In 360 BCE, the philosopher Plato discussed the nature of consciousness, addressing it as a real phenomenon that could be considered a part of reality, because of its ability to both affect and be affected by other consciousnesses. This simple concept places consciousness, something that is on one hand ubiquitous to the human experience, and on the other remains one of the most elusive phenomenon known in terms of our inability to not only quantify it, but also to prove it exists in the first place. However, researchers at the University of Wisconsin have made a step towards making consciousness a quantifiable phenomenon, where science may be able to address it in a more direct fashion.

The root of this theory, called “integrated information theory,” was developed in 2008 by Giulio Tononi, a neuroscientist with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Sleep and Consciousness. This theory relies on the concept that for something to exist, it must have a cause-effect nature, in that it must be able to affect, or be affected by something else. This is where Plato’s earlier idea comes into play, as per his 360 BCE dialogue, Sophist:

“My notion would be, that anything which possesses any sort of power to affect another, or to be affected by another, if only for a single moment, however trifling the cause and however slight the effect, has real existence; and I hold that the definition of being is simply power.”

Tononi’s integrated information theory put that idea to use, and from it came a theoretical framework that can be used to help understand consciousness. Despite our not being able to directly perceive consciousness, we do know that it has an effect both on our environment and, as Tononi’s theory points out, perhaps more importantly, on itself as well.

“Consciousness exists for itself and by itself,” explains neurologist Melanie Boly, one of Tononi’s co-researchers. “Thus it should have cause and effect on itself.” Boly is part of a research team working toward developing a mathematical framework that could be used to test the validity of integrated information theory. She believes that this theory is correct, and if her team is able to validate it, this will also validate Plato’s notion that consciousness is indeed real. 

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