Saturday, December 23, 2017

more on IIT, and ASSC (our annual conference) as Xmas

been meaning to write this note for a while. sorry to my colleague Julia Crone @ UCLA for postponing it for so long. the last few months have really been brutal.

when i posted this piece on IIT, i realize that the first-author of one of the papers i mentioned is a colleague at UCLA, working in my good friend Martin Monti's lab. so i wrote to Julia to ask about her opinion, as to whether she thought her paper really supported IIT, as it may sound like in places.

as i suspected, the answer is no, she doesn't really think so. in her exact words: "I believe that theories of consciousness just as any other cognitive theory should be addressed with a straightforward experimental design that speak for or against the theory of question. In such a scenario, it is indeed possible to ask whether the results are supportive of IIT or not. However, using complex, data-driven approaches in a messy patient population with a whole bunch of primary and secondary processes that affect the BOLD signal does not allow to test a theory of consciousness. Moreover, the results most likely reflect the level of cognition in patients which may or may not lead to a total breakdown of consciousness." (all emphases mine)

obviously i find much to agree with Julia's very sensible reply. but if so, why did i quote her as if her study was intended to be in support of IIT? i didn't actually say so, not exactly. i just took a quote directly from her paper: "disturbances in [connectivity between certain brain regions] have severe impact on information integration and are reflected in deficits in cognitive functioning probably leading to a total breakdown of consciousness” (emphasis mine)

in correspondence Julia clarified that she referred to information integration as a general notion related to complexity of networks, not specifically related to IIT: "Please also keep in mind that graph theoretical metrics such as local efficiency (differentiating patients in this study) are measuring the degree of local information integration of specific central hubs but are not equivalent to the concept of Phi or other complexity measures which may be more suitable to address IIT" (emphasis mine). i think that makes perfect sense. so i feel i owe it to her to clarify that her position here: she isn't one of the 'believers' thinking that her study supported IIT (or falsified it, for that matter).

however, in meetings, i have also seen how this study as well as similar others have been cited as evidence in support of IIT. i guess sometimes that's what matters: how things are interpreted, perceived, discussed over coffee breaks, inspired new studies, impacted young people's career decisions, etc etc. in this case, it sounds like it just wasn't the authors' intention, but it might have been taken as such all the same.

like i said in the original post, how to interpret that individual finding specifically is just a small part of the issue. we have more things to worry about IIT and the status of the field in general. that post is really about the frontline culture, our image in the media, how our colleagues see us, and ultimately how it all matters.


since this is end of the year.....looking back, that post on IIT might have been one of the more serious pieces of writing i've done this year. 'serious' may sound funny coz it's not even published officially, in a peer-reviewed journal or something.

but as some of you have guessed, the materials there will become part of Chapter 1 of the book, in which i will justify why we should only focus on a few theories but not an extensive survey of everything that's been said about consciosuness; at the risk of sounding ruder than i intend.. much of it just isn't worth our trouble.

the post was for this reason also 'serious' in another sense. as i mentioned, i owe huge debts to both Christof and Giulio, intellectual and otherwise. many of the other more junior proponents of IIT (e.g. Ryota Kanai, Melanie Boly, Nao Tsuchiya) are also good friends - friends with whom we sort of grew up together, all the way from when we were starry eyed grad students trying to figure out what to do with ourselves.

i have often likened ASSC to xmas, time of the year when you have to see all your cousins, both the beloved and annoying ones alike, catching up on how well we've done lately, repair and renew old bonds as needed, introduce new members of the family to others, etc.

what does it mean to criticize each others' work so harshly when you actually see them as good friends or even families? this is a question i asked myself many many times, and perhaps more frequently this year than in previous years. in the next few post, i'll talk about this more.

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