Episode 123

Consciousness is a topic fraught with problems.

First, it’s tough to define.  It’s also tough to spell (I can’t tell you how often I’ve mis-typed it as “conscience”).  And it’s proven damned near impossible for even the world’s brightest minds to determine how it arises within us.

But arise it does.  Each of us knows that we are consciously aware of our surroundings… That it feels like something to be us.

It stands to reason that there is a similar experience for other people, certainly — and probably other “higher animals” as well.  But this is a fuzzy-edged problem.  If a young child is conscious… If my dog is conscious… then is the earthworm in my garden conscious too?  What about a really simple animal, like a flatworm

And if we say that “yes, a flatworm is conscious,” then how about my fire alarm?  Seriously.  Is it “consciously aware” of the smell of smoke?

It’s tough for us to imagine a fire alarm or an earthworm having a rich internal life akin to a human (to me, this sounds patently ridiculous) — but why do we have such strong intuitions about consciousness?  Are we justified in having them when we can’t even state clearly what consciousness is?

Dr. Graziano’s work probing consciousness may lead to a greater appreciation of what it means to be human.

Look, there it isn’t!

There is no single part of the brain that if we destroy it, “consciousness” suddenly disappears.  It seems to be everywhere, yet nowhere. 

We each feel that our awareness is a unified entity — the “immortal soul” concept common to most religions.  Unless in schizophrenic or other “multiple personality” states, in which case there might seem to be multiple awarenesses present.  But in any case, whether one consciousness or many, it always seems tied to the brain in some way — whack the brain with a hard enough mallet, and consciousness reliably disappears.  But it seems to somehow be a diffuse phenomenon emanating from “the brain as a whole,” localized nowhere in particular.  It’s as frustrating as it is fascinating.

The Attention-Schema Theory

In his book Consciousness and the Social Brain, Princeton neuroscientist Dr. Michael Graziano lays out a persuasive theory that neatly mixes the oil-and-water of mechanistic neuroscience with the feelings, intuitions and experience that we all share as conscious beings.  His “Attention-Schema Theory” is too big to explain here, but we dive in deeply in Episode #123’s interview — and of course the theory is fully unfurled in highly readable book.

There are some who worry that “demystifying” concepts like consciousness and love, loyalty and attachment, and understanding their physical underpinnings will cheapen them as experiences.  I think this is a deeply flawed belief. 

Discovering how an internal combustion engine works doesn’t make driving a fast car any less thrilling.  In fact, deeper understanding of complex systems seems to bring deeper appreciation, for most people.

It may be that Dr. Graziano’s work probing the possible mechanisms behind conscious awareness will open us to a qualitatively greater appreciation of what it means to be human.

Episode Highlights

0:29Disclaimer about last week’s episode
1:34Introduction to Dr. Michael Graziano
2:12This Week in Neuroscience: Forgetting to learn
4:06The audience interaction section
6:34What is consciousness?
8:49Consciousness and the Social Brain
9:24Meanings of the words attention, awareness, and consciousness
15:14Attention without awareness
18:48A squirrel for a brain
21:02The crux of Dr. Graziano’s consciousness theory
23:41The nature of the color white
26:17The hole in the general consciousness debate
28:11What kind of response has Dr. Graziano’s theory illicit?
29:16What will computer science’s role be in proving or disproving the theory?
31:26Believing your own introspection
32:00Attributions of consciousness
37:25Ruthless Listener-Retention Gimmick:

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Written by Jesse Lawler
Jesse Lawler is a technologist, health nut, entrepreneur, and "one whose power switch defaults to On."  He created Smart Drug Smarts to learn how to make his brain do even more, and is greatly pleased to now see his little baby Frankenstein toddling around and helping others.  Jesse tweets about personal optimization, tech, and other stuff he finds interesting at @Lawlerpalooza.