The attention schema theory of consciousness deserves your…attention

English: Neural Correlates Of Consciousness
Neural Correlates Of Consciousness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Michael Graziano published a brief article in the New York Times on his attention schema theory of consciousness, which a number of my fellow bloggers have linked to and discussed.  I’m not sure this article was the clearest description of it that he’s given, and I suspect the title biased readers to think his theory is another consciousness-is-an-illusion one, which affected some of the discussion.

I’ve written about this theory before when I reviewed his book, ‘Consciousness and the Social Brain’, and alluded to it in several other posts.  I’m doing another post on it, partially to take another shot at describing it, partially to reaffirm my understanding of it, and partially to do my small part to call attention to a scientific theory of consciousness that I think deserves your attention.

Before starting on the theory, I think it’s important to understand that the scientific evidence doesn’t point to the brain operating under any central control.  There’s no homunculus, no little person inside controlling the brain.  The brain is more of a distributed set of modules that operate somewhat independently.

The first thing to understand with the theory is the distinction between attention and awareness.  Attention is the process of your brain deciding which sensory inputs to give priority processing to.  It’s  a messy emergent process with, again, no central control.  It can be top down, such as your attention to reading this blog entry, or bottom up, such as the attention you’d give to a spider crawling up your arm.

These sensory signals are constantly streaming into your brain, each signal is constantly striving for attention.  There is an ongoing contest in your brain with signals effectively forming coalitions, coming to prominence, and then receding to the next ascendant coalition of signals.

Some philosophers of mind stop here and say that this is consciousness, and that the feeling that there is anything else, that there is an inner experience of some kind, is an illusion.  But if this is an illusion, then what is experiencing the illusion?  And how is the illusion arising?  And how are the top down attentional states referenced above developed?

The answer may be awareness.  Awareness is not attention.  Your attention can be drawn to something without you being aware of it.  This is something every magician and illusionist knows.  They often misdirect your attention, without you being aware of it, which allows them to perform seeming feats of magic.

But if awareness isn’t attention, then what is it?  According to this theory, it is information.  Awareness is a model, an executive summary in your brain of the messy and emergent process of attention.  Like any executive summary, it lacks a lot of detailed information, it isn’t always accurate, and is by nature incomplete.

Compare this to what we know about the relationship between consciousness and the subconscious.  We are conscious of many things, but a lot more things go on within our subconscious that we have only incomplete or hazy information about, and much goes on that we simply have no information on.

In other posts, I’ve used the metaphor of a city newspaper.  The city is the brain, and the newspaper is awareness.  The newspaper gathers information, summarizes and simplifies it, and then makes it available to the rest of the city.  It is a feedback mechanism that allows the components of the city to know a summary of what is happening with all the other components of the city.

Awareness serves the same function in your brain.  It’s a feedback mechanism that allows the brain to monitor its attentional state.  According to the theory, it’s this feedback mechanism, this schema, that gives us our feeling of inner experience, of essentially experiencing our experience.

Another aspect of this theory is the idea that, just as we have an attention schema for our own attention state, we also have attention schemata for other minds.  The idea is that the same brain circuitry that processes awareness for our inner experience also processes our perceptions of what others are thinking.  For example, when we watch another person look at an apple, we model their attentional state and understand that their attention is on the apple.

In other words, consciousness is our theory of mind pointed back at ourselves, and our theory of mind is our awareness feedback mechanism pointed at other perceived minds.  (I’m tempted to go off on a tangent here about the importance of understanding yourself in order to understand others, but I think I’ll save that for some other time.)

Graziano feels that consciousness has at least some control over our actions, that asserting that it doesn’t, as many epiphenomenon theories of consciousness do, ignores the main thing we can know for sure about consciousness, that we can describe it.  I think that’s why his preferred metaphor for describing the attention schema is of a general plotting strategies with a map and toy soldiers serving as a model of the real battlefield.

I’m sure Graziano has his expert reasons for believing this, but based on all I’ve read, I’m less sure about consciousness being in control, thinking that maybe a better description might be to say that consciousness has causal influence.  I think this is one reason why I prefer the newspaper metaphor.  Unlike a general, a newspaper doesn’t have control over what happens in the city (at least not directly), but it has substantial causal influence through the information that it makes available.  The city, or more accurately the various faction within the city, may or may not use the information provided by the newspaper in their decisions.

This conception also melds well with Michael Gazzaniga‘s description of the interpreter functionality which seems to be revealed by split-brain patient experiments.  These experiments are some of the indications that we have that the brain isn’t controlled by any one central point.  The mechanism producing the attention schema is the interpreter, or at least a crucial part of it.

