What is Consciousness? Dr. Michael Graziano on Attention Schema Theory

Researcher and professor of neuroscience and psychology at Princeton University, Michael Graziano is also a novelist and music composer. Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1967, he received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Princeton in 1989 in psychology. He attended graduate school in neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1989 to 1991 and then returned to Princeton to complete his doctoral degree in neuroscience and psychology.


After 25 years of studying the nuts and bolts related to brain function, such as how the brain takes in sensory input or how the brain controls movement, his group at Princeton has begun focusing on “the more complicated, interesting stuff going on in the brain,” as he puts it. Their ambition is to look at the question that is probably at the core of most, if not all, brain-related research — consciousness and awareness. What we mean when we use those terms, how the brain comes to the conclusion that it’s aware, how we attribute awareness to other people. In a candid tone, in a way that makes you wonder why you never thought about it in these terms yourself, Graziano proposes the “attention schema theory,” an explanation of how and for what adaptive advantage, brains attribute the property of awareness to themselves.

“To approach consciousness scientifically, we can’t start with an assumption of magic,” he claims. The brain’s knowledge of itself is too biased and sketchy to rely on intuition. Instead, he suggests a purely rationalist approach looking at how the brain attributes awareness to itself, and take it from there.

BW: What got you interested in this topic?

MG: Well, probably almost everyone in neuroscience who studies the brain or psychology at some point or another started out with an interest in consciousness. In the backs of our minds, we’re all wondering that question. In today’s information processing world we can all understand roughly how the brain can store memory, or compute information about the external world, or have knowledge about itself, but then there is this question, in addition to computing information, how does the brain get to be aware of all that stuff? As we know, not everything that goes on in the brain, but some of it, has this property that we’re aware of it, that we have an inner subjective experience of it. Where does that come from?

I think that idea is probably in the minds of many people who study the brain. One thing that has changed over the years though, is that it has become more and more scientifically approachable. Within the past 30 years, it’s been more and more possible to actually study these kinds of things objectively and experimentally. So that’s part of the reason why you see a lot of interesting work now on consciousness and how it relates to the brain.

For myself, working on the kind of low-level functions of the brain like control of movement or sensory processing, over the years, I felt like a lot of the issues that we were studying actually related to these deeper questions. At some point it just seemed to me like there are some really interesting possible answers to the bigger questions. So I did a shift and focused primarily on awareness. But one of the things you realize after studying the low-level functions of the brain is that they’re not low-level after all. Issues of how the brain processes vision or how it controls movement end up being very much intertangled with what is awareness; what is consciousness. They’re all one kind of thing.

BW: Can you explain the attention schema theory?

MG: We’re working on a particular perspective or theory of why brains have this being aware experience and what purpose this would serve. We use a very rationalist, scientific approach. It’s decidedly nontheological, nonreligious, nonmagical.

And one of the baseline assumptions we start with as people who study the brain is that the brain is an information-processing device. So in a sense the question that we are asking is: “Why does the brain process information that way?” “Why does it describe itself as having awareness?” “And what is the use of that?”

One of the things that we realized in just looking at human behavior and how we use awareness — and of course many other people have realized it too — is that we don’t just attribute awareness to ourselves, we attribute it to other people as well. And actually, that’s one of the key uses of awareness as an idea, as a construct or perception — we perceive awareness in other people. And this is really crucial to us as social animals.

You know, it’s not enough to look at another person and think of that person as some kind of robot where you have to predict what the next move of the robot might be. We have this kind of intuitive or gut impression that the other person is aware, has a mind, an inner experience. And we use that to help us understand other people, to help predict their behavior, to interact with them better. And we do this constantly. In fact, we’re very much wired to see awareness in other things.

One of the examples I like to give is ventriloquism. I have my own ventriloquism puppet that I bring around with me. I give a talk and then this puppet comes up and everybody thinks I’m insane. But there he is, a big orangutan puppet called Kevin. And he starts talking.

And even though everybody knows in some intellectual sense that there is no awareness in his head, you can’t help the perception. It’s like an illusion, a social illusion. So your mechanisms for attaching or projecting awareness to other things get activated, even though at the intellectual level you know it’s all wrong.

We’re doing this all the time, with other people, with our pets, even with things that aren’t alive to some extent. Everybody has the experience of getting mad at the coffee machine when it doesn’t work, or at your car, or we see children perceiving awareness in their stuffed animals, etc. We live in this world that’s suffused with awareness that we are generating in our heads and attributing to things all around us. That’s at the heart of this theory.

For instance, when I talk to you I have some sense that you’re aware of things, you’re aware of what I’m saying, I see where your eyes are pointing, your body language. That makes it much easier for me to predict your behavior. And in a sense, what I’m doing, without necessarily realizing it, is coming up with a nice, easy, simple way to understand the focus of your brain’s processing. That’s often called “attention,” but the word “attention” is somewhat confusing because it has so many different meanings. Essentially, your brain is focusing its resources on something and I look at you and I attribute to you a mind state that you’re aware of that something.

BW: … which might be different from the mind state that I attribute to myself?

MG: Exactly! I get a powerful sense that it’s real, and really emanating from you. But actually that’s illusory. It’s only my own perception of you and I may be completely wrong and I may never know that. That’s one of the interesting properties of human interactions.

We have trouble distinguishing between what’s really true about a person and the kind of model that we’ve constructed and attributed to that person. We tend to think that the awareness and the thoughts and the perspectives are real things, really inside that other person, and yet they’re just biased constructs emanating from our own brains and we often get them wrong.

BW: So what about our awareness of our own selves?


MG: The idea here is just as it’s useful for me to have some kind of model of you and what your brain is focusing on, even if it’s not a perfectly accurate model, it’s equally useful for me to have a similar model of myself, for essentially the same reasons. To control my own behavior, I need to predict my own behavior. I need to have a fairly sophisticated ability to understand myself, know what it is that I’m focusing on and what the consequences are, in order to make better choices.

So, in humans at least, at the center of this theory is that we think the same brain mechanisms are involved in social thinking, especially attributing this property of awareness to other people, and in our own subjective awareness.

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1 Comment

  1. W: So animals are aware, but can they ask themselves something like “Who am I?”

    MG: Of course, nonhuman animals don’t have language so they wouldn’t literally ask themselves that. But some animals probably think that thought————Really? And what does he base this probability on? Animals are biological robots. They do not think, they react according to their natural programming. No species of animal upon the earth has progressed beyond their initial programming. It is only mankind that thinks and achieves progress from it’s thoughts.

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