“I think consciousness will remain a mystery,” says Princeton physicist Edward Witten, who has been compared to Isaac Newton and Einstein, and is largely responsible for the popularity of string theory over the past several decades. “Yes, that’s what I tend to believe. I tend to think that the workings of the conscious brain will be elucidated to a large extent. Biologists and perhaps physicists will understand much better how the brain works. But why something that we call consciousness goes with those workings, I think that will remain mysterious. I have a much easier time imagining how we understand the Big Bang than I have imagining how we can understand consciousness.”
Scientists have long struggled with what consciousness is and where it lives in the brain. Are newborns, animals and intelligent computers conscious? Does consciousness fade when patients become unresponsive after brain damage, during general anesthesia or even in deep sleep?
Enter, Giulio Tononi, David P. White Chair in Sleep Medicine and Distinguished Chair in Consciousness Science at the University of Wisconsin who studies consciousness and its disorders as well as the mechanisms and functions of sleep.
Tononi proposes that integrated information theory (IIT) starts not from the brain but from consciousness itself — the world of experience — and derives from it what it takes for a system to be conscious. Integrated information theory is a comprehensive theory of what consciousness is, what determines its quantity and quality, and how it emerges from causal structures such as neural networks.
“Is it possible that consciousness may exist by itself, even in the absence of matter, just like gravitational waves, excitations of space, may exist in the absence of protons and electrons?” asks Andrei Linde, Russian-American theoretical physicist and the Harald Trap Friis Professor of Physics at Stanford University. “Will it not turn out, with the further development of science, that the study of the universe and the study of consciousness will be inseparably linked, and that ultimate progress in the one will be impossible without progress in the other?”