Michael Graziano’s attention schema theory

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.

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29 Responses to Michael Graziano’s attention schema theory

  1. David Davis says:

    Wondering about consciousness takes consciousness to a whole new level.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. paultorek says:

    Let me just re-register my suspicion that what “only exists subjectively”, as you implicitly define that, becomes a catch-all. Your basis for it seems to be that recognition of consciousness or its contents depends on the definitions of key terms. But all sentences which assert the existence of anything whatsoever, can only be true in light of the definitions of their terms.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree, although I get the impression you didn’t expect me to?

      Saying it only exists subjectively actually refers to two distinct issues. First is that some of what we subjectively perceive, out and out don’t exist, such as the color white as discussed in the video, or our feeling of a unified self.

      But the second, and getting to your point, is the difficulty of defining what we mean by “consciousness”. Even in purely phenomenal terms, what is necessary and sufficient for subjective experience? Perception, attention, memory, emotion, volition, self reflection? Lots of these things can be knocked out and we’ll still have an impression that the resulting system is conscious, although knock out too many and that impression fades.

      Of course, if we do draw a border around a certain set of cognitive capabilities and label them “conscious”, then for purposes of that definition, its existence (or non-existence as the case might be) would be objective.


      • paultorek says:

        The white light thing is a straw man. There’s nothing in Joe Sixpack’s experience of white light that tells him that white light can’t be split into colored lights. He might be surprised, but that’s different than believing the opposite. Philosophers and psychologists really need to stop over-interpreting experience and putting words in the layperson’s mouth.


  3. Lee Roetcisoender says:

    “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”

    Mike, we’ve discussed your use of the term subjectively before. Since subject/object metaphysics is an unspoken, accepted paradigm of how human beings interpret the world and their own conscious experience, I find the use of the term as highly problematic. In my opinion, it is more problematic than the use of the term illusion. Subjective, subjectively and subjectivity explicitly asserts that some “thing”, whatever that “thing” happens to be is not a reality in itself and does not exist. Where in contrast, our world and our experience of conscious is a reality in itself, but that reality and experience is radically indeterminate. This position is not splitting hairs Mike, it’s a definitively huge distinction…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lee,
      I understand your objection to the distinction. I wonder if it helps that I see it as an epistemic rather than an ontological distinction?

      Some of this gets down to whether you accept the concept of layers of abstraction. In other words, from a scientific view of reality, all that exists are spacetime, quantum fields, and their excitations and interactions.

      But this view isn’t productive when I just need to get to the grocery store. Due to the limitations of our minds, it’s productive to accept the existence of cars, roads, stores, etc, even while knowing that they’re really just complex patterns of those quantum excitations.

      Likewise, any subjective phenomenon is composed of objective mechanisms. But for grocery shopping, it helps to just remember what I think tastes good and what doesn’t, even though you or anyone else might have very different opinions than mine about those items and the mechanisms of taste are ultimately neural firings in our nervous system.


  4. Lee Roetcisoender says:

    I think you see it as an epistemic distinction Mike, so your use of the word subjective would correspond to what the general audience understands to mean “subordinate to”. This epistemic distinction would then correspond to mean your own personal tastes and opinions, tastes and opinions which are clearly “subordinate to” your own decisions.

    The problem lies with the audience. Because the audience, including the institutions of science and academia do not see the subject as an epistemic distinction, they see it as an ontological one. One can see that ontological distinction in any essay written about consciousness where, according to these authors, the subject is the one having the “subjective” conscious experience. And at the end of the day, I don’t know what that statement means, and neither does anyone else. SOM is an egregiously suppressive model, very similar in nature to the “flat earth syndrome”. It’s a model that is deeply entrenched in our culture, psyche, and the way we define our world.

    Effective communication is contingent upon a mutual circle of definition and agreement. So if you or I are using subjective, subjectivity, and subjectively to mean “subordinate to”, the audience does not know that, nor do they see it as an epistemic distinction because they are under the influence of SOM. Have you ever tried to convince anyone within the science and academic community that there is no such “thing” as a subject?


    • Lee,
      What would you say it’s subordinate to?

