QR6.1.6 Information Theories

Physical reality can’t explain consciousness but its information result is often said to do so. Integrated information theory argues that “consciousness is integrated information(Tononi, 2008), generalizing an earlier theory that brain functions like language, vision and hearing deposit information into a global workspace that causes consciousness (Baars, 1988).

As sense data enter the brain, sight, sound, touch and smell are processed differently, then passed to specialist areas for memory, emotions, language, planning and muscle control, but how does the brain do this? According to global workspace theory, different brain areas put data into a common region for other areas to label, store in memory or use in plans. Consciousness then arises when:

“… the information has entered into a specific storage area that makes it available to the rest of the brain.” (Dehaene, 2014)p163.

But if a specific brain area is critical for consciousness, why has it never been found? Even people born with no cortex are conscious (Merker, 2007), so it can’t be a cortical area. Workspace theory also suggests that neurons “chat” like little people:

“… neural systems do not merely report to their superiors; they also chat among themselves.” (Dehaene, 2014)p176.

It follows that brain science reduces to “neuron sociology” (Nunez, 2016) p18 by the analogy of Internet crowd control:

“… it is helpful to think metaphorically of a theater of mind. In the conscious spotlight on stage – the global workspace – an actor speaks, and his words and gestures are distributed to many unconscious audience members, sitting in the darkened hall. Different listeners understand the performance in different ways. But as the audience claps or boos in response, the actor can change his words, or walk off to yield to the next performer.(Baars & Laureys, 2004) p672.

The social analogy is seductive but that neural areas chat like little people over nerve phone lines, or clap and boo each other as we do online, isn’t supported by information theory or fact. To exchange data in this way, the brain would need common language for information exchange. For the Internet to share information requires agreed protocol layers, like:

1. Data layer. Ethernet protocol.

2. Network layer. Internet protocol (IP).

3. Transport layer. Transmission Control Program protocol (TCP).

4. Application layer. Hyper Text Transfer Protocol (http).

TCP/IP/http protocols took decades to develop from the original Arpanet, based on a central control group that the brain doesn’t have. Upgrades like from IP version 4 to 6 require browsers to be updated to work with them and the brain has no way to either set global protocols or update them if they change. And these protocols are just to pass data packages around – to actually see a picture or hear music on the Internet still needs an application for that data type!

For example, Notepad displays text and Paint displays pictures but loading text into Paint or a picture into Notepad gives nonsense so even if they put data into a common area, neither could read what the other posted. To do this, Paint would need code to analyze text and Notepad would need code to analyze pictures, which increases program size. And if either application changed its processing, the other would have to update its included code to work reliably.

Programs like Word that read text and display pictures become huge as a result and they still can’t read zip files. For a brain function to include every other denies the benefit of specialization and updating every function when it changes in order to share data isn’t feasible for the brain. Information science tells us that one can’t plug the optic nerve into the auditory cortex and expect information to flow like water.

The auditory area of the brain can no more read smell data than I can read a text written in Chinese. What use is a common stage for neural actors if smell data can only be read by the olfactory lobe? To share data by a global workspace would need a universal translator of smells, thoughts, movements and feelings, which is impossible.

A theory of brain data exchange must respect information science but global workspace theory doesn’t. What can’t work for computer networks won’t work for a brain network. The Internet shares data with no evidence that it is conscious, and although information integration theory expects it to soon become so (Koch, 2014), there is no evidence for this.

The cartoonish picture of neural areas as little people listening to a common brain language that doesn’t exist, merging claps or boos in an impossible way, on a central stage we have no evidence for, isn’t helpful. Some other way must be found for the brain to share local processing.