Testing theories of consciousness

Every day we lose and regain consciousness as we fall asleep and wake up. Yet, we still do not know how consciousness come about in the brain. Our long-term goal is to shed light onto this fundamental question: how does a physical system, such as the brain, support experience? As an intermediate step and with the generous support of the Templeton World Charity Foundation (TWCF) we are leading a large-scale collaboration to test in the framework of an open science, adversarial collaboration two major theories of consciousness: Global Neuronal Workspace (GNW) and Integrated Information Theory (IIT). Two studies have been proposed to test contradictory predictions of the theories, anticipated outcomes and their interpretation have been agreed upon with the adversaries, i.e., Stanislas Dehaene and Giulio Tononi, and an independent panel of expert scientists is conducting the studies. A number of features make this unique: First, the proposed experiments, predictions, analyses and expected outcomes have been preregistered in the Center for Open Science (COS) to increase transparency in the scientific process. Second, to test those predictions, 6 expert scientists, impartial to the theories, will collect neuroimaging data using the most up-to-date methodologies for human neuroscience, i.e., functional magnetic resonance imaging, simultaneous electroencephalography and magnetoencephalography, and invasive electrocorticography, constituting the largest multimodal dataset to date. Third, studies will be highly powered to support strong statistical inferences. Fourth, an in-built internal replication will assure the soundness and replicability of the results. Fifth, all of the experimental procedures, multimodal datasets and analysis tools developed in this project will be made openly available to researchers in the field. As part of the project we are developing a video game to test for consciousness under more naturalistic conditions and with richer stimulus materials. 

If successful, this project will accelerate research on consciousness by providing decisive, field-transformative evidence in favor of one theory and against the other. Our datasets, unique in their nature, will allow for discovery science further propelling the impact of this project in the field. Our project will also establish a groundbreaking model for scientific practices in cognitive neuroscience at large, by demonstrating the impact of team-based adversarial research and open data to address some of the major riddles in the field, much like established practices in other fields of inquiry such as physics and genomics. Thus, this project may dramatically change the landscape of research, that is, the sociology of research, in the field of cognitive neuroscience.  For a coverage of this project check this article in Science and the Financial Times