      I’ve never tried to convince anyone there’s no such thing as a subject because, although I can see where you’re coming from, that doesn’t feel like a particularly productive position to me.


      • Lee Roetcisoender says:

        “that doesn’t feel like a particularly productive position to me.”

        I’m sure those living during the Copernicus revolution and the dismantling of the flat earth syndrome felt the same way. Hindsight is perfect vision Mike, and it’s difficult to see the implications of a revolutionary new idea in the present moment. Is my position productive?

        The dismantling of the SOM model, (if it ever occurs), will supersede the significance of both the Copernicus revolution and the flat earth syndrome combined. I’m a hard core pragmatist Mike, so I don’t expect you nor anyone else to “get the significance” even though you might be able to “see where I’m coming from”…



        • I understand your dilemma. I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to communicate certain concepts in ways that will click for people. Maybe it would come down to what you see as an insight that is only possible by dismantling it. Or a misconception that can only be dispensed with if it’s gone.


  5. Wyrd Smythe says:

    2:28: “Our perception of white light is wrong and oversimplified.”

    In what way “wrong”? What would be the “right” white light thing to see?

    As I’m sure we’ve debated before, “color” is phenomenal in the same way “sound” is, so all color, on that level, is perception, and white is just another color (ask any painter).

    3:39 “Our certainty that we have metaphysical, subjective experience may come from one of the brain’s models, a cut-corner description of what it means to process information.”

    So, I’m certain I have a {something} but it’s really just a cut-rate model of a {something}.

    The argument seems to be that, because brain damage reveals the multi-layered complexity of the brain’s operation, and — as many things do — shows our consciousness isn’t always right (in fact, per Kant, it’s never 100% right), and because we don’t see white light as some mix of colors, our perception of our own consciousness is flawed.

    Well,… yeah. Optical illusions. Drugs. Brain damage. Kant. Of course it’s flawed.

    But to draw a line from that to the idea that I’m somehow tricked about having phenomenal experience, is a pretty big leap in my eyes.

    And logically flawed: I’m not having phenomenal experience, but I am having phenomenal experience of a flawed model?

    4:44: “…the way neurons in the networks related to consciousness compute specific pieces of information is outside the scope of our current technology.”

    😀 😀 😀 It is, indeed.

    “What we know of our own consciousness is based on an internal model of it that our brain constructs.”

    No argument. But having a flawed perception is still having a perception!

    “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.”

    But that’s not the argument. The argument is whether the subject perception occurs or not. It clearly does.

    It’s the difference between a sensor that gives a faulty reading versus a sensor that isn’t giving any reading at all.

    “Graziano’s contention that conscious awareness is essentially a data model puts him in the illusionist camp.”

    But how do we know about that data model? By being consciously aware of it.

    To the extent the argument is “Consciousness isn’t what it seems to be,” that’s a fine argument and one I agree with in many regards.

    To the extent the argument is “Consciousness is false,” I think that’s self-evidently incorrect by contradiction. (Literally “self-evidently”!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your arguments are the common ones made against illusionism. It’s why I usually say that if phenomenal experience is an illusion, then the illusion is the experience. But, at least to me, that doesn’t mean that the illusionists are wrong about the neural underpinnings.

      On white light, the point, at least to me, is that whiteness is a construction, a protocol our brain uses to represent the presence of all visible wavelengths of light. No amount of introspective study of the experience of white will reveal that. No matter how hard we stare at white, the red, green, and blue aspects won’t come to us. It’s resolved by lower level machinery.


      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        “On white light, the point, at least to me, is that whiteness is a construction, a protocol our brain uses to represent the presence of all visible wavelengths of light.”

        Or, as far as our brains know, just the presence of red, green, and blue, wavelenghs. As when you look at “white” on a computer monitor or TV. Or one of those large LED scoreboards.

        But our phenomenal experience of “white” is no different than our phenomenal experience of any other color. All of it is just photons of the right wavelengths stimulating cone cells.

        The exact same argument, such as it is, for “white” can be made for any color except pure red, pure green, or pure blue. And those rarely occur naturally, so the same argument applies to just about every color you see naturally. And every color you see on a TV, monitor, or scoreboard.

