Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).

Glimpses into the Life and Work of Great Thinkers in Neuroscience and Philosophy

Giulio Tononi

Rania Serena Soetirto

One of the most distinguished leaders in the field of consciousness studies today is Giulio Tononi, a researcher and scientist. Tononi was born in Trento, a city in the Trentino-Alto Adige region of northern Italy. An established neuroscientist and psychiatrist, Tononi holds a Distinguished Chair in Consciousness Science at the University of Wisconsin. Tononi served as a medical officer in the army before he received his postgraduate doctoral degree in neurobiology from Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, Italy. As a scientist, Tononi specializes in the study of consciousness and its disorders, in particular, the mechanism and functions of sleep in the human mind and body. His studies have proven that sleep is beneficial for brain restoration. Currently, Tononi is most famous for his Integrated Information Theory (IIT), which is a comprehensive theory on the nature of consciousness, and the way it emerges from the complex networks within one's brain. The theory has been highly influential since it can be scientifically tested.

Giulio Tononi
Giulio Tononi

In 2004, Tononi published a research article titled “An Information Integration Theory of Consciousness.” This was the first time he proposed the idea of Integrated Information Theory. He theorized that consciousness has to do with the capacity of a system to integrate information. With the subjective experience of consciousness, IIT involves the positioning of the physical attributes necessary for a system to realize consciousness. According to IIT, consciousness requires a grouping of elements in a system that results in a physical cause and effect. In accordance with this theory, if the brain does not produce or possess the necessary elements then it would not be able to generate consciousness. In general, Tononi argues in his article that subjective experience is the same as a system's capacity to integrate information. Tononi points out that any physical system has subjective component, regardless of how that system is constructed, which implies that it is possible to create machines with a sense of consciousness. In accordance with IIT, Tononi has developed a mathematical formula to measure consciousness as a quantity. He asserts that information integration can be considered as a quantity or a unit, similar to how people understand mass and energy.

On the research of sleep, Tononi has hypothesized that sleep serves to renormalize synaptic strength, which counterbalances the net increase of synaptic strength that occurs when a person is awake. With Dr. Chiara Cirelli, Tononi discovered that synaptic strength in the brain increases during moments of wakefulness and decreases during sleep. Studies in humans show the slow waves that occur in the brain during sleep are critical for brain restoration and performance enhancements, solidifying the importance of sleep for one's health and well-being. Through an experiment on rats, Tononi and his group discovered that a lack of sleep can affect an individual's memory, attention span, and the ability to perform simple tasks. Tononi deduced that sleep might not only be a state of inactivity but might be a process to initiate or activate certain cellular functions needed by the body. Through experimentation, it was found that there are specific genes present during moments of wakefulness that differ from genes that are present when one is asleep. The genes associated with being awake include mitochondrial genes that are responsible for metabolism, memory, and stress response. Meanwhile, sleep-related genes are more involved in the process of consolidating memories and protein synthesis. Sleep is therefore necessary to achieve synaptic homeostasis. Tononi's hypothesis is influential in understanding sleep deprivation and for developing medication to help people with sleeping disorders.

In 2010, Tononi and Yuval Nir released a research article through the Department of Psychiatry, University of Wisconsin, Madison called “Dreaming and the Brain: from Phenomenology to Neurophysiology.” The research argues that dream consciousness is similar to waking consciousness. As dreams reflect an individual's character, and desires, an analysis has revealed that there is a correlation between mood, imagination, interests, and concerns when a person is awake and asleep. At the end of the article, Tononi concludes that the neurophysiology of REM sleep offers a critical beginning to understand dream phenomenology with underlying brain activity. Based on the results of his research, Tononi asserts that dreams should be viewed as a powerful form of an individual's imagination, an act that can only be done when one is conscious. When dreams are viewed in this fashion then it could help explain the unique features of dreams such as sudden transitions, unclear images, and the disconnection that people face from external surroundings when they are dreaming, which would be paramount for future studies.

As a leading figure in the study of sleep, Tononi and his colleagues have pioneered a number of approaches to the study of sleep which includes genomics and using rodent models by employing multi-unit or local field potential recordings in animals. He also used large-scale computer models to study the conditions of sleep and wakefulness, and implement high-density EEG recordings and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) in humans.

In addition to publishing various research articles, Tononi has also written a number of books which include Galileo e il fotodiodo (2003) and PHI: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul (2012), and The Neurology of Consciousness: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuropathology (2009) which he wrote in collaboration with Steven Laureys, a Belgian neurologist who is recognized worldwide as a leading clinician and researcher in the neurology of consciousness. Tononi has also co-authored a book on the field of consciousness studies with Gerald Edelman, an American biologist who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology of Medicine in 1972. For his significant contributions in the study of sleep, Tononi was awarded the NH Director's Pioneer Award in 2005 and the Harvard Medical School's Farell Prize in Sleep Medicine in 2017. Currently, Tononi holds the David P. White Chair in Sleep Medicine. For Further Reading

1. PHI: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul, Pantheon; 1st edition (August 7, 2012)

2. A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination, Basic Books (February 28, 2001)

3. Selectionism and the Brain, International Review of Neurobiology , Vol 37 (Book 37)


The Study of Consciousness

Human interest in the nature of consciousness dates far back to our ancestral past. However, it is only in the last century or so that researchers and philosophers have been able to tackle the problem in a more scientific way. This is primarily due to our increasing understanding of human physiology and how our brain functions. With the advent of ever more sophisticated technology—from fMRI scans, functional magnetic resonance imaging, to DARPA's neural engineering program, understanding neural “dust”—we are now able to not only create vivid simulations of cerebral activity but also to systematically reverse engineer the brain. Whether such empirical observations will unlock the secrets of self-reflective awareness is still open to vigorous debate. Nevertheless, the study of consciousness is now considered to be of elemental importance and has invited a large number of brilliant thinkers— from a wide range of disciplines, including mathematicians, quantum physicists, neuroscientists, and philosophers—to join in the discussions and offer their own contributions. The following essays briefly explore the life and work of pioneers in the field of consciousness studies. Included in this eclectic mix are such notables as Giulio Tononi (University of Wisconsin), Paul and Patricia Churchland (University of California, San Diego), Noam Chomsky (M.I.T.), the late Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna, and Jean Pierre Changeux (Collége de France) among others.

Comment Form is loading comments...