New Scientist has a very interesting article out this week, entitled Firing on all neurons: Where consciousness comes from (hat tip to Ron). It explains a several-decade-old theory of consciousness, the Global Workspace Theory, that is finding significant support in new studies. While the article never mentions "Emergence," it direclty addresses the attributes of structures that give rise to strongly emergent phenomena such as (I argue) consciousness.
Additionally, the article emphasises that "long-distance connections may be the architecture that links the many separate regions together during conscious experience," something that I have long argued as a key to information processing efficiency in distributed systems. For example, outside the brain, it is the distant/disparate and weak connections that most efficiently and effectively facilitate information processing in human social networks.
The New Scientist article raises two more interesting facets of the global workspace theory. First, the article notes that one key appears to be a lack of conflict in the signals broadcast across the global workspace. When multiple contradictory signals are received and processed by the brain, the brain subconsciously discriminates and selects an "approved" signal, which is then broadcast across the workspace and enters conscious perception. It is not clear whether this is also a prerequisite of consciousness, but one can hypothesize that there must be a unity of message across the network for strong emergence to occur? This raises interesting questions about the role of hierarchy (one way of message discrimination) in this process. However, it's worth noting that this unity of message appears to be a prerequisite for a message to enter conscious perception, not for the creation or emergence of that conscious perception in the first place.
Second, the article notes that the global workspace theory addressed what it terms the "easy problem," that is, describing the correlation between patterns of brain activity and consciousness. It does not address--and doesn't really even begin to open the door to how one would address--the "hard problem" of how and why that consciousness (strongly emergent phenomenon) emerges in the first place.
Regardless, I think this higher-resolution understanding of the neuronal patterns from which consciousness emerges is informative. We're still largely groping in the dark, but this evidence seems to support my general theory that weak and long distance connections, and dense networks of these connections, are key attributes of a structure that will give rise to strong emergence. What seems much less clear (or, increasingly unclear) is the degree to which a unified message must be broadcast over that network to either (a) enter consciousness that already exists, or (b) allow that consciousness to emerge in the first place. This latter issue seems to be more problematic for any efforts to spawn strong emergence in human social and economic networks -- more on that next week!