        There’s nothing special about white other than the cool fact you can split sunlight (or other truly broad spectrum visible light) with a prism. (Makes a great and classic album cover.)

        “No matter how hard we stare at white, the red, green, and blue aspects won’t come to us.”

        It blows most people’s minds when they find out yellow is made of red and green. Who knew!

        It’s true that magenta and cyan colors bare aspects of their primaries, but without knowing about how color works, would you ever really guess how that works?


        • White is a little different because perceptually it’s the same as what our rod codes return in dim light. But the color systems return it when all three cone types are stimulated more or less evenly.

          There’s an interesting theory that colors are antagonists. Many mammals can only see two colors, blue and yellow. (Although whether they actually manifest to them as our blue and our yellow is unknown.) Red and green are the two antagonists our nervous system divides yellow into, only showing yellow when both the red and blue cones are excited.

          Color seems like a case where our nervous system invents a convention to represent certain types of data. It’s an open question whether your colors match my colors.

          Interestingly, damage to the ventral occiptal-temporal cortex can leave someone totally color blind, with only the ability to distinguish overall light intensities, seeing the world like a black and white film.


          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            “White is a little different because perceptually it’s the same as what our rod codes return in dim light.”

            Fair point; I’ll go along with white being a little different.

            “Color seems like a case where our nervous system invents a convention to represent certain types of data.”

            I agree. (The phrasing makes it sound like The Programmer invented a protocol. 🙂 I know you just mean that’s how color is presented to our (illusion of) consciousness.)

            “It’s an open question whether your colors match my colors.”

            Yeah, inverted spectrum question. Who knows. It’s like knowing how animals perceive color. (You know about mantis shrimp vision, yes?)

            We do know humans can agree on precise colors, so the difference I see in Mint Green, Lime Green, Sea Green, and Hunter Green, may not be exactly what you “see” (even as far as the green), but we seem able to agree which is which.

            We also seem able to describe colors in terms others understand. Hunter green is dark and kind of “muddy.” Sea green is brighter and has lots of blue. Lime green is bright green with some yellowing (red). Mint green is bright green with lots of blue and considerable red.

            I think it’s a little like music. Humans show strong preferences for certain kinds of musical intervals, chords, and progressions. All of music is founded on them (modulo experimental forms, some jazz forms, and some Asian forms).

            Something like that might occur with color, perhaps due to oppositional balances.

            (Blue and yellow are two others. We don’t seem able to see “blueish-yellow” or “yellowish-blue” any more than “redish-green”. From a color design POV, there are colors good for showing contrast and colors good for being garish. There’s a whole teal-orange color scheme Hollywood uses over and over. Once you’re aware of it, you start seeing it everywhere.)

            Liked by 1 person

  6. Mike,
    From my perspective this video says things that are quite obviously true. Of course Lee naturally has some problems here given his issues with the limitations of subjectivity, though for me that’s all kosher. I gave a quick look at your old post on him, as well as Wikipedia, but still haven’t found anything objectionable.

    So my question is, does he say anything that you think that I’d have a problem with? Or does he say anything reasonably controversial? Of course I say all sorts of things that make people uncomfortable. How might a person improve these troubled fields otherwise? But does he have any big ideas, or are they instead obviously true to people like us?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Eric,
      I think he’d tell you that your second computer doesn’t exist. He’s an illusionist. I played down the illusionism angle in that old post, but he’s doubled down (actually tripled and quadrupled down) on it since then, and I’ve discovered since then that his and my deflated views of consciousness amount to illusionism for many people.

      I won’t say his ideas are obviously true, because they’re extremely counter-intuitive, so much so that many people reject them immediately and with passion. And I’m not on board with all aspects of his theory, although like I said in the post, I think it, or something like it, is part of the overall story.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Mike,
        If Michael Graziano has any positions which I would consider less than obviously true, then I’m going to need an example. So far I’ve got nothing. Certainly everything in that little video seemed perfectly sensible to me.

