September 24, 2010

Meet the doctor who wants to measure your consciousness

Dr. Giulio Tononi has devoted his life's work to developing a theory of consciousness. A distinguished chair in consciousness science at the University of Wisconsin, Dr. Tononi's interest in consciousness began when he was a teenager. According to a recent profile published in the New York Times, Dr. Tononi was "initially interested in ethics, but he decided that questions of personal responsibility depended on our consciousness of our own actions. So he would have to figure out consciousness first. 'I’ve been stuck with this thing for most of my life,' he said."

Now, after years of research (sometimes even using himself as the test subject), Dr. Tononi hopes to build a system that can measure human consciousness by monitoring the brain's integrated neuron network. Tononi argues that our brains are systems of information that can be studied in bits---the more active bits there are, the more conscious we are. He and his colleagues have developed an Integrated Information Theory that they claim avoids many of the pitfalls that past models of consciousness have been susceptible to. Though they still have a long way to go, Dr. Tononi's preliminary results show promise:

Dr. Tononi is now collaborating with Dr. Steven Laureys of the University of Liège in Belgium to test his theory on people in persistent vegetative states. Although he and his colleagues have tested only a small group of subjects, the results are so far falling in line with previous experiments.

Dr. Tononi acknowledged, “The theory has to be developed a bit more before I worry about what’s the best consciousness meter you could develop.” But once he has one, he would not limit himself to humans. As long as people have puzzled over consciousness, they have wondered whether animals are conscious as well. Dr. Tononi suspects that it is not a simple yes-or-no answer. Rather, animals will prove to have different levels of consciousness, depending on their integrated information.

He and his colleagues are translating the poetry of our conscious experiences into the precise language of mathematics. To do so, they are adapting information theory, a branch of science originally applied to computers and telecommunications. If Dr. Tononi is right, he and his colleagues may be able to build a “consciousness meter” that doctors can use to measure consciousness as easily as they measure blood pressure and body temperature.

If Dr. Tononi is successful, we'll be able to measure levels of consciousness in humans who are sleeping, dreaming, awake, meditating, or in vegetative states. What do you think of the idea of developing a system of measuring consciousness?

Image: nytimes.com

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Vu Nguyen's picture

There is consciousness during life while the body or brain still able to exort consciousness normally or at will, consciousness during life while the body or brain can no longer exort consciousness at will for period or moment but physical body still alive (such as real NDE) and consciousness after life (past physical died threshold or body cannot be resurrected or revived). Measuring brain activity or the function of neurons does not necessary means quantizing pure consciousness. Present technology and methods only measure consciousness at the upper or beginning physical layer (not consciousness of truth), not yet at the quantum or Plank scale layers, not including the content (whether meaningful or not; or real or unreal), not yet the elements/energy or psyche characteristics, and certainly not at the spiritual level. Furthermore, the evolution of consciousness (due to physical body, brain and mind development or evolution) must also be analyzed or taken into account. Pure consciousness characteristics or spiritual existence is much more sophisticated, meaningful, dynamic, alive and aware.

Vu Nguyen's picture

There is consciousness during life while the body or brain still able to exort consciousness normally or at will, consciousness during life while the body or brain can no longer exort consciousness at will for period or moment but physical body still alive (such as real NDE) and consciousness after life (past physical died threshold or body cannot be resurrected or revived). Measuring brain activity or the function of neurons does not necessary means quantizing pure consciousness. Present technology and methods only measure consciousness at the upper or beginning physical layer (not consciousness of truth), not yet at the quantum or Plank scale layers, and certainly not at the spiritual level. Pure consciousness characteristics or spiritual existence is much more sophisticated, meaningful, dynamic, alive and aware.