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What is thought?

The question of consciousness has captivated scientists and philosophers for hundreds of years. Despite advances in functional brain imaging and related technologies, the question is still unresolved. Two competing theories about the brain activity that gives rise to consciousness are the global neuronal workspace theory (GNWT) and the integrated information theory (IIT). In this week’s Science, four neuroscientists lay out the competing theories and a creative path to get to the answer.

The authors invoke a process of “adversarial collaboration” whereby different groups will independently study the neuronal signatures of subjects carrying out tasks that are expected to differ under each model. The protocol for the process is being posted in a preregistered report at the Center for Open Science. So, the Science Perspective is discussing a new solution to address an old problem even though these kinds of studies have been around for a while. The authors credit the initial seeds of the idea to Daniel Kahneman in behavioral economics and even before that to an early test of Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

Einstein had more than a passing interest in the nature of thought, having famously said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”