Jun 23, 2023

Adversarial Collaboration Drives Breakthroughs in Understanding Human Consciousness

Groundbreaking findings on human consciousness and self-awareness revealed.

By Templeton Staff with contributions from Ben Reeves and Rachel Feltman

On June 23, a team of researchers supported by The Templeton World Charity Foundation revealed groundbreaking findings on human consciousness and self-awareness. Through its Accelerating Research on Consciousness (ARC) initiative, the foundation has employed a unique funding approach and fostered adversarial collaboration among scientists to propel research forward in unraveling the complexities of consciousness.

Consciousness is a subject that eludes precise definition and scientific explanation. Despite our ability to recognize consciousness in others, understanding its workings and intricacies has proven challenging. With 15 credible and competing theories on consciousness, the scientific community has struggled to narrow down the field and make significant progress. The rising tide of ethical questions surrounding AI sentience makes the quest to understand consciousness all the more pressing. 

To address this issue, we launched the Accelerating Research on Consciousness initiative, a $30,000,000 commitment, with two-thirds earmarked to provide support to up to five large projects. The aim was to provide funding for scientists to investigate incompatible predictions between different theories of consciousness and eliminate flawed theories, bringing us closer to a true understanding of consciousness. The initial results of the first studies funded through this initiative were recently presented at the Association of the Scientific Study of Consciousness Annual Event.

Led by Dr. Lucia Melloni, W2 Group Leader at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, an international team of researchers aimed to show which of two prominent theories of consciousness had more correct predictions: the Global Neuronal Workspace theory (GNWT), first developed by Bernard Baars and later championed by Stanislas Dehaene, and the Integrated Information Theory (IIT) proposed by Giulio Tononi. While the researchers state that they have yet to definitively rule out either theory, their results will help guide further inquiry.

IIT argues that consciousness corresponds to a system’s capacity to integrate information. It holds that information in the brain forms a complex network of interconnected relationships, creating a network greater than the sum of its parts—what we call consciousness. Proponents of IIT believe that the posterior cortex is the ‘hot zone’ of this interconnectivity. GNWT argues that consciousness arises from networks of neurons in the prefrontal cortex. It holds that information about a conscious experience gets broadcasted throughout the brain via these networks. 

The results of the study, conducted by six independent laboratories, did not perfectly match up with the predictions for either theory. Three judges tasked with reviewing the experimental results concluded that IIT fared slightly better than GNWT in the agreed-upon trials. Experimenters observed activity in the posterior cortex that could represent the structure postulated by IIT to form consciousness. But the researchers did not find the predicted evidence of long-term synchronization between different brain regions. Researchers identified some of the aspects of consciousness predicted by GNWT in the prefrontal cortex, but not all. More experiments supported by the Accelerating Research on Consciousness initiative are already underway to refine and build upon the inconclusive results. 

Dr. Andrew Serazin, president of the Templeton World Charity Foundation, expressed enthusiasm for the initiative's potential impact. "By combining innovative funding approaches with rigorous scientific inquiry, we have created an environment conducive to unraveling the mysteries of consciousness. Our hope is that these findings will not only enhance our understanding of human cognition, but also inspire further transformative research across various disciplines."

While further study is needed to prove or disprove these and other theories of consciousness, the project demonstrates the value of working with the goal of disproving studies instead of proving them. This represents a major paradigm shift for scientists, who are generally only awarded funding if they can demonstrate positive results. This incentivizes researchers to focus on providing evidence for one particular theory, rather than neutrally seek evidence to move the field forward. 

To overcome this bias, the ARC initiative takes an innovative approach to research funding. Potential grantees were tasked with embracing adversarial collaboration—a strategy first developed by Nobel Prize winning economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman. In adversarial collaboration, scientists with competing theories collaborate with the goal of disproving one or both. Each team proposes a set of experiments that can, with a certain result, conclusively disprove the other team’s theory. The conflicting groups agree on the validity of the proposed trials, then conduct them with the oversight of neutral research groups. 

By shifting the focus from sequential testing of theories over many decades to head-to-head testing, this approach fosters a more rapid means of improving theories.

Advancements in the study of consciousness will not only shed light on the nature of human thought, but also contribute to the assessment of animal cognition, our definition of brain death, and the differentiation between sentience and intelligence in AI. Furthermore, the success of the adversarial collaboration process opens the door to its application in other fields facing complex challenges, fostering progress in diverse areas of research.