So, why am I enthusiastic about this theory?  Well, first, it seems solidly rooted in neuroscience and psychology.  In his book, Graziano discusses the empirical support for the theory.  He admits that the support is still incomplete, and that the theory may have to be modified as more data becomes available.  This is normal for a scientific theory.

Second, the theory doesn’t invoke an unknown magical step.  For example, the integrated information theory posits that consciousness arises from the integration of information without being able to describe exactly how much integration is necessary, or why integrated entities like the internet or the tax code aren’t conscious (at least not without making counter-intuitive assertions that they are conscious but with no ability to communicate with us).  The attention schema theory sees integration as necessary for consciousness, but not sufficient by itself.

Third, the theory doesn’t dismiss inner experience as an illusion.  It’s description of a feedback mechanism actually gives an explanation for the intuitive feeling of the homunculus that we all have.

And fourth, it gives insight into the type of architecture that might eventually be necessary for an artificial intelligence to be conscious, while showing how unlikely it is that such an architecture will come about by accident.

Is this theory the natural selection of consciousness, as Graziano admits he is looking for?  I don’t know, but it feels like at least an important step toward that theory.  This theory will rise or fall on whether or not the data support it, but it being rooted in the data that is already available makes me think it’s a closer approximation of that final theory than most of the other theories that often get tossed around.

44 thoughts on “The attention schema theory of consciousness deserves your…attention

  1. I have always felt a little uneasy about Sam Harris’s statement that the self is an illusion along with free will.
    Laymen like me are in the hands of
    learned neuroscientists as we are in the hands of physists on the big bang.
    We could say lets believe common sense and let the rest go hang itself, but common sense can be wrong.
    I’ve taken to gauging the experts to see if they agree and if there is not a sizable majority leave it open.


    1. I think that’s a good strategy. The fact is that it’s difficult for non-specialists to evaluate theories. Even scientists can rarely do so outside of their own field. A physicist commenting on consciousness may have a well educated opinion, but it won’t be an expert one, just as a neuroscientist commenting on string theory won’t be authoritative.

      Still, when the experts haven’t yet formed a consensus, it’s fun to speculate and debate the theories that are out there.


      1. Wrist duly slapped SAP – I confess to only scanning your opening two paragraphs. I couldn’t see anything new in the rest, I think all of which was included in Zoltan Torey’s work of 15 years ago: The Crucible of Consciousness


        1. Hariod, I sincerely apologize. I misunderstood your question.

          I have to admit that I haven’t read Torey. (I generally avoid dense academic works as I rarely find them worth the effort.) But I have read Dennett, Blackmore, Tononi, Gazzaniga, and others, and I think this theory builds on top of and extends their theories.

          I fully realize that theories on consciousness are a dime a dozen. Graziano is a Princeton psychologist and neuroscientist, and his theory is rooted in scientific work, which I think makes it worth the attention of anyone who is interested in these matters.

          It is, of course, totally up to you whether you want to read the full post. I know long blog posts are, to some extent, presumptive of the time of the reader, and I try to avoid them unless the subject matter demands it. (Although this post is actually only around 1300 words. One of the reasons I wrote it is to give myself a briefer description to link to other than the 2000+ word one I did on his book.)

          Liked by 1 person

      2. Whilst I scanned the opening two paragraphs, I read the rest with great care SAP, and I followed and read with equal interest 3 of the 4 related articles which you linked to. Dennett approves of Torey, and wrote the blurb for the reprint by MIT Press, the original being published by Oxford University Press. Zoltan copied me the fax of D.D.’s early take on the book, and in which Dan says he would incorporate some of Zoltan’s ideas in his own work in future. Yes, Z.T.’s book is hard going, but is very rewarding, exhilarating even. Are you doing a review of Tononi’s ‘Phi’? I’m thinking of forking out for it but it’s so forking expensive!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thanks Hariod. I did read Dennett’s ‘Intuition Pumps’, which was published after he wrote that forward and likely incorporated Torey’s ideas.

          Unfortunately, I haven’t read ‘Phi’. My understanding of Tononi’s theory comes from his papers. (It’s been a while; I may have to re-read them at some point.)

          But thanks for reminding me about his book. I may have to check it out myself at some point, instead of rereading the papers.

          The problem with information integration alone as consciousness, from what I can see, is that it can lead to us regarding things like the US tax code as conscious. The attention schema theory crucially depends on integrated information, but doesn’t see it as sufficient by itself. (Of course, the attention schema theory can lead to us regarding the American or British nations as being collectively conscious, but that seems more intuitive to me than the tax code being conscious.)

