The hard question of consciousness may not be that hard, if one doesn’t give up too soon. Consider magic – the magician does a magic trick and we see the magic but we do not believe it is supernatural. Why? Because magicians in fear of their lives long ago convinced their audiences that it was a trick. They would not reveal how the trick was done but assured us – really, really, it is a trick, we are not dangerous, no supernatural magic here. Let’s consider the idea that consciousness is not supernatural magic but a trick. We don’t know how the trick is done but we know it is a trick. If that is so, than it can be understood with effort (and not throwing up our hands and saying ‘too hard’). Somehow an information processing organ produces our consciousness and we just have to figure out how.
This seems to be the route taken by Michael Graziano – assume consciousness is understandable and try to understand it. He concentrates on awareness – how is awareness produced. He goes straight for the hard question.
He reasons that the brain must have a way to deal with other’s actions – understand and predict them. Our brains use a model of what someone’s actions imply about their future actions. We attribute to others a mechanism that includes entities like intentions, preferences, and in particular for Graziano’s understanding, we attribute awareness to others. We take the trouble to figure out and remember what others are aware of and what they are not aware of. It is important if you are a predator to calculate what your prey is aware of and if you are the potential victim to calculate what your predator is aware of. It is extremely important in social animals for cooperating with others. So we have this (possibly hypothetical) attribute, awareness, that we keep track of in other people and animals. We even have a good idea of where in the brain much of this calculation goes on: the temporoparietal junction (TPJ) and the superior temporal sulcus (STS). Experiments have linked these areas with ‘social attribution’ of various attributes to the internal processing of others. In other words they create a ‘mind’ for the other animal and use it to predict the other’s actions; these areas do the theory-of-mind calculations and they track the awareness in others.
But here is the interesting part – the areas also seems to do similar theory-of-mind calculation about ourselves. When the TPJ and STS are damaged, the awareness of patients is affected and they lose awareness of one side of space. Experimentally people have been shown to have vision on the ‘blind side’, to avoid obstacles on that side and to be aware in memory if they are asked to turn around and look the opposite way. Then they are aware of what they could not see before and not aware of what they did see. These areas are involved in producing the phenomenon of awareness.
One way of saying this is that we have evolved a process that creates a ‘mind’ for another animal and we use that ‘mind’ to understand and predict the animal but we also use it to understand and predict ourselves by creating our ‘mind’.
Graziano says, “The conjunction of these two previous findings suggests that awareness is a computed feature constructed by an expert system in the brain. The feature of awareness can be attributed to other people in the context of social perception. It can also be attributed to oneself, in effect creating one’s own awareness.” But how is this creation done? He proposes that awareness is a model of attention. To say that someone is aware of something is to say that they are attending to it – it has their attention. So our conscious awareness at any moment is the current attention model/schema that the brain has constructed. “One’s own awareness is a schematized model of one’s own attention.” And because it is a model it is approximate and simplified – not a complete and accurate version of attention but a model. We can attend, on occasion, to things we are not aware of. Like our model of the world and our model of our bodies, we cannot rely on completeness or accuracy. Models/schema are not the real thing – they are not the world, not our bodies and not our information processing organs or brains. Consciousness/awareness/mind is a useful fiction based on attention in the brain.
Anyway, that is what Graziano’s ‘Attention Schema Theory’ looks like. It seems a good start to solving the hard question. The material is from a podcast http://brainsciencepodcast.com/bsp/108-graziano .