Image Source: The Witness Within.
Yesterday, Vice published an interview with Princeton neuroscientist Professor Michael Graziano, who has explained the evolutionary reason why and how we are aware of ourselves and the larger world. The report begins with reference to a way you can test your brain's limited capacity for understanding the world beyond itself; it is called the Pinocchio Illusion:
There’s a goofy neurological trick you can play on your brain that makes you feel like you have a super long nose. It’s called the Pinocchio Illusion and all you need to make it happen is a vibrator and a friend.
Here’s how it works. Person A closes her eyes and places the tip of her finger on her nose. Person B applies a buzzing vibrator to the tendon that connects the bicep to the inner side of the elbow of the arm that’s touching the nose. The vibration on the tendon stimulates the muscle fibers in such a way that tricks Person A’s brain into thinking that her arm is extending, but since Person A’s index finger tells her brain that it’s still connected to the tip of her nose, the brain does a quick and dirty calculation (in the absence of visual data) and concludes that her nose must be growing super long. It’s fucking crazy. Try it.
According to Princeton University neuroscientist Michael Graziano, this phenomenon is indicative of the key aspect of the human mind. Our brains create models of the world around us, including our bodies, in order to be attentive to the various signals we get from our senses. So in the Pinocchio Illusion, your brain creates a model of what your body looks like and the model falls apart due to the conflicting stimuli. Our brains might be exceptionally good at making models, but they’re never perfect replicas of what’s happening in the world, just fast and loose sketches to make sense of things.
There’s a funny consequence to our brains’ proficiency in model-making, Professor Michael Graziano argues in his book Consciousness and the Social Brain, which came out this month. That consequence is what we call consciousness, the ineffable ungraspable “I,” the magic sauce of Being that defines our essential humanness. From Descartes’s “Cogito ergo sum,” to Kant’s theory of a priori forms, to Taoist, nondualist Vedantic whatever, the origin of consciousness has been, you know, a real head-scratcher. And Professor Graziano’s theory proposes an exceptionally clear explanation of what’s going on in our domes’ pieces every day of our short little lives.
So to the question: Are we ordained by our divine creator or are we just delusional lumps of carbon and guts? Professor Graziano concludes something closer to latter. But it’s not delusion that makes our brains aware. It’s a highly functional adaptive strategy. What we think of as sentience can be explained by what he calls the Attention Schema Theory, and I talked to him on the phone this week to understand what his theory of a neurological basis for our consciousness means today and what it could mean in the future.
VICE: Can you describe what exactly your investigation into consciousness is?
Professor Michael Graziano: Here’s a quick background. I can be conscious that I am me and I am human. Whatever that consciousness is, is an experience. What I am asking is what set of information is that consciousness. What does it mean to have an actual subjective experience of something?
What’s unique about your method of inquiry? This question sounds like something a lot of people have tried to figure out.
To start off, many scientists are asking the wrong question. They’re asking, “What does it mean to have the magical inner feeling?” You start with the assumption that there’s magic and then you start experimenting. The better question is how and for what adaptive advantage do brains attribute that property to themselves? And right away that puts it into the domain of information processing, something that can, in principle, be understood.
How is it that the cognitive machinery in our brains accesses internal data and arrives at a conclusion and can sometimes report, “I have experienced, I am aware of something.” Not just “that is blue,” but “I am aware that that is blue.”
OK, so how do brains do that?
Brains construct models, informational models of all kinds of things, in fact it’s one of the things brains do best, make models of the external world and models of things going on inside your body.
The theory at heart, the reason why brains attribute the property of awareness to itself, is because the brain is essentially constructing a model to monitor the fact that it is paying attention to that object. So attention is a physically real data-handling method and awareness is the brain’s cartoon sketch that’s used to keep track of what it’s doing. That it can use to keep track of what it’s doing.