        As I understand it illusionists essentially just assert what educated people in general ought to realize by now — phenomenal experience provides a “convenient” rather than “true” picture of reality. (Actually I don’t know how Truth could instead be provided.) It doesn’t trouble me that Graziano would call my second computer “an illusion”. If he means it only exists subjectively, then we’re in agreement about that.

        Massimo Pigliucci is just as aware of the difference between noumena and phenomena as anyone I know. But I also recall him bitching out people who call consciousness “an illusion”. I’ve mentioned to him that supposedly this just means that phenomena is not noumena. He didn’t seem to care. And it could be that strawmaning the illusionist position is a good thing here. Why make grand claims of “illusion”, when they might instead just say what you have, or that consciousness only exist subjectively? More standard academic BS I suppose. In this particular game, no one seems to get anywhere without an effective gimmick.

        I just went through the Wikipedia article on his Attention Schema Theory. Though nothing jumped out as wrong to me, when compared against my own model it’s certainly missing a great deal. The big omission seems to be motivation. I didn’t notice sentience at all. Instead of going into three distinct varieties of conscious input, one variety of conscious processor, and one variety of conscious output, his model seems all about focused awareness, or attention. For some examples this could be of an object, or of the body, or even what someone else might be thinking (theory of mind). Anyway beyond that to me his model seems quite incomplete, I didn’t notice obvious errors.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Eric,
          I don’t know if Graziano would sign on to the “only exists subjectively” take. That’s something I came up with on my own, although it’s really just an alternate description of illusionism, a concession to the people who point out that if phenomenal consciousness is an illusion, then the illusion is the experience. But that’s a concession many illusionists aren’t willing to make.

          Yeah, Massimo is one of those people who reflexively and aggressively dismiss illusionism, without, I think, making any real effort to understand it. One of the issues with illusionism is that it’s very easy to strawman. And as Nicholas Humphrey points out, using the word “illusion” is poor politics, encouraging a lot of people to have Massimo’s reaction.

          I agree that AST is not a complete accounting. I think it has some important insights, that our introspective knowledge of self is as gappy and problematic as our knowledge of the world. In the hierarchy I often describe…
          1. Reflexes
          2. Perception
          3. Attention
          4. Imagination / sentience
          5. Recursive metacognition

          …I think the AST sits in 4, providing top down coordination of 3. (As opposed to the bottom up impulses from 1 and 2.) I used to conflate the attention schema with 5, but Graziano himself has made clear that it exists at a lower level and shouldn’t be considered the same.

          Overall, I see functionalist theories like GWT, HOTT, PPT, and AST as not necessarily being alternatives so much as explaining different aspects of the puzzle. (Other theories, like IIT, as I discuss in the next post, I do see as outright wrong.)

          Liked by 1 person

      • Mike,
        Yes if phenomenal consciousness is an illusion, then the experience is the illusion. Thus the entirety of my own existence may be termed an illusion. Fine. My favorite line about this however is the one at the top of Peter Hankins’ site: “If the conscious self is an illusion — who is it that’s being fooled?” Me of course. (Or instead illusionists might “grow up” and acknowledge that educated people in general already understand that perceptions of reality are not reality beyond the subjective. But then they’d lose their gimmick!)

        I think I see why you put AST at “Level 4: Imagination / sentience”. That would naturally be the one to instruct “Level 3: Attention”, or at least in the top down sense of “conscious”. But my look at Wikipedia’s interpretation of AST didn’t suggest to me that he proposes any motivation from which to sharpen awareness into attention. You and I may have associated models, though it’s not yet clear to me that he does as well. In that case it might be more appropriate to put AST back at “3: Attention”. If he is proposing such a model however, then I’d love to hear about it.

        If it’s true that there are all sorts of partially good consciousness models on the market today, the suggestion is that someone will come along and develop a model which is so effective that the good points of each of them reduce back to it. And given how lucrative it should be to author such a model, it may be wise for us to see how our models reduce back to the other.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Eric,
          “and acknowledge that educated people in general already understand that perceptions of reality are not reality beyond the subjective.”

          Well, we discussed Massimo’s reaction above. He’s an extremely intelligent man with multiple PhDs. I think the illusionists have good evidence that many educated people do not find their ideas obvious.

