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Consciousness: Magic or Meh?



You're sitting opposite your friend Susan and you see her glance down and notice a stain on her blouse. You immediately know pretty much what's going on in her head from her expression, her attempt to hide the stain, your prior knowledge of her. Somehow, you've attributed awareness of the stain to Susan. According to a new book, your brain uses exactly the same mechanism (located in the temporo-parietal junction) to attribute awareness to itself. In this theory of consciousness, awareness — your inner sense of experiencing something — is your brain's rough-and-ready, good-enough model of attention.

The book is Consciousness and the Social Brain by Michael Graziano, a professor of neuroscience at Princeton University. You don't have to read the whole book (although it's very accessible, and in our county library), since the author published a summary of his new — or rather old-but-brilliantly-reformulated — theory in an Oct. 14 New York Times op-ed, "Are We Really Conscious?" Drawing on earlier work by such well-known researchers as Douglas Hofstadter, Michael Gazzaniga, Daniel Dennett and Patricia Churchland, Graziano's "attention schema theory" is an attempt to answer the so-called "Hard Problem" of consciousness.

Ironically, the Hard Problem is really easy to state: Why do we feel anything? When we see a red apple, smell fresh-ground coffee, remember an embarrassing faux pas, touch the bark of a tree, something happens: We experience a feeling, or sensation, or memory. And, if we take a moment to introspect, we're aware of experiencing. Why? Unlike other animals who (presumably) don't introspect nor are aware of themselves —we'd say they're on "automatic" — we have this whole inner world we call consciousness or awareness.

About 20 years ago, Australian psychologist David Chalmers proposed a deceptively simple dichotomy, assigning consciousness questions into either the Easy Problem or the Hard Problem. The Easy Problem (easy only in relation to the hard one!) is figuring out the mechanics of how brains work in ourselves and other animals. The Hard Problem, meanwhile, has produced three dominant responses: (1) Consciousness is not a physical property, that is, our inner world can't be explained by purely physical processes. Chalmers himself had adopted this point of view, claiming that consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe, like time, space and mass. (2) We're not smart enough. An explanation may be out there, but either our present knowledge isn't up to the task, or the human brain (in its current form) is inherently inadequate to figure it out. (3) There is no problem! Consciousness only seems mysterious because our minds fool us, much as a good magician convinces part of our brain that the lady really is being sawn in half, even as we know, intellectually, that it's a magic trick.

Graziano's theory, which comes under (3), is both simple and rational. "Brains are information processing devices," he writes. "When an information processing device introspects ... and on that basis arrives at the conclusion that it has a magical, non-physically-explainable property, the most straightforward scientific question is not: How did it produce magic? but instead: How, and for what use, does it construct that description of itself?" OK, if consciousness isn't magic, what then? As I wrote above, it's the brain's model of what we call attention, its simplified attempt to explain itself to itself. Why do we need a model? So we can make the best use of the brain's limited resources. We can't be attentive to everything that's going on, and consciousness is the mechanism for optimally controlling our attention.

This brief account doesn't do justice to Graziano's theory, of course. If you're a consciousness junkie like myself, his book is required reading, whether you end up convinced or not. And, as a bonus, it's very funny.

Barry Evans ( is okay with his brain telling itself a story about telling itself a story. But not if that's just a story.

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