          Liked by 1 person

      3. ‘My understanding of Tononi’s theory comes from his papers. It’s been a while; I may have to re-read them at some point. . . But thanks for reminding me about his book. I may have to check it out myself at some point, instead of rereading the papers.’

        Looking briefly at those papers you just linked to SAP, then I’m definitely going down the book route. Sod the expense, it’s got lots of nice illustrations; just the job for my poor little brain. o_O

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Your writing is exquisite! Thank you for explaining these complicated matters so clearly. Totally impressed, yet again.

    “Third, the theory doesn’t dismiss inner experience as an illusion.” This point is crucial for me. I simply can’t buy into consciousness as an illusion because I don’t experience it.

    Your newspaper metaphor is brilliant. I’m gonna have to come back and read this again when I can give it my full, um, attention.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! As always, I’m grateful for your kind words.

      The newspaper metaphor is my own small contribution to this. Like all metaphors, it’s flawed, but I do think it does a decent job of illuminating the concept. (Assuming of course, that I understand it correctly myself.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m very interested in this topic. I’ve never read anything about it and I want to dig deeper. I’m especially interested in how the mind prioritizes sometimes subconsciously. Unfortunately, right now I have a big pile of reading due tomorrow for my writer’s group, which I should have started a long time ago, and a grout cleaning job for the entire house, a task I wish I had never started. If only I had prioritized consciously!


  3. Hey, I’m back.

    Why this theory is fascinating to me:
    I have in mind two opposed ontologies, and I’m gonna oversimplify…because. One reduces science to consciousness (Husserl’s phenomenology, for example), the other reduces consciousness to science. If I have to choose between the two, I prefer the former because I don’t think we can ever step outside of consciousness. All of science is always understood within consciousness, whether we like it or not, even when scientists claim that consciousness is an illusion.

    I’d rather not have to choose to be anti-scientific, yet modern science seems bent on showing consciousness to be an illusion. I’m flabbergasted that certain scientists can be comfortable with flying in the face of direct experience. It used to be that science’s goal was to explain experience, but now it seems to be always seeking some reality beyond that contradicts experience.

    If you suppose, as I do, that consciousness is real, and that science offers knowledge (but a certain kind of knowledge), you have a potential problem of contradiction. My hope is that science can be more nuanced.

    This scientific theory of consciousness seems to be just the thing, if I’m understanding it correctly. Exciting indeed.

    You’re right about the article being unclear. I had no idea what side he was on or where he was going with his points because he involved so much convoluted rhetoric. Maybe he was just thinking of how to fit in to the style of the New York Times. 🙂

    I wonder if this theory explains the feeling of a subconscious as well, perhaps in the realm of attention?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Welcome back!

      I can’t speak for scientists, but as someone who is scientifically minded, I think I can give some insight into why the consciousness as an illusion camp developed. The history of science is one case after another of our intuitions being proven wrong. The Earth moves around the sun rather than the reverse, life wasn’t designed but evolved, time is relative, space itself is warped by gravity, and quantum mechanics defy all sorts of common sense. Given this history, doubting our common intuitions has become reflexive for science.

      So, when science looked at the brain and couldn’t explain inner experience, it was a valid scientific move to wonder if it was really there. Graziano’s theory does offer a possible explanation, and I think it’s on the right track. But there’s no guarantee of that. The illusionists could still eventually win the day.

      I’m not sure what to make of the NY article. This is a tough concept to explain and I sometimes think Graziano’s instincts are to emphasize the wrong points. For example, he often emphasizes that the attention schema is just information, but *everything* in the brain is “just” information, so I think emphasizing that clouds rather than illuminates.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Defying common intuition does seem to be ‘in’. If the illusionists win the day, that will put me in an awkward place, for sure.

        I find the rhetoric behind the article revealing. He emphasizes the aspects of his theory that are not original or interesting, but to your average person will sound like an illusionist. Honestly, if I hadn’t read your post, I wouldn’t have understood his point at all. You have to pay attention to the details to see that his thesis is contrary to the illusionist’s in so far as it doesn’t dismiss consciousness. In light of the background of current scientific endeavor, perhaps this confusing rhetoric was intentional. He wouldn’t want to stray too far from the in crowd. At least not in the NYT.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. “This idea that consciousness has no leverage in the world, that it’s just a rationalisation to make us feel better about ourselves, is terribly bleak. It runs against most people’s intuitions. Some people might confuse the attention schema theory with that nihilistic view. But the theory is almost exactly the opposite. It is not a theory about the uselessness or non-being of consciousness, but about its central importance. Why did an awareness of stuff evolve in the first place? Because it had a practical benefit.”

