Qualia could arise from information processing in local cortical networks

Front Psychol. 2013 Mar 14;4:121. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00121. eCollection 2013.


Re-entrant feedback, either within sensory cortex or arising from prefrontal areas, has been strongly linked to the emergence of consciousness, both in theoretical and experimental work. This idea, together with evidence for local micro-consciousness, suggests the generation of qualia could in some way result from local network activity under re-entrant activation. This paper explores the possibility by examining the processing of information by local cortical networks. It highlights the difference between the information structure (how the information is physically embodied), and the information message (what the information is about). It focuses on the network's ability to recognize information structures amongst its inputs under conditions of extensive local feedback, and to then assign information messages to those structures. It is shown that if the re-entrant feedback enables the network to achieve an attractor state, then the message assigned in any given pass of information through the network is a representation of the message assigned in the previous pass-through of information. Based on this ability the paper argues that as information is repeatedly cycled through the network, the information message that is assigned evolves from a recognition of what the input structure is, to what it is like, to how it appears, to how it seems. It could enable individual networks to be the site of qualia generation. The paper goes on to show networks in cortical layers 2/3 and 5a have the connectivity required for the behavior proposed, and reviews some evidence for a link between such local cortical cyclic activity and conscious percepts. It concludes with some predictions based on the theory discussed.

Keywords: information processing; local cortical network; network feedback; oscillatory activity; qualia; re-entrant feedback.