What is consciousness? What is the inner experience that we all feel we have? Is it an illusion or an ontological reality?
Michael Graziano thinks it is a reality, and he thinks he has found a scientific theory for it, which he describes in his book: ‘Consciousness and the Social Brain‘.
The quest for a workable theory
Graziano, an expert in neuroscience and psychology at Princeton University, starts off by pointing out that most theories of consciousness have a couple of major flaws.
The first flaw is that they involve a magic step, a mysterious mechanism that can’t be explained. For example, the common theory that consciousness emerges from complexity can’t explain the transition from non-conscious complexity to conscious complexity. Consciousness simply arises in some mysterious fashion.
The second flaw is that the theories usually focus on how the brain produces consciousness, but ignore how consciousness produces behavior. This ignores the only objective thing about consciousness, which is that we can state that we have it.
Graziano’s goal is to provide a theory that explains the mechanism of consciousness without either flaw. He compares such a theory to natural selection, the core mechanism behind evolution. Generated from fossil evidence, the idea of evolution existed for several decades before Darwin’s theory of natural selection provided a scientific non-magical mechanism to explain it. Graziano hopes to identify a similar mechanism for consciousness.
Graziano starts by describing the phenomenon of attention. Attention is the process of the brain figuring out which inputs, which signals to focus its resources on. It is a process of various coalitions of signals competing for those resources. We attend to something when one of those coalitions “wins”. At least until the next ascendant coalition takes over.
Attention is an emergent process. It can be driven by the signals themselves in a bottom up fashion, or it can be biased from top down preferences to focus on certain signals. One can override the other based on their strength. For example, maybe you choose, in a top down fashion, to focus your attention on this blog entry, but suddenly a spider crawls on your arm, causing the bottom up spider related signals to override the top down directive.
Some theories stop here and say that this is consciousness, and that perception of anything else is an illusion. This view equates awareness with attention. But these theories have a problem. Often attention and awareness do seem to be the same, but not always. Your attention can be focused on something without your awareness.
If you doubt this, check out the Apollo Robbins TED talk I linked to the other day. Also consider things like subliminal messages, and ailments like blindsight or hemispatial neglect. (Graziano actually discusses hemispatial neglect at length in the book.)
But if awareness is not attention, then what is it? Here we get to the core of Graziano’s theory.
He sees awareness as being an internally constructed model of attention. It is information held in a part of the brain about the emergent and messy process of attention. Like all models, it is a simplification of the real process, and there is much going on in the real phenomenon (attention) that the model (awareness) isn’t privy to, so it is incomplete.
Graziano uses the example of a general plotting strategy with toy soldiers on a table map. The toy soldiers and map are a model of the real situation involving real troops and battlefields. The model is a simplification, and an incomplete one, but it is useful enough for the general to make decisions about where to focus his resources.
In the same fashion, awareness is a predictive model of attention that the brain uses to influence attention in the top down fashion mentioned above. But like the general’s strategy map, awareness, the model, the schema of attention, is a simplified and incomplete version of what is going on.
Compare this to what we know of consciousness. It is aware of a lot of our perceptions, and a lot of the things that we focus attention on, but not all of them. It is unaware of a lot of things that are going on in our subconscious. It is incomplete. But it is still useful.
Graziano calls his theory of consciousness the attention schema theory. Awareness is the attention schema. (For the remainder of this post, the terms will be used interchangeably.)
An important concept to understand about the attention schema is that we don’t just have one for ourselves (self awareness), we also build one for other people or entities that we perceive to be conscious (social awareness). The schema we have for others is of course not as detailed as the one for ourselves, but both are information.
A quick note. The attention schema is not the homunculus, the little person in the head observing and controlling actions. It’s a feedback mechanism that allows the brain to review its own attentional state. But it may provide a powerful explanation for the intuition that leads many to believe in the homunculus.
Reviewing fMRI and brain damage studies, Graziano also theorizes about the location in the brain where awareness may be located. He focuses on the superior temporal sulcus and the temporal parietal junction. He is careful to say that there may be other locations involved, but these two seem to be involved in most awareness processing.
Relation to other theories
Graziano notably discusses his theory’s relationship to two classes of theories: social theories and information integration theories.
Social theories, which begin with the observation that the cognitive machinery involved in understanding and predicting other minds is also the same machinery in understanding ourselves. In other words, consciousness is our theory of mind turned toward ourselves. Graziano accepts these theories as valid, but incomplete. They explain self awareness and social awareness, but not awareness itself, which the attention schema theory is focused on.
