In a nutshell: ‘Integrated information patterns’ characterise how groups of brain cells talk to and influence each other, which may form the basis of our conscious experience of the world.

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It’s clear that our conscious experiences – what we perceive and feel at each moment – have something to do with the brain. But what exactly is the connection? Understanding how conscious experience comes from brains is one of the greatest challenges facing neuroscientists.

Brain Function CoE associate investigator Naotsugu Tsuchiya from Monash University and his colleagues in the USA and Japan, including lead author Andrew Haun, tackled this problem from a new direction. Using ideas from a theory of consciousness, the group hypothesized that the way we consciously experience any object should be supported by the way groups of brain cells communicate with one another.

For example, a face is usually perceived as a whole object composed of many parts – such as the eyes, nose, and mouth. According to the researchers, it’s not enough that different brain cells process information about each part of the face; the whole perception should be reflected by strong communication between the brain cells that respond to each part, to bind the mental image back together.

To test this idea, the researchers recorded brain activity in human neurosurgery patients while showing them specially designed images. The team identified that one specific way brain cells communicate with each other, which they call the ‘integrated information pattern’, closely matched what the patients reported seeing at each moment.

The group’s approach is quite different from traditional methods to study perception, which process brain activity through sophisticated computer programs that perform ‘mind reading’. Many philosophers and neuroscientists have criticised such traditional methods, because they seem to assume that conscious experiences are already there in the brain, ready to be ‘read out’. In this novel approach, no mind reader is necessary; instead, the team proposes that conscious experiences are contained in activation patterns of the brain. The proposal is still new and requires further testing, but the current results are promising.

Next steps:
The researchers are identifying the ‘integrated information patterns’ that correspond to various visual and auditory experiences in humans, or to different types of experiences in other animals. They hope to describe in more detail exactly how these patterns correspond to conscious experiences.

Haun, A.M., Oizumi, M., Kovach, C.K., Kawasaki, H., Oya, H., Howard, M.A., Adolphs, R., & Tsuchiya, N. (2017). Conscious perception as integrated information patterns in human electrocorticography. eNeuro, doi: 10.1523/ENEURO.0085-17.2017.

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