The celebrated scientist talks attention, awareness, and the reception to his workby Jamie Milton Freestone / January 2, 2020 / Leave a comment
I think therefore I am, said René Descartes in his 1637 Discourse on Method. What could be more foundational to our basic worldview? Although our senses are fallible, there’s an unshakable I at the centre of it that witnesses what the senses report, fallible or otherwise.
When neuroscientists have previously studied consciousness, they’ve typically assumed this preexisting, conscious, self-aware I as a starting point, and accepted that the challenge for science is to explain how something lumpy and biological like a brain can produce our first person experiences. But science is often called upon to provide objective third-person accounts of phenomena. So, when scientists try to explore “consciousness,” they are routinely accused of trespassing by those in the humanities or spiritual traditions. Their attempts seem doomed from the start, because consciousness is understood to be part of a domain off limits to science.
Rethinking Consciousness, by the Princeton neuroscientist Michael Graziano, offers an entirely different framing of the problem. Rather than explain how the physical brain somehow manifests the aura of conscious experience, the question becomes: why are we systematically misled, by our own brain, into thinking that consciousness has nonphysical, experiential, properties that mere physical objects don’t have?
Attention vs awareness
Graziano’s answer to this question is the attention schema theory. The crux of the theory is that it distinguishes between attention and awareness. They sound similar but attention here relates to the things your brain is focusing on at any given time. A torrent of information comes in from the external senses and internal reports, but only some of it is attended to closely at the expense of other less important information. Attention is a completely physical and non-controversial computational process.
Awareness, on the other hand, is synonymous with what we typically mean by consciousness. It’s a subjective feeling, a quality of experience; it has properties that are unlike anything else in the known universe. It seems imbued with a magical spirit or essence.
Graziano’s theory posits that awareness is actually a kind of crude model, or schema, of attention. We have evolved to not only have attention, a staggeringly rich computational process, but also to attribute to attention some nonphysical properties—like the…