Can we measure consciousness?

Tam Hunt
4 min readJan 11, 2021

There are now dozens of tools for quantifying different aspects of consciousness, including a new heuristic I’ve developed as part of the General Resonance Theory of consciousness. Can they work?

To understand consciousness means, for most of us, to be able to explain what it is and how it works in a scientific manner. And to be scientific is to measure what we can and apply rigorous analysis to those measurements. Being scientific also requires that we recognize what we can’t measure.

It’s easy to get carried away with efforts to measure and quantify, but when used in a way that recognizes the inherent limitations of quantification — and thus stays away from “scientism” — we can hopefully enjoy the benefits of the scientific method and gain a better understanding of how our minds work and how we fit in with the universe more generally.

I’ve developed the General Resonance Theory of consciousness (GRT) with my colleague Jonathan Schooler as an effort to flesh out a comprehensive set of tools for understanding consciousness. A short piece explaining our approach appeared in Scientific American here.

We are now ramping up our efforts to test the theory and the first part of testing a theory is to establish a measurement and quantification framework.

My paper, “Calculating the boundaries of consciousness in General Resonance Theory,” appears (unfortunately it’s not open access) in the December 2020 issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies. It provides a detailed mathematical framework or “heuristic” for determining the capacity for consciousness in any candidate. Here’s the visual summary of the heuristic (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. Visual summary of GRT heuristic for calculating the capacity for consciousness in any candidate entity (source: “Calculating the boundaries of consciousness in General Resonance Theory,” Journal of Consciousness Studies).

As the “general” in GRT makes clear, our framework is meant to be applicable to any circumstance, from a single electron or string to the entire universe. Its applicability, however, says little about the ease of application in any particular example! I fully acknowledge that applying the framework rigorously to even fairly simple biological entities is very challenging at this time because of the difficulties in precisely quantifying energy/information flows.

But that’s why I suggest in the paper shortcuts for applying the framework. Specifically, I look at various measures of synchrony (“synchrony indexes”) as ways to relatively easily quantify the “differences that make a difference” for consciousness.

Synchrony in this context refers to the oscillating electromagnetic fields (delta, theta, etc.) in the brain, and related behaviors, that we see in all animal life forms and even, to a lesser degree, in plants and other non-animal life forms. Synchrony occurs when these oscillations match up their phase and/or their amplitude.

For example, many researchers have recognized that long-range synchrony in the human brain connects different parts of the brain in ways that are necessary for consciousness. Stanislas Dehaene, the well-known French developer of the Global Neuronal Workspace Theory, describes long-range synchrony, particularly in the late-gamma frequency range, as one of the four “signatures” of consciousness.

There are various ways to measure synchrony and one of the earliest and still widely used is the “phase-locking value” (PLV) that measures the overlap in phases of oscillations in different areas.

Lachaux et al. 1999, the “phase-locking value” (PLV) that has lead to many other related synchrony indexes.

Many researchers are using these synchrony indexes to quantify connectivity and even intelligence. But very few have suggested that synchrony indexes may be used to establish the capacity for consciousness, which is what we suggest in GRT.

The basic idea is that the brain’s EM fields are the primary seat of consciousness and that synchrony between different parts of the brain’s EM fields is what allows the various parts of the brain to unify into a single functional entity in each moment. This is what Dehaene is getting at with his signatures of consciousness and what we view as the basic mechanism for the production of consciousness experience in each moment.

This is just one approach for measuring/quantifying consciousness in a way that could be useful in understanding consciousness. This, in turn, could lead to better tools and therapeutics for mitigating or even curing various psychological ailments, many of which are “oscillopathies,” because they seem to be a result of dysregulation (a fancy way of saying “going out of whack”) of the brain’s EM fields. By understanding how EM fields lead to consciousness in each moment, and how they get out of whack, we may be able to develop affordable and reliable tools for getting our sync back to where it should be.

We (Schooler, myself, and a number of other scholars) are lead editors on a special research topic (Fig. 2) for the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience that is requesting papers on “Electromagnetic field theories of consciousness: Opportunities and Obstacles.” This includes proposals for quantifying the complexity of the brain’s EM fields, how they relate to consciousness, and disorders (oscillopathies) of of EM fields and synchrony.

We welcome your abstract submissions here by the end of April of this year (there’s also some wiggle room on the dates, so message us if this deadline is too near).

Figure 2. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience journal special research topic edited by Hunt, Schooler, and other scholars.

So, are we going too far in trying to quantify what can’t really be quantified? Time will tell, but for now it seems to be a productive pathway that a growing number of researchers are pursuing.

Tam Hunt

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