          ” In that case it might be more appropriate to put AST back at “3: Attention”.”

          The problem with putting the AST in layer 3, attention, is that would make that layer more than attention. But Graziano’s whole point is that the model of attention is separate from attention itself.

          Although in discussing this, we get to the limitations of my simplified little hierarchy, because I could see an argument that the AST is a type of perception, putting it in layer 2. Maybe the right way to look at it is that functionality in 4 makes use of the model in 2 to control 3.

          “the suggestion is that someone will come along and develop a model which is so effective that the good points of each of them reduce back to it.”

          That assumes that consciousness is one coherent thing that can be addressed with a single theory. Myself, I think consciousness is like the old concept of biological vitalism. Biologists never found one single elan vital, but a vast array of interacting chemical pathways. Had we retained the vitalism concept, it would have had to refer to that vast system.

          Of course, no one talks about vitalism anymore. It’s no longer seen as a productive concept. I suspect consciousness is on the same path. If the word “consciousness” is used a century or two from now, it may only be in a metaphorical manner.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Myself, I don’t think the concept of consciousness is so much like vitalism as it is like the concept of life. When you look really close, it’s just certain processes. But we still talk about living things, and far into the future we will talk about conscious things.

            [ now how do I go about making my model lucrative …]

            Liked by 1 person

          • “Lucrative” as in money? Seems tough unless you’re prepared to go Deepak Chopra and tell people what they want to hear. Have you considered science fiction, or philosophical fiction?

            Liked by 1 person

      • Mike,
        I think we’ve established that Massimo understands the difference between “phenomena” and “noumena” as well as anyone. He simply chooses to instead take a literal interpretation of the “illusionist” title. Thus here he displays classical “attacking a straw man” rhetoric. It’s not like this hasn’t been his plan — he’s sharp as a tack! And why does he choose to take such an approach? Because he enjoys calling bullshit, “bullshit”. Remember that he’s the guy who wrote that “Nonsense on Stilts” book.

        My own way to challenge this illusionism business is to instead play it straight. By demonstrating that educated people today already accept the illusionist position, though not the naturalistically ironic title, the caché of this position should evaporate.

        Nicholas Humphrey might have called their use of the word illusion “poor politics”, but that would be if things functioned sensibly in our soft sciences. Instead one might need to create a false controversy with deceptive wording to get noticed, or standard gimmickry.

        I don’t know about the limitations that you’ve mentioned to your hierarchy, though obviously add and discard from your model as evidence warrants rather than preserve. My own dual computers model seems to do pretty well regarding attention and what causes it. The non-conscious mind can produce stimulus which naturally demands the attention of the conscious mind (bottom up such as producing pain or a loud noise). Furthermore we may consciously decide to pay attention to something interesting, also given sentience based motivation (top down). If Graziano’s model doesn’t also address motivation regarding our function, then I can’t imagine it truly getting anywhere. That would make it somewhat like a car without a motor.

        I don’t believe that “consciousness is one coherent thing that can be addressed with a single theory”. Instead I believe that it’s a humanly fabricated term, and a damn useful one as well. Same for “life”. Each should continue to be used prominently to the end of us. “Vitalism” might have become so as well, that is if it were useful to say that life is made of something other than non-life. Alas no. (But perhaps it will some day become useful to say that life is made up of “computation”, as in my four forms of computer model?)

        I believe that the problem is that soft sciences are naturally quite susceptible to failures in metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology. Physics only began to fail strongly here in recent decades given our limited ability to test modern ideas. But since there should be people in the field who haven’t been bred to accept squishy science, it could be that physicists will help lead the charge to fix philosophy, and thus science as a whole.

        Did you notice that Sabine recently wrote a post about how Quantum Mechanics is merely epistemic rather than ontological? In the past I’d never noticed her make such a claim, but rather the contrary as is standard in the field. I do try to play things cool over there, but couldn’t resist getting into my metaphysics a bit. Is it a coincidence that she wrote such a post only weeks after I came on the scene? It could be that she’s listening.

        Liked by 1 person

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