It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to highlight Graziano’s attention schema theory. This brief video is the very barest of sketches, but I think it gets the main idea across.
Those of you who’ve known me for a while might remember that I was once quite taken with this theory of consciousness. I still think it has substantial value in understanding metacognition and top down control of attention, but I no longer see it as the whole story, seeing it as part of a capability hierarchy.
Still, the attention schema theory makes a crucial point. What we know of our own consciousness is based on an internal model of it that our brain constructs. Like all models, it’s simplified in a way that optimizes it for adaptive feedback, not for purposes of understanding the mind.
The problem is that this model feels privileged, to the extent that the proposition that what it shows us isn’t accurate, is simply dismissed out of hand by many people. That our external senses aren’t necessarily accurate is relatively easy to accept, but the idea that our inner senses might have the same limitations is often fiercely resisted.
But there is a wealth of scientific research showing that introspection is unreliable. It actually functions quite well in day to day life. It’s only when we attempt to use it as evidence for how the mind works that we run into trouble. Introspective data that is corroborated by other empirical data is fine, but when it’s our only source of information, caution is called for.
Graziano’s contention that conscious awareness is essentially a data model puts him in the illusionist camp. As I’ve often said, I think the illusionists are right, although I don’t like calling phenomenal consciousness an illusion, implying that it doesn’t exist, instead currently preferring the slightly less contentious assertion that it only exists subjectively, a loose and amorphous construction from various cognitive processes.