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The Radical Plasticity Thesis: How we learn to be conscious

Final Report Summary - RADICAL (The Radical Plasticity Thesis: How we learn to be conscious)

Consciousness — what it feels like to have experiences — is undoubtedly one of the most important scientific problems today. The main goal of RADICAL was to develop a novel theory of consciousness that takes it as a starting point that consciousness is something that the brain learns to do. By this account, the brain continuously and unconsciously learns to redescribe its own activity to itself, so developing systems of metarepresentations that characterize and qualify their target representations. Such redescriptions form the basis of conscious experience, and also subtend successful control of action. From this perspective, consciousness amounts to “signal detection on the mind”; it is the brain’s (non-conceptual, embodied, implicit) theory about itself. In a sense thus, this is the enactive perspective, but turned both inwards and further outwards. By this hypothesis, now dubbed the “Self-organizing metarepresentational account (SOMA), consciousness critically depends on a cognitive system’s ability to learn about (1) the effects of its actions on the environment, (2) the effects of its actions on other agents, and on (3) the effects of activity in one cerebral region on other cerebral regions. On this view, the extent to which a representation is conscious depends in a graded manner on (1) properties such as its stability in time, its strength, and its distinctiveness and on (2) the existence of metarepresentations that redescribe the system’s representations to itself. Crucially, these properties accrue as a result of learning and plasticity processes, which are in turn viewed as mandatory processes that always accompany information processing. Thus, the core idea is that a cognitive system becomes a conscious cognitive system in virtue of its ability to continuously learn to represent (and hence, predict) the consequences of its own activity. To explore this hypothesis, RADICAL carried out about 20 different experiments aimed at documenting different aspects of the theory.