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Explaining the NBC Theory of Consciousness

Consciousness results from four brain mechanisms.

Key points

  • Explaining conscious experience is a daunting problem which has generated many theories.
  • The new NBC theory proposes four brain mechanisms for representation, binding, coherence, and competition.
  • The NBC theory explains many aspects of consciousness including subjective experience.
  • Experience results from emergence from interacting mechanisms with emergent properties.

Explaining consciousness is one of the greatest challenges in science and philosophy, right up with the origin of the universe, the existence of dark matter, and whether there is intelligent life on TikTok. Meeting this challenge requires the development of a plausible theory of consciousness, and my NBC theory is the latest contender.

NBC does not stand for the National Broadcasting Corporation or the National Bank of Canada, but rather for Neural Representation, Binding, Coherence, and Competition. These are the four brain mechanisms whose interactions explain conscious experiences. Together, they can explain all kinds of consciousness, including external perceptions such as vision, internal sensations such as pain, emotions such as sadness, and abstract thoughts such as perfection.

  • Neural representations are patterns of firing in groups of neurons that can stand for things in the world, our bodies, and abstract ideas. The great diversity of neural representations explains the diversity of our conscious experiences. There is not something that it’s like to be conscious—there are millions of things it’s like to be conscious.
  • Binding is the combination of neural representations into new ones that may be mundane blends, such as “red jacket,” or highly creative concepts, such as “indivisible particle” for atoms.
  • Coherence is using neural representations to make sense of complex phenomena by satisfying conflicting constraints, for example, in visual perception and language comprehension.
  • Competition between representations occurs when they vie for attention, for example when your thoughts shift suddenly from working on something to a song playing in the background.

It takes a whole new book to make the case that this theory is superior to dozens of current alternatives, which range from neuroscientific theories such as Global Workspace and Information Integration, to lame philosophical theories such as dualism and panpsychism. The most impressive argument for the NBC theory is that it generates novel theories of dreaming, humor, musical experience, and temporal consciousness, all of which result from the same four brain mechanisms.

According to NBC, dreams are side effects of the brain’s attempt to make sense of aberrant neural firings that happen during sleep. These firings arise during memory consolidation when the brain processes daily memories to integrate important material into long term memory. Neural representation, binding, coherence, and competition interact to produce the often bizarre and emotional experiences that occur during dreaming.

The key to explaining subjective experiences is the concept of emergence, which occurs when a whole has properties that go beyond the properties of its parts, because they result from the interactions of the parts. For example, water is liquid at room temperature even though its constituent hydrogen and oxygen atoms are gases at room temperature.

Public domain
Old-young woman gestalt
Source: Public domain

Neural groups have emergent properties because the interactions of the neurons allow them together to stand for things in the world, such as squirrels.

Binding is also emergent because it produces representations with novel properties, such as the capability of atoms to explain the chemical properties of substances.

Coherence is emergent when it selects an interpretation such as the old or young woman in the famous gestalt image.

Competition allows attention to shift to a representation that was not previously conscious, for example, from the eye to the nose in this image.

Conscious experience results from recursive emergence, that is, emergence from the interactions of four emergent mechanisms. This complexity is why consciousness has been so hard to understand from a scientific perspective, but the new NBC theory points to a novel solution to the classic problem of consciousness.


Thagard, P. (under review). Dreams, Jokes, and Songs: How Brains Build Consciousness.

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