A Neuroscientist’s Radical Theory of How Networks Become Conscious

Brandon Keim interviewed neuroscientist Christof Koch, who theorizes that consciousness arises in any network that’s highly connected and highly complex. There are the usual artificial intelligence related questions, but then there’s this:

WIRED: Ecosystems are interconnected. Can a forest be conscious?

Koch: In the case of the brain, it’s the whole system that’s conscious, not the individual nerve cells. For any one ecosystem, it’s a question of how richly the individual components, such as the trees in a forest, are integrated within themselves as compared to causal interactions between trees.

The philosopher John Searle, in his review of Consciousness, asked, “Why isn’t America conscious?” After all, there are 300 million Americans, interacting in very complicated ways. Why doesn’t consciousness extend to all of America? It’s because integrated information theory postulates that consciousness is a local maximum. You and me, for example: We’re interacting right now, but vastly less than the cells in my brain interact with each other. While you and I are conscious as individuals, there’s no conscious Übermind that unites us in a single entity. You and I are not collectively conscious. It’s the same thing with ecosystems. In each case, it’s a question of the degree and extent of causal interactions among all components making up the system.

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