            Much clearer! Thanks for sharing that article.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for writing this essay, Sap, I feel I understand Granziano’s theory much better now, and see your reasons for liking it.

    Now I’m just confused why the article in the NY Times was titled “Are We Really Conscious?” I’m beginning to think an editor came up with the title as “click bate”.

    (Thanks also for linking to my entry!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, and my pleasure on the link. My theory of what happened is that Graziano was probably advised by someone to relate his theory to Dennett’s and Churchland’s, causing him to mention them in the piece, which an editor quickly scanned, misinterpreted, and then mis-titled. But even without the title, the piece is confusing.


  5. Thanks for posting this. I’d like to point out there is a great discussion of this on the Brain Science Podcast, which is where I was first introduced to this idea.

    I too have found Graziano’s theory of awareness as an attention schema to be quite appealing in its consistency, building on and improving on social theories of consciousness and integrated information theories of consciousness simultaneously, whilst also explaining simply the underlying reason that attention and awareness are not the same.

    One thing I have been hoping for since I first heard about this theory and have dipped through parts of the book are expert responses. Most of the criticism I have read so far is from dualists and creationists, which is not what this theory appears to deserve. So thanks again for posting this, hopefully it will help to motivate some actual responses. And hopefully we can have some discussion here too!

    I appreciated your newspaper metaphor about causal influence in consciousness. Perhaps I haven’t read that part of Graziano’s work or perhaps I have forgotten, but I felt the important point was that he was clarifying that in his theory awareness is not an epiphenomenon. I think awareness acting as a feedback mechanism to influence our behaviour is the important point and I believe this is what you are getting at (and probably what Graziano thinks?).

    One scenario I have been wondering about, (although I admit I have not yet seen whether anything similar is addressed in Graziano’s work), is about generating awareness in machines. I am able to open up Task Manager on my laptop, and it displays all the processes that are running (which can then be ranked by the proportion of processing power that they are using). This in effect is an informational description of the attentional state of the computer, and so according to Graziano’s model we could call awareness. Presumably one could construct a computer that can monitor and subsequently control its behaviour based on that description of it’s attentional state. The computer has the capacity to produce the other part of consciousness, the “contents of consciousness” with memory and the ability to process the inputs of various sensors you may attach. So my question is really what else do you have to do to create something that, at least according to Graziano’s definition, is an aware, or perhaps to word it with greater strength, is conscious?


    1. Thanks sinkers, and welcome! Appreciate the link. I’ll check it out.

      I definitely agree that it would be good to see more discussion of this theory from the neuroscience community.

      Graziano does discuss the possibility of building a conscious computer in his book. I think I’ll just quote my review.

      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 practice, I suspect that since the needs of commercial and industrial machines are different than that of evolved organisms, machines will likely fulfill the same functions as consciousness with mechanisms we might not intuitively consider to be conscious, such as a much more sophisticated version of the Task Manager.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I have read the proposed theory and I hate when headlines say this scientist may have solved this or that. Fact of the matter nothing is really new in the Schema Theory. Lets assume its fact and the Attention Schema Theory is right it still fails to explain why us? We are we, as far as we know, the only ones able to process in such a way as to create a high, relative to known creatures, consciousness. In short why can’t I sit down and have a beer with a dolphin, whale or elephant and have a conversation. I get it. It’s a theory of awareness but I think all theories of consciousness will end in mystery and ignorance. I’m not religious but that does not mean my existence makes sense. To me science seems to be trying to reduce my importance as a species in order to boost their theories of everything. I think every scientific theory of awareness and consciousness will always end with another question, why? Why, why, why! I personally think consicousness along with it’s cousin awareness is quantum. I think its entirely possible that true death is an illusion and consciousness exist across dimensions in the multiverse and I’m doomed or blessed, depending on your view point, to live my life over and over and over again in the multiverse much like Bill Murray in Ground Hog Day. In some dimensions I might live the exact same life while in another dimension I might live a slightly different life. In some dimensions I might not ever existed at all. But in ones where I do exist I believe my consciousness exist also. I believe it’s me and its real. If string theory is correct then I don’t think consciousness dies with our body. Even if string theory is wrong perhaps consciousness does not die. It really boils down to what you are willing to believe in this area. No so called biological or rational theory will ever exist to explain consciousness. There will always be holes where such a Hypothesis will be picked apart. Science does not like mysteries but this is one mystery it will never explain. Good Day.


    1. Thanks for your comment. Obviously my views are different. But rather than cataloging all the points we differ on, I think I’ll just comment on a couple of your points.

