Information and the Origin of Qualia

Front Syst Neurosci. 2017 Apr 21;11:22. doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2017.00022. eCollection 2017.

Abstract

This article argues that qualia are a likely outcome of the processing of information in local cortical networks. It uses an information-based approach and makes a distinction between information structures (the physical embodiment of information in the brain, primarily patterns of action potentials), and information messages (the meaning of those structures to the brain, and the basis of qualia). It develops formal relationships between these two kinds of information, showing how information structures can represent messages, and how information messages can be identified from structures. The article applies this perspective to basic processing in cortical networks or ensembles, showing how networks can transform between the two kinds of information. The article argues that an input pattern of firing is identified by a network as an information message, and that the output pattern of firing generated is a representation of that message. If a network is encouraged to develop an attractor state through attention or other re-entrant processes, then the message identified each time physical information is cycled through the network becomes "representation of the previous message". Using an example of olfactory perception, it is shown how this piggy-backing of messages on top of previous messages could lead to olfactory qualia. The message identified on each pass of information could evolve from inner identity, to inner form, to inner likeness or image. The outcome is an olfactory quale. It is shown that the same outcome could result from information cycled through a hierarchy of networks in a resonant state. The argument for qualia generation is applied to other sensory modalities, showing how, through a process of brain-wide constraint satisfaction, a particular state of consciousness could develop at any given moment. Evidence for some of the key predictions of the theory is presented, using ECoG data and studies of gamma oscillations and attractors, together with an outline of what further evidence is needed to provide support for the theory.

Keywords: Shannon information; attractors; consciousness; neural networks; qualia; semantic information.