Consciousness despite network underconnectivity in autism: Another case of consciousness without prefrontal activity?

In Rocco Gennaro (ed.), Disturbed Consciousness: New Essays on Psychopathology and Theories of Consciousness. The M. I. T, Press. pp. 249-263 (2015)
William Hirstein
Elmhurst College
Recent evidence points to widespread underconnectivity in autistic brains owing to deviant white matter, the fibers that make long connections between areas of the cortex. Subjects with autism show measurably fewer long-range connections between the parietal and prefrontal cortices. These findings may help shed light on the current debate in the consciousness literature about whether conscious states require both prefrontal and parietal/temporal components. If it can be shown that people with autism have conscious states despite such underconnectivity, this would constitute an argument for the claim that conscious states can exist in posterior cortex without associated prefrontal activity. This in turn lends support to a class of theories according to which microconsciousness is possible—consciousness in small areas of cortex without active connections to the prefrontal cortex, as opposed to the higher-order thought (HOT) theory of consciousness, according to which conscious states can only occur when posterior cortical areas (in the parietal or temporal lobes) have active connections to the prefrontal cortex. In this chapter, after listing several candidate examples of consciousness without accompanying prefrontal connections, I will argue that autism provides yet another such example. I will also examine a recent version of the higher-order theory that acknowledges these cases of consciousness without prefrontal activity and, instead depicts consciousness as requiring higher-order thoughts located in posterior cortex. In the final section, I will examine the consequences of these views for our understanding of the metaphysical nature of consciousness itself—the classic mind-body problem.
Keywords consciousness  autism  higher-order thought theory  microconsciousness  prefrontal lobes  binding
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