Brain Health,

#123: Has Dr. Michael Graziano “Solved” Consciousness?

April 08, 2016

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.

Show Notes
  • 00:00:29

    Disclaimer about last week’s episode

  • 00:01:34

    Introduction to Dr. Michael Graziano

  • 00:02:12

    This Week in Neuroscience: Forgetting to learn

  • 00:04:06

    The audience interaction section

  • 00:06:34

    What is consciousness?

  • 00:08:49

    Consciousness and the Social Brain

  • 00:09:24

    Meanings of the words attention, awareness, and consciousness

  • 00:15:14

    Attention without awareness

  • 00:18:48

    A squirrel for a brain

  • 00:21:02

    The crux of Dr. Graziano’s consciousness theory

  • 00:23:41

    The nature of the color white

  • 00:26:17

    The hole in the general consciousness debate

  • 00:28:11

    What kind of response has Dr. Graziano’s theory illicit?

  • 00:29:16

    What will computer science’s role be in proving or disproving the theory?

  • 00:31:26

    Believing your own introspection

  • 00:32:00

    Attributions of consciousness

  • 00:37:25

    Ruthless Listener-Retention Gimmick:


  1. TheOnly1 says:

    Has Dr.Graziano solved the consciousness problem? No, he hasn’t. At best he explained mental processes in greater detail but deftly danced around the primary issue of ‘what and where is the witness to the squirrel?’ Did I miss something? What he’s saying is akin to matter coming to believe itself removed or transcendant from matter. The problem isn’t what the brain’s delusion is per se or even in what fashion but that it is delusioning.

    Seriously though, did I miss something?

    1. Jesse Lawler says:

      I’m not sure if you’ve read his book yet or not. It’s certainly true that Dr. Graziano’s theory isn’t laid out as methodically in this 30 minute interview as it is in his 300-page book. I’ve read the book twice, so I may have an amplified view of the clarity of his arguments versus someone who has only heard the interview. I’d really recommend giving it a read. If consciousness is of interest to you (as I gather it is), I think you’ll find the book a worthwhile read, even if you disagree with his thesis at the end.

      1. Petter says:

        I concur. Graziano has made it a no longer “hard” problem. It’s a very elegant theory and it does explain it “all”. Read the book (I also read it twice – so far)
        Re the Gary Larson drawing; I seem to remember also that the guy had a really small head for his body, so that was also part of the joke.

  2. ben says:

    There’s a great documentary called ‘Waking Up’ by neuroscientist Sam Harris, where he talks about the illusion of self and of thinker behind the thoughts normally associated with consciousness. He’s also got some interesting ideas (along with Dan Dennett) about the future of artificial intelligence!

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