Prefrontal activity associated with the contents of consciousness

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.

34 thoughts on “Prefrontal activity associated with the contents of consciousness

  1. Life without a brain: Neuroradiological and behavioral evidence of neuroplasticity necessary to sustain brain function in the face of severe hydrocephalus

    “Merker makes a compelling argument for the upper brainstem e.g., thalamus, hypothalamus, midbrain DA system, superior/inferior colliculi, and pons for the integration of sensory information needed for goal directed behavior in real time42. All these areas have access to somatosensory, visual and auditory information independent of the cortex. Long before encephalization there was centralization of function in the upper brainstem for sensory integration, learning, memory, motivation, and organization and expression of complex behaviors. This centralization of life functions in subcortical areas would include the olfactory bulbs and cerebellum as noted above. R222 lived a long “normal” life by defaulting to brain organization that has sustained and propagated vertebrate life since inception.”

    https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-53042-3

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    1. This is not exactly scientific (and I’m not arguing it is) but it almost seems like there is a ideal model for a brain of a species and the brain, as long as the brainstem is present and working, will morph what else is available to it to implement the model. The best fit for the model may be to perform function F in area A but, if A isn’t available, the model will use area B to do F. In that case, there isn’t anything special about the prefrontal cortex except it may be optimally located in a normal brain for a particular function but the same function could be taken on by another part.

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      1. I think there’s something to that if the regions are missing at birth, or are lost early in development. It becomes much harder for a mature brain that loses them.

        But it’s worth noting that hydranencephalic kids are profoundly disabled. It isn’t just that they lack intelligence, it’s that they can’t move around any more than your typical newborn. Many are blind except in the most basally reflexive manner. So everything isn’t completely plastic above the brainstem, and / or some functionality requires a minimum of substrate.

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  2. I’m afraid these, for me, are like my really math-y posts are for you. Too far down in the weeds.

    There is also that I see parallels with high-energy physics, another field that has been stuck for decades. (Inches of progress when miles are needed.) In both cases, being stuck seems to lead to some fantastical ideas that seek a way out of the maze. Multiverses. IIT.

    I’m finding within myself a growing disdain for both fields. Science fiction physics and wide-eyed philosophy. Both fields seems badly in need of an Einstein or Copernicus — someone to change how we see things, a whole new paradigm.

    One thing about volcanoes, baseball, and airplanes: Studying them is a lot easier! 😀

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    1. I probably should have put the neuroscience weeds warning on this one. In truth, I vacillated on posting it. I trashed the draft last night, then changed my mind this morning and fished it out, figuring some of my friends who don’t follow Twitter might still be interested. But it’s definitely not for everyone.

      I would note that neuroscience isn’t stuck like portions of physics. These were empirical results, and there’s a steady stream of those coming. Neuroscientists aren’t lost in math. (Well, some are (cough)IIT(cough), but most aren’t.)

      But yeah, definitely there are easier things to study, not to mention easier things to interpret.

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      1. I think that progress is a key reason I don’t get into neuroscience — I take it seriously, so getting into it means truly getting into it (and there are only so many hours in a day; gotta make choices). I’m not one to dabble.

        Neuroscience is to consciousness a bit like materials science is to HE physics. Major progress in both whereas we’re stuck when it comes to the larger picture. (Or, I suppose, in physics the ultimately tiny picture. 🙂 )

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        1. The neuroscience – consciousness comparison to materials science – HE physics is interesting. In truth I’m not sure that’s entirely fair… for HE physics, since at least there we have an idea what we’re talking about.

          I think there’s enormous progress in cognitive neuroscience related to consciousness, but because it’s such a vague ambiguous topic (one philosopher told me he prefers “underdetermined”), it’s subject to endless tail chasing. Put another way, science is making lots of progress on the specific questions, not so much the ill defined philosophical mush.

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    1. Author on the paper here. There is a LOT of misinformation out there, especially from radical animal rights activists who neither understand the science nor are willing to listen to us who work on animals.

      Nikos Logothetis himself has been at the forefront of ensuring human medicine standards in primate research. These monkeys are happy and they’ve been performing generations of experiments (and not for just one scientist).

      As scientists we always try to reduce, refine and replace. But there are some studies that simply cannot be done in other species.

      Moreover, all the new major drugs (not the evergreened ones) necessarily go through primate testing. Especially medications against viruses and those for neurodegenerative disorders.

      These animals are mistreated in no way. Please visit this organisation of ours – http://www.pro-test-deutschland.de/en/ for more details. I’d be happy to answer any questions about the study or the ethics of animal experimentation.

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          1. You are very kind but no, we will simply agree to disagree. All that I may have to say has already been said by philisopher David Pearce and his Abolition Project. But thank you for the offer.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. While I do endorse the project of David Pierce, I consider his vision far too optimistic. No we’re not going to build a paradise for all sentient life. The best case scenario will mainly be to include the cute stuff that we were genetically engineered to have sympathy for — the puppies, dolphins and so on. Why? Because our own happiness is all that matters to us in the end. Sometimes this means believing that other animals don’t feel, while other times it means believing that they’re all that matters. The sooner it’s realized that in the end we’re all self interested bastards, the sooner that the rational person might effectively deal with this circumstance beyond standard political nonsense.

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          3. Very witty but I fear you are entirely correct. One sentient species is able to dominate life on earth and considers every other species mere food or fodder or some sort of inferior life form to be used and abused.

            Liked by 1 person

          4. For the sake of argument, why is that view necessarily incorrect? Every other species on the planet makes full use of whatever it can get its hands on. Why can’t we? What moral law says everything else isn’t food or fodder?

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          5. You’ll get no opposition from me Wyrd — I both consider this view correct, and don’t consider there to be any moral laws. The sooner it’s realized that in the end we’re all self interested products of our circumstances, the sooner that the rational person might effectively deal with this circumstance beyond standard political nonsense. It’s the social tool of morality, I think, which has prevented our mental and behavioral sciences from formally acknowledging this.

            Well… except that it is acknowledged in the science of economics. This is a specialized field quite off of basic psychology however, permitting its “utility maximization” premise to effectively be ignored for general behavior purposes. Essentially, formalizing the notion that “happiness constitutes good” has been too politically damaging to get far. It harbors too many repugnant implications.

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          6. Argument is not something I enjoy or participate in. Hence leaving it to David Pearce to make my points for me. Yes, every other species on the planet from the microbe upwards kills or at least uses others to survive and prosper. I wonder if there is any argument to be made that our greater level of consciousness should prompt us to attempt to alleviate suffering now we are aware of it? That is at any rate how I feel, whether or not any moral law compels me to feel or act that way.

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          7. “That is at any rate how I feel, whether or not any moral law compels me to feel or act that way.”

            Certainly your right. The thing is, that applies to anyone doing anything. It would apply, for example, to my positive feelings about eating meat.

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          8. My dear Mr Weird Smythe, this is precisely why I tend not to waste my time arguing on the internet. It is so pointless and futile. You no doubt have positive feelings about pointless point scoring on the internet. 😁

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  3. “Ill-defined philosophical mush”? How dare you, sir, We philosophers have our pride. Mush on we shall—it’s a good temporizing sort of pursuit.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey, sometimes we have to call it like we see it. Not every philosopher uses phrases like “experience” or “what it’s like” while pretending they’ve said something precise, but for those who do: mush. 🙂

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  4. Oh, I always mean something precise—at least when I’m not referring to anything. (I think that’s from a, “Monty Python”, sketch).

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    1. Maybe this one?

      When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

      Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

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  5. I dig scornful tones. Pleasantries, however, must have their day. Your blog is superior. Let’s just leave it at that.

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