I haven’t found any literature that discusses matter similar to your thought experiment, so the followings will be just my interpretation of some existing theories as I understand them.
First, let’s be clear what it means for something to be the same when it has been altered (like being distorted in your thought experiment). IMO, that thing will functionally remain the same if its functional relation to other things remains the same. To be more specific, its cause-effect relationships with other things have to remain the same.
Now, as far as I understand, according to current understanding of neural signaling, when neural circuit A sends information I1 via its signaling pattern S1 to neural circuit B, neural circuit B, after reading and processing the information, will have signals circulating in its circuit in some particular pattern – let’s call this P1 (which is the newly processed information in neural circuit B). So, I1 and S1 will result in P1. Similarly, I2 and S2 will result in some pattern P2, and I3 and S3 will result in P3, and so on.
Next, suppose neural circuit A is altered in the way described in your thought experiment. If the firing patterns and all other synaptic transmission characteristics at all synapses that neural circuit A makes with other neural circuits remain the same (let’s call this Condition C), then the signal-transmission effects at all synapses should remain the same and I1 and S1 should still result in P1, and similarly for I2/S2, I3/S3, and all other information that neural process A sends to other neural circuits. Thus, so long as its signal-transmission effects on other neural circuits remain the same (Condition C is fulfilled), no matter how you alter neural circuit A, all its information that it sends to other neural circuits will has the same effects (or means the same) to other neural circuits as before. So, if conscious experiences is determined by the firing patterns as you hypothesized, the conscious experience of the so-distorted brain, like other information that is transmitted by signaling patterns at synapses, should remain the same as well (if Condition C is satisfied).
Do existing theories about consciousness give this prediction?
According to Chalmers [1.2] in his principle of organizational invariance: any two systems with the same ﬁne-grained functional organization will have qualitatively identical experiences. If the causal patterns of neural organization were duplicated in silicon, for example, with a silicon chip for every neuron and the same patterns of interaction, then the same experiences would arise. According to this principle, what matters for the emergence of experience is not the speciﬁc physical makeup of a system but the abstract pattern of causal interaction between its components. Thus, it seems to me that, if the brain is distorted as you described but still has the same fine-grain functional organization or the same causal patterns of neural organization (like Condition C in the previous paragraph), then Chalmers would predict that the conscious experience will be the same. On the contrary, if Condition C is not met, I think Chalmers would predict that the conscious experience will not be the same.
According to The Integrated Information Theory (ITT) [3-6], a conscious experience is a maximally irreducible conceptual structure (MICS), which corresponds to a local maximum of integrated conceptual information (or a local maximum of Φ or Φmax) at that point. It also provides mathematical formulations to calculate Φ [see ref 4,5]. But the mathematics is not easy and beyond my capability. However, something can be garnered from its plain language explanation of its concept: The ITT says that one should analyze the real physical components – identify elements (e.g., transistors), define their cause–effect repertoires, find concepts, complexes, and determine the spatio-temporal scale at which Φ reaches a maximum . So, if Condition C above is not met, it’s very likely that the conscious experience will change (at least from the change of cause-effect repertoires). However, when Condition C is satisfied, I cannot tell in which way the ITT will predict the change of the conscious experience because other physical components that it lists might be changed.
Similarly, according to The Basic Theory of the Mind , a conscious experience is information in some specific form, i.e. a reentrant signaling state in some specific form, that means phenomenal consciousness in the neural process language, and according to The Adaptive Resonance Theory [8,9], a conscious experience is a neural process in a resonant state. Because, if Condition C is met, the signal-transmission effects of a neural circuit on other neural circuits remain un-altered, those reentrant signaling states or resonant states should remain the same. Thus, it seems to me that these two theories will predict that a conscious experience will remain un-altered too. On the contrary, if Condition C is not met, I think that these two theories will predict that a conscious experience will change.
In conclusion, I believe in the concept like the principle of organizational invariance, it’s the function that matters, not the anatomy.
Caution. “Thought experiment” is just a fanciful word for “what if …” scenario that we and other ordinary people form to make decisions every day. It is not physically carried out. So, unlike the results of physical experiments, the results of thought experiment reached by anyone can never be taken to be evidence for or against any concept or theory. They are just conclusions reached by individual’s arguments.
Chalmers DJ. Facing up to the problem of consciousness. J Conscious Stud. 1995;2(3):200-219.
Chalmers DJ. Moving forward on the problem of consciousness. J Conscious Stud. 1997;4(1):3-46.
Tononi G. An information integration theory of consciousness. BMC Neurosci 2004,5:42. DOI: 10.1186/1471-2202-5-42.
Tononi G. Integrated information theory of consciousness: An updated account. Arch Ital Biol. 2012 Jun-Sep;150(2-3):56-90. DOI: 10.4449/aib.v149i5.1388.
Oizumi M, Albantakis L, Tononi G. From the phenomenology to the mechanisms of consciousness: Integrated Information Theory 3.0. PLoS Comput Biol. 2014 May;10(5):e1003588. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003588.
Tononi G, Koch C. Consciousness: Here, there and everywhere? Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2015 May 19;370(1668):20140167. DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2014.0167.
Ukachoke C. The Basic Theory of the Mind. 1st ed. Bangkok, Thailand; Charansanitwong Printing Co. 2018.
Grossberg S. Adaptive Resonance Theory: How a brain learns to consciously attend, learn, and recognize a changing world. Neural Netw. 2013 Jan;37:1-47. DOI: 10.1016/j.neunet.2012.09.017.
Grossberg S. Towards solving the hard problem of consciousness: The varieties of brain resonances and the conscious experiences that they support. Neural Netw. 2017 Mar;87:38-95. DOI: 10.1016/j.neunet.2016.11.003.