Summary: A new theory suggests consciousness is a state tied to complex cognitive operations, and not a passive basic state that automatically prevails when we are awake.
Two researchers at Ruhr-Universität Bochum (RUB) have come up with a new theory of consciousness. They have long been exploring the nature of consciousness, the question of how and where the brain generates consciousness, and whether animals also have consciousness.
The new concept describes consciousness as a state that is tied to complex cognitive operations – and not as a passive basic state that automatically prevails when we are awake.
Professor Armin Zlomuzica from the Behavioral and Clinical Neuroscience research group at RUB and Professor Ekrem Dere, formerly at Université Paris-Sorbonne, now at RUB, describe their theory in the journal Behavioural Brain Research.
“The hypotheses underlying our platform theory of consciousness can be tested in experimental studies,” as the authors describe one advantage of their concept over alternative models. “Thus, the process of consciousness can be explored in humans and animals or even in the context of artificial intelligence.”
The platform theory in detail
The complex cognitive operations that, according to platform theory, are associated with consciousness are applied to mental representations that are maintained and processed. They can include perceptions, emotions, sensations, memories, imaginations and associations.
Conscious cognitive operations are necessary, for example, in situations where learned behaviour or habits are no longer sufficient for coping. People don’t necessarily need consciousness to drive a car or take a shower. But when something unexpected happens, conscious cognitive actions are required to resolve the situation. They are also necessary to predict future events or problems and to develop suitable coping strategies.
Most importantly, conscious cognitive operations are at the basis for adaptive and flexible behaviour that enables humans and animals to adapt to new environmental conditions.
According to the new theory, conscious cognitive actions take place on the basis of a so-called online platform, a kind of central executive that controls subordinate platforms. The subordinate platforms can act, for example, as storage media for knowledge or activities.
Electrical junctions between nerve cells crucial
Conscious cognitive operations are facilitated by the interaction of different neuronal networks. Armin Zlomuzica and Ekrem Dere consider electrical synapses, also known as gap junctions, to be crucial in this context. These structures enable extremely fast transmission of signals between nerve cells. They work much faster than chemical synapses, where communication between cells takes place through the exchange of neurotransmitters and -modulators.
A possible experiment
The authors suggest for example the following experiment to test their platform theory: a human, an experimental animal or artificial intelligence is confronted with a novel problem that can only be solved by combining two or more rules learned in a different context. This creative combination of stored information and application to a new problem can only be accomplished using conscious cognitive operations.
By administering pharmacological substances that block gap junctions, the researchers would be able to test whether gap junctions do indeed play a decisive role in the processes. Gap junction blockers should inhibit performance in the experiment. However, routine execution of the individual rules, in the contexts in which they were learned, should still be possible.
“To what extent an artificial intelligence which is capable of independently solving a new and complex problem for which it has no predefined solution algorithm can likewise be considered conscious has to be tested,” point out the authors.
“Several conditions would have to be fulfilled: The first one, for example, would be fulfilled, if it successfully proposes a strategy to combat a pandemic by autonomously screening, evaluating, selecting and creatively combining information from the Internet.”
About this consciousness research news
Author: Julia Weiler
Contact: Julia Weiler – RUB
Image: The image is in the public domain
Original Research: Open access.
“Towards an animal model of consciousness based on the platform theory” by Armin Zlomuzica and Ekrem Dere. Behavioral Brain Research
Towards an animal model of consciousness based on the platform theory
The evolution of intellectual capacities has brought forth a continuum of consciousness levels subserved by neuronal networks of varying complexity. Brain pathologies, neurodegenerative, and mental diseases affect conscious cognition and behavior.
Although impairments in consciousness are among the most devastating consequences of neurological and mental diseases, valid and reliable animal models of consciousness, that could be used for preclinical research are missing.
The platform theory holds that the brain enters a conscious operation mode, whenever mental representations of stimuli, associations, concepts, memories, and experiences are effortfully maintained (in working memory) and actively manipulated.
We used the platform theory as a framework and evaluation standard to categorize behavioral paradigms with respect to the level of consciousness involved in task performance. According to the platform theory, a behavioral paradigm involves conscious cognitive operations, when the problem posed is unexpected, novel or requires the maintenance and manipulation of a large amount of information to perform cognitive operations on them.
Conscious cognitive operations are associated with a relocation of processing resources and the redirection of attentional focus. A consciousness behavioral test battery is proposed that is composed of tests which are assumed to require higher levels of consciousness as compared to other tasks and paradigms. The consciousness test battery for rodents includes the following tests: Working memory in the radial arm maze, episodic-like memory, prospective memory, detour test, and operant conditioning with concurrent variable-interval variable-ratio schedules.
Performance in this test battery can be contrasted with the performance in paradigms and tests that require lower levels of consciousness. Additionally, a second more comprehensive behavioral test battery is proposed to control for behavioral phenotypes not related to consciousness.
Our theory could serve as a guidance for the decryption of the neurobiological basis of consciousness.