      You note that, to you, science seems to be trying to reduce our importance as a species. I think you’re looking at a result of science and interpreting it as an agenda. But science’s only goal is to find truth as reliably as possible. Occasionally scientists do get caught up in their own agendas, but the evidence rarely validates those agendas. The universe doesn’t care about what we want. It is what it is. It is large, we are small, and life is fragile. But that just makes it all the more precious.

      Conceivably, you could be right that science will never explain consciousness. But if it in fact can be explained, it’s unlikely to be done by someone who has decided that it’s forever impossible. I hope scientists and philosophers never give up trying. Personally, I think they’ll succeed, that they are in fact succeeding, but the answers are not, and will not be, intuitive or necessarily comforting. For better or worse, that’s science.

      Thanks again.


      1. Let me start by saying you seem to be a genuine nice person. I am obviously not very sophisticated scientifically. But I do know bias among all human beings is unavoidable. I too have plenty of bias in me. But if your mind says for instance there is no conceivable way that consciousness is something that could perhaps be an eternal undying thing and that can’t possibly exist outside the body thats your premise then really what proof is enough. I’m not a religious guy, I’m really not. Sure I’ve been exposed to religion from believers in my family and outside my family all my life. I have been to church. But I see all the pain and suffering in the world and I just don’t believe a Just and Good God would watch such things. The questions I have asked are the same ones everyone atheist, deist and agnostic alike have asked at some point in their lives. Some get to a point where they don’t ask questions no more they just assume what ever it is they assume. However something feels different to me. Call me crazy or mystical or what ever you choose but my eyes do not see any creature on earth as sophisticated as the human consciousness. My eyes haven’t seen extraterrestrial creatures thus far during my existence. In fact we have not even conclusively proven bacteria exist on other planets much less high life forms. So forgive me for thinking we might be a bit more special. If time is another dimension and we once thought that once time passed it was irretrievably lost why are we certain, without proof to the contrary, that consciousness is irretrievably lost after the organism that contains it dies? We might not be able to retrieve time or consciousness but that does not mean they don’t exist after they pass! Are my beliefs a little mystical. Perhaps but 50 years ago if someone mentioned string theory and other dimensions with other copies of me, you and everyone they would have laughed that person out of the room. Thats the thing of science fiction movies! String theory like human consciousness exist in a realm, I think, that is forever unprovable. Perhaps I’m wrong and of course we should still look but a theory of consciousness like string theory I believe delve into areas we will likely never be able to go. We can come close to saying how we think it operates but unless we can actually see and watch structures in action we will never fully prove any theory. Unless we can actually see another universe it is all speculation. Unless we actually witness the mechanisms of awareness and consciousness in action it to is all speculation. So as a mystical man I personally see consciousness as an eternal, timeless quantum process whereby unbeknownst to me I will live over and over and over again in the multiverse asking these same question, wondering about life after death, questioning God or lack thereof asking if a creator of us has to be God or just a being. Or perhaps I’m an atheist in another dimension. Laugh at me if you will but I kind of like the Biocentric Hypothesis of all the ones I have read. My consciousness might be quantum and might exist forever never realizing it, starting over forever in the multiverse. So in a sense I guess even in my view we do die. We won’t remember anything or anyone from other dimensions of existence and were doomed to again ask the same mysterious questions. Who knows in my view I most certainly have already lived an eternity before this existence. But in my view death is not really death rather it’s a type of illusion we relive forever. Is it folly to think like me? Perhaps but in areas like these it comes down to one simple truth. To those that feel something is odd about our existence no proof is needed to those who dismiss those very same feelings and try to trivialize their existence to mere evolutionary quarks no proof is enough. I’m like a scientist in some ways I too have to see to believe. Just explaining the process to me is not enough I want to see it in action. Science can’t do it with consciousness and I don’t believe they ever will. Take care!


      2. You of course are right on a certain level but a scientist that truly tries to be as unbiased as humanly possible will admit that from what we think we know human beings are indeed the most complex, most adaptable, and self aware creatures we know of which would thus far make them the most special organisms we know of. What other creature we know of has the ability to study their environment, themselves and how they interact with the environment? What other creatures dares to ask the silly and ridiculous questions that I and others ask about consciousness and self awareness? What other creature dares dreams of some measure of eternal life even if such a thing might be ridiculous? What other creature dreams up a multiverse, String Theory, Biocentrism? What other creature seriously proposes we might be living in a computer simulation loosely akin to the matrix movies with some reputable smart scientist daring to say that we almost certainly do live in such a simulation? So pardon me for assuming we might be, at least for now, a bit more special than any other organism we are aware of. Good Day.


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