Author(s): Baars BJ, Franklin S, Ramsoy TZ
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Abstract A global workspace (GW) is a functional hub of binding and propagation in a population of loosely coupled signaling elements. In computational applications, GW architectures recruit many distributed, specialized agents to cooperate in resolving focal ambiguities. In the brain, conscious experiences may reflect a GW function. For animals, the natural world is full of unpredictable dangers and opportunities, suggesting a general adaptive pressure for brains to resolve focal ambiguities quickly and accurately. GW theory aims to understand the differences between conscious and unconscious brain events. In humans and related species the cortico-thalamic (C-T) core is believed to underlie conscious aspects of perception, thinking, learning, feelings of knowing (FOK), felt emotions, visual imagery, working memory, and executive control. Alternative theoretical perspectives are also discussed. The C-T core has many anatomical hubs, but conscious percepts are unitary and internally consistent at any given moment. Over time, conscious contents constitute a very large, open set. This suggests that a brain-based GW capacity cannot be localized in a single anatomical hub. Rather, it should be sought in a functional hub - a dynamic capacity for binding and propagation of neural signals over multiple task-related networks, a kind of neuronal cloud computing. In this view, conscious contents can arise in any region of the C-T core when multiple input streams settle on a winner-take-all equilibrium. The resulting conscious gestalt may ignite an any-to-many broadcast, lasting ∼100-200 ms, and trigger widespread adaptation in previously established networks. To account for the great range of conscious contents over time, the theory suggests an open repertoire of binding coalitions that can broadcast via theta/gamma or alpha/gamma phase coupling, like radio channels competing for a narrow frequency band. Conscious moments are thought to hold only 1-4 unrelated items; this small focal capacity may be the biological price to pay for global access. Visuotopic maps in cortex specialize in features like color, retinal size, motion, object identity, and egocentric/allocentric framing, so that a binding coalition for the sight of a rolling billiard ball in nearby space may resonate among activity maps of LGN, V1-V4, MT, IT, as well as the dorsal stream. Spatiotopic activity maps can bind into coherent gestalts using adaptive resonance (reentry). Single neurons can join a dominant coalition by phase tuning to regional oscillations in the 4-12 Hz range. Sensory percepts may bind and broadcast from posterior cortex, while non-sensory FOKs may involve prefrontal and frontotemporal areas. The anatomy and physiology of the hippocampal complex suggest a GW architecture as well. In the intact brain the hippocampal complex may support conscious event organization as well as episodic memory storage.
This article was published in Front Psychol
and referenced in Otolaryngology: Open Access