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The word consciousness is a word typically wrapped in ambiguity and confusion. Many use the term regularly but have a hard time defining what it actually is. In this infographic, we help clear the fog and share a theory of consciousness that both eastern philosophy and western science are beginning to agree accurately describes the mysterious state. You’ll learn what the Integrated Information Theory (ITT) of consciousness is, which could dramatically shift the way you look at the world.

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The word consciousness is a word typically wrapped in ambiguity and confusion. Many use the term regularly but have a hard time defining what is actually is. In this infographic, we help clear the fog and share a theory of consciousness that both eastern philosophy and western science are beginning to agree accurately describes the mysterious state. You’ll learn what the Integrated Information Theory (ITT) of consciousness is, and in doing may dramatically look at the world in a different light.

Consciousness (noun) – Sense of awareness of self and of the environment.

Panpsychism – Throughout history, cultures and religions have believed in what in West is called ‘panpsychism’. Coined by Italian philosopher Francesco Patrizi in the 16th century, it derives from two Greek words pan (all) and psyche (soul or mind). Panpsychism is the belief that consciousness is everywhere.

  • Ancient Greece – Many famous greek philosophers such as Plato wrote of an idea of a universal consciousness. Plato introduced a concept he called anima mundi — the world-soul.
  • Animism – Religions such as Shinto, Taoism, and Paganism believed that various objects, locations, and annimals were comprised of spiritual qualities.
  • Buddhism – The idea of universal consciousness is prominent in Buddhist philosophy. One of Buddhist widely held beliefs is to reduce the suffering of all conscious beings – human or otherwise.
  • Modern philosophy – Modern philosophers such as Arthur Schopenhauer, and the father of American psychology William James promoted panpsychism.

Western science has largely disregarded ideas of consciousness residing anywhere outside of the human mind. However psychiatrist and neuroscientist Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin–Madison has developed what he calls an integrated information theory (IIT) of consciousness. His breakthrough is having many of the smartest minds throughout the world reexamine their beliefs towards the idea of universal consciousness. Let’s take a deeper dive into the what this theory is, by summarizing some of Tononi and neuroscientist Christof Koch’s findings around this fascinating topic.

The Integrated Information Theory (IIT) Of Consciousness Explained

  1. Consciousness Is Differentiated – There are two basic pillars of IIT. The first is that conscious states are highly differentiated, and informationally rich. Think of it this way – there are an infinite spectrum of things you can be conscious of. From watching your favorite athlete score a goal, to listening to your favorite album, to seeing your dog run through the garden. Think of every moment in these events as a frame in a movie reel. Each frame is a product of your ever-changing consciousness experience.
  2. Consciousness Is Integrated – The second pillar of IIT is that information comprising conscious states are highly integrated. According to Koch “No matter how hard you try, you cannot force yourself to see the world in black-and-white, nor can you see only the left half of your field of view and not the right. When you’re looking at your friend’s face, you can’t fail to also notice if she is crying. Whatever information you are conscious of is wholly and completely presented to your mind; it cannot be subdivided. Underlying this unity of consciousness is a multitude of causal interactions among the relevant parts of your brain.”
  3. What Constitutes Consciousness – According to Koch, in order for consciousness to arise, “You need to be a single, integrated entity with a large repertoire of highly differentiated states.” The human brain, containing 100 billions neurons, and 100 trillion integrated connections between them is a perfect example. The infinite types of connections made between the neurons of this network represent differentiated states of consciousness.
  4. Measuring Consciousness – The more integrated information a system has, the higher level of its consciousness. According to Dr. Tononi’s theory, we can derive a single number to measure this: Φ (pronounced “fi”). The more connections and interactions a system has, the higher its Φ, and the higher its level of consciousness. With over 100 billion neurons connected in the human brain, we have a high degree of Φ. Fruit flies with 250,000 neurons, have a lower Φ. Roundworms with only 300 neurons, have even less Φ.
  5. Studies Measuring Consciousness – To test his theory, Dr. Tononi conducted a study where his team placed small magnetic coils on the heads of volunteers. During the test, the coil sent out a pulse of magnetism to the head. This caused activity in a small set of neurons, which sent signals to other neurons, and neural echoes continued throughout the brain for 295 milliseconds. Tononi then gave a sedative to the group, and delivered another pulse. As expected, the reverberations only lasted 110 milliseconds. As the sedative wore off, and the pulses again resulted in longer echoes. We can conclude that as the interactions between areas of the brain diminish, so too does consciousness.
  6. Levels of Consciousness – Under the lends of Integrated Information Theory, humans only represent a small fraction of conscious systems in reality. As long as a system has a Φ greater than 0, they have a minimum level of consciousness. This not only includes biological organisms such dogs, mice, ants, or bacteria, but non-biological organisms such as networks of computers or artificial intelligence.
  7. Consciousness Universl – in 2013 Christof Koch (one of the foremost experts on consciousness) had a public discussion with the a group of Buddhist monks including the Daila Lama, debating various issues of the mind. According to Koch, the Daila Lama told him that the Buddha taught that sentience is everywhere at varying levels, and humans should have compassion for all these sentient beings. After realizing the implications of IIT theory, he hadn’t fully appreciated the weight of this Buddhist philosophy.

Under The Integrated Information Theory, These Are Conscious Beings:

  • Humans
  • Animals
  • Plants
  • Bacteria
  • Computer Networks
  • Artificial Intelligence

What are practical applications of Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness?

  • With the Integrated Information Theory, we can objectively measure the amount of consciousness a system has, through a dependable, step-by-step process. Here are various application this can be useful:
  • Anesthesiology – Anesthesiologists would be able to precisely measure their patient’s level of consciousness as they are sedated in surgery.
  • Vegetative States – Physicians and families debating whether to end life support for those in vegetative states will be able to use a consciousness meter to help in their decision.
  • Dementia – Integrated Information Theory of consciousness will help physicians learn more about people with severe dementia, and how much awareness they have.
  • Biological Creatures – Knowing the level of consciousness in biological creatures would reexamine the way we should look and treat beings such as dogs, cows, fish, or even plants.
  • Artificial Intelligence – As artificial intelligent systems become more developed in the future, there will be increasing debate whether they are conscious organisms with the ability to feel. IIT will help assist in these discussions.

Photo by Seam Less


About Tony Balbin

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