Theories of consciousness

Nat Rev Neurosci. 2022 Jul;23(7):439-452. doi: 10.1038/s41583-022-00587-4. Epub 2022 May 3.


Recent years have seen a blossoming of theories about the biological and physical basis of consciousness. Good theories guide empirical research, allowing us to interpret data, develop new experimental techniques and expand our capacity to manipulate the phenomenon of interest. Indeed, it is only when couched in terms of a theory that empirical discoveries can ultimately deliver a satisfying understanding of a phenomenon. However, in the case of consciousness, it is unclear how current theories relate to each other, or whether they can be empirically distinguished. To clarify this complicated landscape, we review four prominent theoretical approaches to consciousness: higher-order theories, global workspace theories, re-entry and predictive processing theories and integrated information theory. We describe the key characteristics of each approach by identifying which aspects of consciousness they propose to explain, what their neurobiological commitments are and what empirical data are adduced in their support. We consider how some prominent empirical debates might distinguish among these theories, and we outline three ways in which theories need to be developed to deliver a mature regimen of theory-testing in the neuroscience of consciousness. There are good reasons to think that the iterative development, testing and comparison of theories of consciousness will lead to a deeper understanding of this most profound of mysteries.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Consciousness*
  • Humans
  • Neurosciences*