The title of this post is a quote from p. 79 of Michael Graziano's highly persuasive and fascinating book, "Consciousness and the Social Brain." As noted in my previous post about neuroscientist Graziano's creative theory about what awareness is, I bought the book after reading an article by the author.
I'm loving it.
Probably the best book about the brain I've ever read, and I've read a lot. Graziano is an excellent writer (cover says he is "an award winning novelist). His take on awareness makes more sense than anything mystics, philosophers, meditators, or other scientists have come up with.
The basic idea is that awareness is a model of attention. Our brains always are paying attention to something, except in dreamless deep sleep, perhaps. There is an attention competition of sorts inside the brain.
Broadly, top-down processes where we choose what to pay attention to compete with bottom-up processes that are outside our control. We can be top-down meditating away, counting our breath, 1...2...3...4..., but if a large tree crashes onto the roof, our attention will be drawn away to that bottom-up attention priority.
We aren't capable of knowing the neurological nuts and bolts of how attention operates in the brain. All we know, says Graziano, is the "fictionalized sketch of attention" known as awareness.
For example, I'm looking at my laptop's screen right now as my fingers type out letters, words, sentences. I have no idea how my brain is doing this. But I can say, "I'm aware that I'm writing a blog post." This, of course, doesn't begin to capture the complexity of what I'm attending to.
It's good enough, though.
Evolution has selected for awareness of attention, rather than unawareness of attention. A gazelle sees a lion. The gazelle will pay attention to what the lion is paying attention to. Is the lion looking right at the gazelle? Is the lion poised to run, or lying down relaxed?
Gaining an awareness insight into the attention processes of another animal is very helpful. We humans are adept at it. We are able to make good guesses about what is happening in the mind of another person by their facial expression, eye movement, posture, gestures, and of course, speech.
Here's a key Graziano point: those good guesses can be either directed externally or internally; toward another living being or toward our own self. Brilliant.
I suggest that, in general, to predict and therefore effectively interact with an intelligent brain-controlled agent, it is useful to construct and constantly update a model of the shifting state of that agent's attention. Just as much, in planning your own behavior, it is critical to have a good predictive model of your own likely actions; therefore, it is useful to construct a model that represents your own attention.
In the attention schema theory, awareness serves this function. It is a vast, rich, constantly updated informational model whose purpose is to usefully describe the constantly changing state of attention... in addition to the informational content of consciousness, according to the theory, my brain also constructs a set of information, A, that allows me to conclude that I am aware of the content.
A few pages further on, Graziano presents some fascinating ideas about how "spiritual" notions relate to this theory of awareness. I'll share some extensive quotes, because I'm so impressed with his view of awareness and attention.
When he speaks of white light, he is referring to the scientific fact that white light is the presence of all of the colors in the spectrum. It isn't "pure." White light is, so to speak, the muddied mess of all colors. But the unaided human brain doesn't know this. The objective physical nature of light is hidden.
Awareness, the model, lacks all the mechanistic details of neurons and competing signals in the brain. The physical nuts and bolts of attention are not present in the model. Why would an organism need to know those mechanistic details? Instead the essential dynamics of attention are duplicated in the model.
According to the information set A, awareness is when an intelligence seizes on something. It is when a mind experiences something. It is a directing of mental effort onto something... Awareness is a fictionalized sketch of attention. It is an effective way to keep track of the essentials.
Let us use the term substance A to refer to the physically impossible entity that is described by the information set A. Substance A has a strong resemblance to res cogitans, the fluid substance of the soul that Descartes described.
It is ectoplasm. It is spirit. It is the stuff that angels, ghosts, and gods are made of. It is the stuff that, in most cultures and most religions, is supposed to survive the death of the body. I am not proposing that the brain contains spirit. I am proposing that the brain constructs an informational model and the information describes spirit more or less as people have intuitively understood it for millenia.
I noted in a previous chapter that, before Newton, people intuitively understood white to be "pure" or lacking all color. Most of us will tend to think of white in that fashion even though we know better intellectually...The brain constructs an informational model of a physically impossible pure, colorless luminance that we call white.
In a similar way, in the present hypothesis, people intuitively understand consciousness to be spirit-like because the informational representation in the brain encodes it in that manner.
In this view the spirit concept -- the diaphanous invisible stuff that thinks and perceives and flows plasma-like through space and time, that can take impressions from the outside world, that can sometimes push on real objects, that normally inhabits the human body but can sometimes flow outside of it, and that therefore ought to be able to survive the death of the body -- this myth so ubiquitous in human culture is not a mistaken belief, a naïve theory, or the result of superstitious ignorance, as many scientists would claim.
It is instead a verbalization of a naturally occurring informational model in the human brain. In this view, the mystery surrounding consciousness stems in part from a logical contradiction. Consciousness is composed of information that says, in effect, "This information is not information." In describing itself as something else, as a fluidic substance, as an experience, as sentience, it is declaring itself not to be information.
...On introspection, that is to say on scanning the relevant internal data, the brain finds no basis whatsoever for concluding that awareness is merely information because the information does not describe itself that way.
...Modern scientists are emancipated from ghost mythology. But the intuition that consciousness is subjective, private, an inner experience, a feeling, an intelligence that takes in information, is often accepted as a fundamental assumption, a mystery to be explained.
I am suggesting here that all of these introspected attributes of consciousness, whether they seem reasonable or seem magical, are equally based on a cognitive access to and a summary of a deeper data set in the brain. The brain has constructed a model of something, a picture painted in the medium of information.
The model is not terribly accurate. At least, the biophysics of neurons and signals are nowhere described in the model. But the model is nonetheless useful because it keeps track of the essential dynamics and the behavioral consequences of attention.
This, in three words, is freaking brilliant.
I'm just a third of the way through Graziano's book, and he's already convinced me that his theory makes a heck of a lot of sense. As I read more, I'm confident I'll become even more convinced.
I'll end with another quote that I hugely admire. Explaining it will take another blog post.
We are always in a social situation because we always perceive and interact with ourselves.