal workspace hypothesis. Neuron, 105(5), 776–798.

Mogensen, J., Daugaard, N., Kitsios, S., Pedersen, J. E., & Overgaard, M. (2018). Understanding the neurocognitive organization as strategies rather than functions: Implications for neurological research. Neurology, 10(11), 1008–1016.

Mogensen, J., & Overgaard, M. (2018a). Neural connections and mental states: The need for a neurocognitive framework. Ec Neurology, 10, 180–194.

Mogensen, J., & Overgaard, M. (2018b). Reorganization of the connectivity between elementary functions as a common mechanism of phenomenal consciousness and working memory: From functions to strategies. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 373(1755), 20170346. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2017.0346

Mudrik, L., Mylopoulos, M., Negro, N., & Schurger, A. (2023). Theories of consciousness and a life worth living. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 53, 101299. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2023.101299

Nagel, T. (1974). What is it like to be a bat. Philosophical Review, 83(4), 435–450. https://doi.org/10.2307/2183914

Northoff, G., & Lamme, V. (2020). Neural signs and mechanisms of consciousness: Is there a potential convergence of theories of consciousness in sight? Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 118, 568–587.

Overgaard, M., & Kirkeby-Hinrup, A. (2021a). Finding the neural correlates of consciousness will not solve all our problems. Philosophy and the Mind Sciences, 2.

Overgaard, M., & Kirkeby-Hinrup, A. (2021b). Is learning the cognitive basis of consciousness? The moral implications of SOMA. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 25(1), 8–9.

Overgaard, M., & Mogensen, J. (2014). Visual perception from the perspective of a representational, non-reductionistic, level-dependent account of perception and conscious awareness. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 369(1641), 20130209.

Overgaard, M., & Mogensen, J. (2015). Reconciling current approaches to blindsight. Consciousness and Cognition, 32, 33–40.

Overgaard, M., & Overgaard, R. (2010). Neural correlates of contents and levels of consciousness. Frontiers in Psychology, 1, 164.

Overgaard, M., Rote, J., Mouridsen, K., & Ramsøy, T. Z. (2006). Is conscious perception gradual or dichotomous? A comparison of report methodologies during a visual task. Consciousness and Cognition, 15(4), 700–708.

Passos-Ferreira, C. (forthcoming). Are infants conscious? Philosophical Perspectives. Forthcoming.

Raccah, O., Block, N., & Fox, K. C. (2021). Does the prefrontal cortex play an essential role in consciousness? Insights from intracranial electrical stimulation of the human brain. Journal of Neuroscience, 41(10), 2076–2087.

Ramsøy, T. Z., & Overgaard, M. (2004). Introspection and subliminal perception. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 3(1), 1–23.

Rosenthal, D. M. (2008). Consciousness and its function. Neuropsychologia, 46(3), 829–840. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2007.11.012

Rosenthal, D. M. (2011). Exaggerated reports: Reply to block. Analysis, 71(3), 431–437.

Rosenthal, D. M. (2012). Higher-order awareness, misrepresentation and function. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 367(1594), 1424–1438. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2011.0353

Schurger, A., & Graziano, M. (2022). Consciousness explained or described? Neuroscience of Consciousness, 2022(1). https://doi.org/10.1093/nc/niac001

Seth, A., & Bayne, T. (2022). Theories of consciousness. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 23(7), 439–452.

Tononi, G. (2005). Consciousness, information integration, and the brain. In L. Steven (Ed.), Progress in brain research: Vols. Volume 150 (pp. 109–126). Elsevier. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0079-6123(05)50009-8

Weisberg, J. (2011). Abusing the notion of what-it’s-like-ness: A response to block. Analysis, 71(3), 438–443.

Creative Commons License

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

Copyright (c) 2023 Asger Kirkeby-Hinrup, Morten Overgaard