An adversarial collaboration to critically evaluate theories of consciousness

TitleAn adversarial collaboration to critically evaluate theories of consciousness
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2023
AuthorsConsortium, C, Ferrante, O, Gorska-Klimowska, U, Henin, S, Hirschhorn, R, Khalaf, A, Lepauvre, A, Liu, L, Richter, D, Vidal, Y, Bonacchi, N, Brown, T, Sripad, P, Armendariz, M, Bendtz, K, Ghafari, T, Hetenyi, D, Jeschke, J, Kozma, C, Mazumder, DR, Montenegro, S, Seedat, A, Sharafeldin, A, Yang, S, Baillet, S, Chalmers, DJ, Cichy, RM, Fallon, F, Panagiotaropoulos, TI, Blumenfeld, H, de Lange, FP, Devore, S, Jensen, O, Kreiman, G, Luo, H, Boly, M, Dehaene, S, Koch, C, Tononi, G, Pitts, M, Mudrik, L, Melloni, L
Date Published07/2023

Different theories explain how subjective experience arises from brain activity1,2. These theories have independently accrued evidence, yet, confirmation bias and dependence on design choices hamper progress in the field3. Here, we present an open science adversarial collaboration which directly juxtaposes Integrated Information Theory (IIT)4,5 and Global Neuronal Workspace Theory (GNWT)6–10, employing a theory-neutral consortium approach11,12. We investigate neural correlates of the content and duration of visual experience. The theory proponents and the consortium developed and preregistered the experimental design, divergent predictions, expected outcomes, and their interpretation12. 256 human subjects viewed suprathreshold stimuli for variable durations while neural activity was measured with functional magnetic resonance imaging, magnetoencephalography, and electrocorticography. We find information about conscious content in visual, ventro-temporal and inferior frontal cortex, with sustained responses in occipital and lateral temporal cortex reflecting stimulus duration, and content-specific synchronization between frontal and early visual areas. These results confirm some predictions of IIT and GNWT, while substantially challenging both theories: for IIT, a lack of sustained synchronization within posterior cortex contradicts the claim that network connectivity specifies consciousness. GNWT is challenged by the general lack of ignition at stimulus offset and limited representation of certain conscious dimensions in prefrontal cortex. Beyond challenging the theories themselves, we present an alternative approach to advance cognitive neuroscience through a principled, theory-driven, collaborative effort. We highlight the challenges to change people’s mind 13 and the need for a quantitative framework integrating evidence for systematic theory testing and building.


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