Information integration theories, the idea that consciousness arises from the integration of information, are also incomplete. Graziano notes that while information integration is certainly a requirement for consciousness, it isn’t sufficient to explain it, and that it holds one of the flaws mentioned above, requiring a magic mysterious step.
He points out that advocates of information integration as the sole explanation for consciousness would have to explain why the internet or the US income tax code are not conscious, since both are complicated and highly integrated. (That is, aside from asserting that they are conscious but have no way to communicate to us that they are, which is an untestable proposition.)
Graziano weighs in on free will at the neuroscience level. Deliberately stepping around issues like determinism, quantum uncertainty, and compatibilism, he restricts his scope to whether or not awareness, consciousness, has any control of our actions.
Many theories assert that consciousness is only an observer, an after the fact rationalizer, not an active controller. Graziano disagrees with this. He agrees that major role of consciousness is as an observer, rationalizer, etc, but that it also controls many of our decisions and actions, pointing out that patients with their awareness damaged are also impaired in behavior and decision making.
Graziano also speculates about whether animals have consciousness. Most animals obviously have attention. The question is whether or not they have awareness, the internal model of attention. He thinks most mammals and birds do, although perhaps not at the same level as humans.
He also speculates that aliens could, conceivably, be fully intelligent without having the attention schema model, without being what we would call conscious.
Graziano discusses what a computer would need in order to be conscious: an attention mechanism, a sub-system to model that mechanism, and having the model data available to the components of the overall system. He points out that many modern supercomputers currently have as much processing power as the human brain but, lacking the structure he lays out, they show no signs of being conscious. Using the theory, he predicts that a conscious computer could be developed within a few years.
In perhaps the part of the book most vulnerable to misinterpretation, he points out that if awareness, the attention schema, actually is just information, then the inanimate objects, animals, natural forces, or computers that we attribute consciousness to, actually have a certain kind of consciousness, even if it is only located in our own brain in a low resolution fashion.
We attribute awareness to these things in a similar way that we attribute awareness to ourselves or to other people. We hold an attention schema for them in the same manner that we hold an attention schema for ourselves. Both are information. One is not necessarily any more real than the other.
This means that spirits, ghosts, and related concepts exist, as attention schemas. A version of the consciousness of deceased people do live on in the memories of their living friends and family.
Graziano is careful to clarify that he’s not saying these things exist outside of the mind, only that our spiritual intuitions may have foundations in our mental architecture.
This book has changed my views on consciousness in a number of ways, which I consider the best compliment I can give it. Going in, I have to admit I leaned heavily toward the social theories he discussed, that consciousness is just our theory of mind turned inward. I also viewed internal experience as largely an illusion, a cognitive confusion, a subjective bias not confirmed by the facts.
But if Graziano’s theory is correct, and it seems to have a lot going for it, then consciousness exists as an actual attribute that autonomous agents may or may not hold, inner experience is real, and we may have a scientific theory for it.
Graziano is realistic. His theory is based on solid empirical foundations, but he acknowledges that it will require years of additional scientific work to see if it is substantially the whole story.
I’m not sure yet if I agree with Graziano’s assertion that consciousness has “control” of our actions. It may be more accurate to say it has information that may influence our actions. But this could be semantic fussiness on my part in an area rife with disagreements that only amount to semantic fussiness.
On computer consciousness, I tend to suspect that while the human architecture is one path to awareness, to an inner experience, there may be other more streamlined options available for an artificial mind. All that may be required is a subsystem modeling the whole system, and making that information available for use to the overall system, an internal feedback mechanism.
Whether or not this theory is the natural selection of consciousness, or only a step toward that comprehensive theory, I can’t say. But it feels like is at least a major step.
Can we say that the attention schema theory solves the hard problem? I think it depends on your definition of the hard problem. It provides a possible explanation for experienceness, but its counter-intuitive assertion that awareness is information may invalidate it as a solution for many who are interested in the hard problem.
You may read the details in the book and come to different conclusions. If you are interested in consciousness, I highly recommend it.
- Conscious Oneness: The Importance of Unity (wesannac.com)
- Living In A Brain-Backup World (winextra.com)
- What Anesthesia Can Teach Us About Consciousness (nytimes.com)
- We are all perfect (middlepane.com)
- Towards a Neurophenomenology of Consciousness (jasonorous.wordpress.com)
- Reclaiming the Self: Is your sense of self an illusion? No, it isn’t! (interdisciplinarypsychology.wordpress.com)
- Michael Graziano: The Spirit Constructed in the Brain (asthevoiceslinger.wordpress.com)
- Does your Self exist? (psychologytoday.com)