A&O – CONSCIOUSNESS – Alternative Theories



Excerpts from recent research



There may be no more powerful (and sometime poignant) example of “the blind men and the elephant” (see A&O Note) than its incarnation in “the scholars and consciousness”:  The most interesting of the multiple insights and hypotheses derived therefrom–often from very different perspectives and at many levels of organization–are very usefully itemized and characterized by Seth and Bayne (2022, listed below from their Table 1).   

When specific insights–detailed descriptions including those of physiological processes–are further considered by even the most superficial tenets of DEEP ethology, the developmental, ecological, evolutionary, analyses create a web of causes, consequences, and associations of a magisterial–almost cosmic beauty.   (then recall that “in the end, the wise often succumb to the beautiful”(Hölderlin)… the almost irresistible bias of “gorgeous trumps everything”).


THEORIES take DESCRIPTIONS and TELL the most satisfying story they can about how the facts are connected: These are most fruitfully rooted in the  DEEP ETHOLOGY of CONSCIOUSNESS

(e.g., considering the EVOLUTION of CONSCIOUSNESS, What BIOLOGICAL NEED does it meet ?  READ HOBBES comment


“There is now a wide range of candidate Theories of Consciousness (ToCs, Table 1 [below]).  Notably, instead of ToCs progressively being ‘ruled out’ as empirical data accumulate, they seem to be proliferating.   This proliferation has led to both attempts to integrate existing theories with each other (16) and the development of ‘adversarial collaborations’, in which proponents of competing theories agree in advance about whether the outcome of a proposed experiment will support or undermine their preferred theory (17).   However, there are significant challenges to both theory integration and adversarial collaboration, as we discuss. (READ Seth & Bayne 2022:439: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41583-022-00587-4)  (WATCH Seth being interviewed by Michael Schermer:  https://www.skeptic.com/michael-shermer-show/anil-seth-on-consciousness-self-volition/?mc_cid=3f29ca75a9&mc_eid=68c6eef77f)



Table 1 | A selection of [neurobiological] theories of consciousness [1]

(Theories includes those that are “either neurobiological in nature or potentially expressible in neurobiological terms” … selected by Seth & Bayne 2022) and excerpted from their paper.   (see “Box 2 (below) for other kinds of Theories of Consciousness [1])

(from Anil K. Seth & Tim Bayne (2022) Theories of consciousnessNature Reviews Neuroscience  23, 439–452 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41583-022-00587-4)

  • Theory, Primary claim, (Key refs) 
  • Higher- order theory (HOT) Consciousness depends on meta- representations of lower- order mental states (31,46)
  • Self- organizing metarepresentational theory: Consciousness is the brain’s (meta- representational) theory about itself (34,140)
  • Attended intermediate representation theory:  Consciousness depends on the attentional amplification of intermediate-level representations (141,142)
  • Global workspace theories (GWTs): Consciousness depends on ignition and broadcast within a neuronal global workspace where fronto-parietal cortical regions play a central, hub- like role ((47–49) (see THE BET, below)
  • Integrated information theory (IIT): Consciousness is identical to the cause–effect structure of a physical substrate that specifies a maximum of irreducible integrated information (57,59,60) (see THE BET, below)
  • Information closure theory:  Consciousness depends on non- trivial information closure with respect to an environment at particular coarse- grained scales (143)
  • Dynamic core theory. Consciousness depends on a functional cluster of neural activity combining high levels of dynamical integration and differentiation (144)
  • Neural Darwinism. Consciousness depends on re- entrant interactions reflecting a history of value- dependent learning events shaped by selectionist principles (145,146)
  • Local recurrency. Consciousness depends on local recurrent or re- entrant cortical processing and promotes learning (65,71)
  • Predictive processing. Perception depends on predictive inference of the causes of sensory signals;  provides a framework for systematically mapping neural mechanisms to aspects of consciousness (67,73,79)
  • Neuro- representationalism. Consciousness depends on multilevel neurally encoded predictive representations (84)
  • Active inference. Although views vary, in one version consciousness depends on temporally and counterfactually deep inference about self- generated actions (76; see also 91)
  • Beast machine theory Consciousness is grounded in allostatic control- oriented predictive inference (13,75,77; see also 90)
  • Neural subjective frame Consciousness depends on neural maps of the bodily state providing a first- person perspective (24)
  • Self comes to mind theory Consciousness depends on interactions between homeostatic routines and multilevel interoceptive maps, with affect and feeling at the core. (23,147)
  • Attention schema theory Consciousness depends on a neurally encoded model of the control of attention (148)
  • Multiple drafts model.   Consciousness depends on multiple (potentially inconsistent) representations rather than a single, unified representation that is available to a central system (149)
  • Sensorimotor theory.   Consciousness depends on mastery of the laws governing sensorimotor contingencies (88)
  • Unlimited associative learning.  Consciousness depends on a form of learning which enables an organism to link motivational value with stimuli or actions that are novel, compound and non- reflex inducing.  (150)
  • Dendritic integration theory. Consciousness depends on integration of top-down and bottom-up signalling at a cellular level (151)
  • Electromagnetic field theory.  Consciousness is identical to physically integrated, and causally active, information encoded in the brain’s global electromagnetic field (152)
  • Orchestrated objective reduction.  Consciousness depends on quantum computations within microtubules inside neurons (18)



In 1998, Christof Koch & David Chalmers made a bet that by 2023, we would have found a sign of consciousness within the brain.  The bet will be reviewed at the Association of Scientific Studies of Consciousness conference in June 2023.  (will-2023-be-the-year?


