Large Grants
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Previous Programs

2018 Agency in the Physical World
Awardees; RFP download

2016 Physics of the Observer
Awardees; RFP download

2015 The Physics of What Happens
Awardees; RFP download

2013 Physics of Information
Awardees; RFP download

2010 The Nature of Time
Awardees; RFP download

2008 Foundational Questions in Physics and Cosmology
Awardees; RFP download

2006 Foundational Questions in Physics and Cosmology
Awardees; RFP download

Matilde Marcolli
California Institute of Technology


Doris Tsao, California Institute of Technology

Project Title

FQXi Agency in the Physical World: Towards a Topological Model of Consciousness and Agency

Project Summary

The development of a quantitative mathematical model of consciousness and agency would be a significant development in neuroscience, with important theoretical and ethical implications. Topology is a branch of mathematics that models intrinsic and stable properties of space. Homotopy types are topological spaces viewed up to deformations. It is known that the coding of patterns of neural activity in the brain stores a copy of the homotopy type of the external stimulus space. We propose that this same mechanism is at the root of the intrinsic experience of qualia. Our investigation focuses primarily on spatial representation and develop explicit connections to biological findings about the locus of spatial awareness, including certain forms of damage to the parietal cortex that reduce spatial awareness, despite a perfectly functioning visual cortex, while the coding of the topology of the environment is essentially altered. We explore the hypothesis that consciousness is learned through unsupervised interaction with the environment, and aim at clarifying how this requirement for unsupervised learning constrains the topological coding mechanism.

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