We all know what it is to be conscious, just as much as we don't know exactly what that means or how to measure it. But one researcher thinks the first step is to view our brains as computers.
The New York Times takes a long look at Dr Giulio Tononi, who has chosen a seemingly impossible task for himself: producing a scientifically valid theory of consciousness. To quantify thought as we do any other bodily function:
He and his colleagues are translating the poetry of our conscious experiences into the precise language of mathematics. To do so, they are adapting information theory, a branch of science originally applied to computers and telecommunications. If Dr. Tononi is right, he and his colleagues may be able to build a "consciousness meter" that doctors can use to measure consciousness as easily as they measure blood pressure and body temperature.
Tononi sees consciousness as nothing more than the sum of information firing through our neurons. In which case, he argues, we could measure it in the same bits we do mobile downloads.
It's a fascinating - and incredibly challenging to prove - theory, one that would suggest a serious examination of what it means to be human. More practically, though, a "consciousness index" of the sort Tononi seeks out would have major implications when dealing with vegetative or otherwise unresponsive patients. [NYT]