January 18, 2011

Sizing Up Consciousness by Its Bits

From: NYTimes.com

One day in 2007, Dr. Giulio Tononi lay on a hospital stretcher as an anesthesiologist prepared him for surgery. For Dr. Tononi, it was a moment of intellectual exhilaration. He is a distinguished chair in consciousness science at the University of Wisconsin, and for much of his life he has been developing a theory of consciousness. Lying in the hospital, Dr. Tononi finally had a chance to become his own experiment.

The anesthesiologist was preparing to give Dr. Tononi one drug to render him unconscious, and another one to block muscle movements. Dr. Tononi suggested the anesthesiologist first tie a band around his arm to keep out the muscle-blocking drug. The anesthesiologist could then ask Dr. Tononi to lift his finger from time to time, so they could mark the moment he lost awareness.
The anesthesiologist did not share Dr. Tononi’s excitement. “He could not have been less interested,” Dr. Tononi recalled. “He just said, ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ and put me to sleep. He was thinking, ‘This guy must be out of his mind.’ ”

Dr. Tononi was not offended. Consciousness has long been the province of philosophers, and most doctors steer clear of their abstract speculations. After all, debating the finer points of what it is like to be a brain floating in a vat does not tell you how much anesthetic to give a patient.

But Dr. Tononi’s theory is, potentially, very different. 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. Perhaps then his anesthesiologist will become interested.

“I love his ideas,” said Christof Koch, an expert on consciousness at Caltech. “It’s the only really promising fundamental theory of consciousness.”

Sizing Up Consciousness by its Bits: Read the entire article

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