One of the biggest questions in science is whether the experience of consciousness— one's sense of self, and of being distinct from others and from the surrounding world — is fundamentally a question of complexity. 

In a new opinion piece for Frontiers in Applied Mathematics and Statistics, SFI External Professor Jürgen Jost tours some of the major philosophical and scientific debates around consciousness, including whether a human or animal brain automatically becomes conscious when it crosses a certain threshold of complexity. Citing work by SFI Professor Nihat Ay and other scholars, Jost explores consciousness as a process for integrating information from the recent past and near future into the present, where we experience self. 

He presents four theses:

Thesis 1. Consciousness integrates information that is distributed in the brain and in the immediate environment and that includes the recent past and anticipates the near future, on a timescale that is adapted to the requirements for reactions to external stimuli, in order to select a single action on the basis of a probability distribution of possible stimulus interpretations.

Thesis 2. The preceding is quantifiable by complexity measures.

Thesis 3. The development of consciousness depends on resonances between sensory inputs and actions, and self-consciousness therefore can only emerge in the context of interactions with other conscious individuals.

Thesis 4. The feeling of qualia is the result of an efficient compression of information about prior experiences.


Read the article, “Information Theory and Consciousness,” in Frontiers in Applied Mathematics and Statistics (August 10, 2021)