GWT posits that “the brain only produces a signal when you first become consciously aware of an object, and then the signal disappears. [the brain then] processes non-conscious experiences in sensory areas, such as the visual cortex, and we only become aware of them if this information is then broadcast to a cluster of neurons distributed across the brain that integrate multiple senses into a single flash of perception. Brain regions that have dense links to others, such as the prefrontal or parietal areas, are prime candidates for these neurons, says Koch.


IIT “argues that if you are aware of an object for a period of time, there must be a signal of consciousness for the same duration. The theory suggests that this signal will be discovered in the posterior cortex, as researchers have previously found that some neurons in this region are particularly active when measuring conscious perception.”




Box 2 | Other approaches: attention, learning and affect[1]


The landscape of theories of consciousness (ToCs) includes numerous other theoretical approaches in addition to those surveyed in this Review’s Table 1 (above). one approach focuses on attention. For example, Graziano’s attention schema theory associates conscious perception with a model of the control of attention(148). Another attention-based ToC is the attended intermediate representational theory. First proposed by Jackendoff(141) and defended in detail by Prinz(142), this theory holds that consciousness occurs when intermediate-level perceptual representations gain access to attention.

Other theoretical approaches focus on learning. These include the proposal by Jablonka and Ginsburg that minimal consciousness is underpinned by a form of associative learning they term ‘unlimited associative learning’. According to their proposal, this form of learning enables an organism to link motivational value with stimuli or actions that are novel, compound and non-reflex inducing(150). other learning-based theories overlap with some theories we have already described, such as Cleeremans’ version of higher-order theory (HoT)(34,140) and Lamme’s local recurrency account, which holds that recurrent signalling underpins consciousness in virtue of its role in learning(65). learning-based theories are also closely related to ‘selectionist’ approaches, which ground consciousness in evolutionary-like dynamics within and between neuronal populations(145,146).

Affect-based theories emphasize the brain’s role in physiological regulation as the basis for consciousness. These theories include Damasio’s proposal that consciousness depends on hierarchically nested representations of the organism’s physiological condition(147,170), and proposals that mix an affect-based emphasis with predictive processing to ground conscious experiences in control-oriented interoceptive predictions(13,77,90). Some affect-based theories deny that cortical mechanisms are necessary for con sciousness, instead locating the mechanisms of consciousness in the brainstem(171,172, although see ref.173).




The so-called hard problem of consciousness:

how does a material brain give rise to a seemingly immaterial conscious experience?


  CONSCIOUSNESS is SUBJECTIVE, and we have read often about the tension between SUBJECTIVE versus OBJECTIVE ways of relating to our world[1]: the implications are vast, reaching deeply into many other disciplines:  Read “A new place for consciousness in our understanding of the universe”

[1] (see, for example Anil Ananthaswamy’s essay review of Susan Greenfield’s book, “A Day in the Life of the Brain”)



[1] from SethBayne (2022) Theories of consciousnessNature Reviews Neuroscience (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41583-022-00587-4)


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  • ALTERNATIVE THEORIES of CONSCIOUSNESS.  Like the theories Blind wise men and the elephant, there are multiple theories–often complementary- of consciousness
  • CONNECTIONS CREATE, CONNECTIONS CHANGE (Phenomena have MEANING to the extent they are CONNECTED; they can alter the way in which cognitive processes (such as those in ART and SCIENCE) are coordinated). What about CONNECTIONS between INDIVIDUALS?
  • CHANGE (all change involves connections and all changes in connection involve STRESS; the balance between disintegration and renewal) These have meaning to the extent they are COMMUNICATED.
  • COMMUNICATION (…involves CREATING CONNECTIONS within and between individuals) information must be transmitted.  When information is communicated within or between levels of organization (as in within or between individuals) and coordinated with change, learning occurs.   Communication involves transmitting and receiving information.  Sounds like “teaching” and “learning.”
  • TEACHING/LEARNING (learning involves coping with STRESS; resolving cognitive dissonance; error detection and correction))
  • TRANSFORMATIVE LEARNING (some learning experiences are deeply affecting and we move from KNOWING to REALIZING)
  • CONSCIOUSNESS, and some of its states relevant to ART; then

read the DEEP notes on consciousness, with a few ideas about Development, Ecology, Evolution, and Physiology.

Read about EXTRAORDINARY, transformative experiences . 

Read excerpts from Sacks “River of Conciousness”

A common shared experience that epitomizes the integration of several critical neurophysiological principles, DREAMING is a phenomenal state of consciousness with long cultural and artistic histories.