The other day I bemoaned the fact that the Templeton competition between global workspace theory (GWT) and integrated information theory (IIT) would take so long, particularly the point about having to wait to see the role of the front and back of the brain in consciousness clarified. Well, it looks like many aren’t waiting, and studies seem to be piling up showing that the frontal regions have a role.
In a preprint of a new study, the authors discuss how they exposed monkeys to a binocular rivalry type situation. They monitored the monkeys using a no-report protocol, to minimize the possibility that the monitored activity was more about the need to report than perception. In this case, the no-report was achieved by monitoring a reflexive eye movement that had been previously shown to correlate with conscious perception. So the monkeys didn’t have to “report” by pressing a button or any other kind of volitional motor action.
The authors were able “decode the contents of consciousness from prefrontal ensemble activity”. Importantly, they were able to find this activity when other studies hadn’t, because while those other studies had depended on fMRI scans using blood oxygen levels, this study used equipment physically implanted in the monkey’s brain.
These results add support for cognitive theories of consciousness, such as GWT and higher order theories (HOT), and seem to contradict the predictions made by IIT.
Of course, it doesn’t close off every loophole. There was speculation on Twitter that Ned Block will likely point out that some variation of his no-post-perceptual-cognition protocol is necessary. In other words, it can’t be ruled out that the activity wasn’t the monkeys having cognition about their perception after the perception itself. (Which of course assumes that cognition about the perception and conscious perception are distinct things, something cognitive theories deny.)
And as I’ve noted before, I tend to doubt that the prefrontal cortex’s role will be the whole story, which seems necessary for strict HOT. It seems possible that someone could have sensory consciousness without it, but probably not affect consciousness, and not introspective consciousness.
So, not the last word, but important results. After the study last week calling into question the role of the P3b wave, it seems to get global neuronal workspace off the ropes.