Consciousness and the Social Brain

consciousnessAmazon: “What is consciousness and how can a brain, a mere collection of neurons, create it? In Consciousness and the Social Brain, Princeton neuroscientist Michael Graziano lays out an audacious new theory to account for the deepest mystery of them all. The human brain has evolved a complex circuitry that allows it to be socially intelligent. This social machinery has only just begun to be studied in detail. One function of this circuitry is to attribute awareness to others: to compute that person Y is aware of thing X. In Graziano’s theory, the machinery that attributes awareness to others also attributes it to oneself. Damage that machinery and you disrupt your own awareness. Graziano discusses the science, the evidence, the philosophy, and the surprising implications of this new theory.”

The (attention schema) theory explains why a brain attributes the property of consciousness to itself, and why we humans are so prone to attribute consciousness to the people and objects around us.

Consciousness is the window through which we understand.

Attention is a data-handling trick for deeply processing some information at the expense of most information. Awareness is the brain’s simplified, schematic model of the complicated, data-handling process of attention.

People have personal, quirky definitions of the term consciousness, whereas everyone more or less agrees on the meaning of the term awareness.

Not all information in the brain has awareness attached to it.

Consciousness refers both to the information about which I am aware and the process of being aware of it. Consciousness encompasses the whole of personal experience at any moment, whereas awareness applies only to one part, the act of experiencing.

Self-knowledge is merely another category of knowledge. How knowledge can be encoded in the brain is not fundamentally mysterious, but how we become aware of the information is. The awareness itself if the mystery.

Whatever awareness is, it musts be able to physically impact neuronal signals. Otherwise we would be unable to say that we have it.

Awareness is a description of attention. […] Attention is not data encoded in the brain; it is a data-handling method. It is an act. It is something the brain does, a procedure, an emergent process. […] In addition to doing attention, the brain also constructs a description of attention and awareness is that description. […] Awareness allows the brain to understand attention, its dynamics, and its consequences.

Awareness is the brain’s cartoon of attention.

The same machinery used to model another person’s attentional state in a social situation is also used to model one’s own attentional state. The benefit is the same: understanding and prediction one’s own behavior.

Attention is an active process, a data-handling style that boosts this or that chunk of information in the brain. In contrast, awareness is a description, a chunk of information, a reflection of the ongoing state of attention.

The unconscious machinery of the brain is so vast that it is like an elephant. Perhaps consciousness is a little boy sitting on the elephant’s head. The boy naively imagines that he is in control of the elephant, but he merely watches what the elephant chooses to do.

Your decision machinery does not have direct access to the real object, only to the information about the object that is encoded in the visual system. A perceptual representation is always inaccurate because it is a simplification.

The brain does attention but knows awareness.

(There is a ) distinction between being aware of something and knowing that you are aware of it.

Awareness is a schematized, descriptive model of attention. […] The purpose of (the) model in the brain is to be useful in interacting with the world, not to be accurate.

My awareness is located inside me. In a sense it is me. It is my mind apprehending something.

Your own private awareness and your ability to attribute awareness to someone else are products of the same machinery in your brain. That machinery computes the property of awareness and can attribute it to others.

Is it necessary to be aware of any specific information in order to be aware? Can you be aware, simply aware, without any target of the awareness? Can I be aware of being?

Consciousness (is) essentially a tale that the brain tells itself to explain what it is doing and why it is doing it. Consciousness is after-the-fact. We know about our mental states using the same tricks and inferences that we use to reconstruct the mental states of other people. We tell ourselves a story about ourselves. As a consequence, we routinely and confidently make up incorrect reasons for our own behavior.

Awareness is a model of the act of attention. […] Attention is not itself information. It is something that happens to information.

The only objective, physically measurable truth we have about consciousness is that we can, at least sometimes, report that we have it.

Consciousness is information that describes the process of attending to something.

Awareness is not knowledge about yourself as a person, or knowledge about your emotions, or knowledge about your thoughts; it is not remembering your past, or introspecting about your mood, or any other part of self-reflection. Awareness is equally present whether you are reflecting on yourself or looking out at the external world. It is present whether you are focused on your innermost feelings or on the grass and sky in the park on a nice day.

(One view of consciousness) Consciousness does not directly cause most of our actions but instead rationalizes them. In (this) view, free will plays a minor role, if any.

All consciousness is a “mere” computed model attributed to an object. One’s brain can attribute it to oneself or to something else. Consciousness is an attribution. (Consciousness) is not something a person has, floating inside. It is an attribution. […] To say that I myself am conscious is to stay, “My own brain has constructed an informational model of awareness and attributed it to my body.”

The most reasonable approach to spirituality is to accept two simultaneous truths. One, literally and objectively, there is no spirit world. Minds do not float independently of bodies and brains. Two, perceptually, there is a spirit world. We live in a perceptual world, a world simulated by the brain, in which consciousness inhabits many things around us, including sometimes empty space.

We will build computers that can construct their own awareness in the same way that the human brain does.

If I spend enough time (with him) and my friend gets to know me well, then he will construct a model in his own brain, an informational model of a mind filled with the quirks and idiosyncrasies that reflect me. His model of my mind will be the same general type of data run in the same general manner on the same general hardware architecture as my own conscious mind. It will be a copy, at low resolution, of my consciousness. In effect, I will have been copied over from one computer to another. […] Fuzzy copies of our conscious minds exist in all the people who knew us.

I consider it a technological inevitability that information will, some day, be scannable directly from the brain and transferrable directly to computers. As embarrassingly sci-fi as that sounds, no theoretical reason stands against it. If the attention schema theory is correct, then human consciousness is information processed in a specific manner. Don’t want to die? Download your consciousness onto a central server and live in a simulated world with all the other downloaded souls. When your body dies, the copy of your mind will persist. You need not know the difference. If the simulation is good, you should feel as though you are in a realistic universe. You can possess what seems to be a human body and can walk and live and eat and sleep on the familiar Earth, all simulated, all in the form of information manipulated on computer hardware. At the rate technology is advancing, give it a few centuries.

It has been said that people invented God. People will invent the afterlife too.

Across all cultures and all religions, universally, people consider God to be a conscious mind. God is aware. God consciously chooses to make things happen. […] The critical question is whether consciousness lies behind the events of the universe. If so, then God exists. If not, then God does not exist. […] The universe is conscious in the same sense that it is beautiful. It is conscious because brains attribute consciousness to it, and that is the only way that anything is ever conscious.

This Town

thistownThis Town: Two Parties and a Funeral – Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking! – in America’s Gilded Capital, by New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich is one of the most depressing books I’ve read in a long time. Daily Show comic John Oliver: “This Town is funny, it’s interesting, and it is demoralizing … I loved it as much as you can love something which hurts your heart.”

Not matter how deep your cynicism, or how low your opinion of the people who run things in Washington D.C. — and the people who “report” on our government — this book will take you a little deeper into that cesspool. A few of my favorites from the book:

“…the members of The Club nourish the idea that the nation’s main actors talk to the same twelve people every day. They can evoke a time-warped sense of a political herd that never dies or gets older, only jowlier, richer, and more heavily made-up. Real or posed, these insiders have always been here— either these people literally or as a broader “establishment.” But they are more of a swarm now: bigger, shinier, online, and working it all that much harder.”

“The anti-Washington reflex in American politics has been honed for centuries, often by candidates who deride the capital as a swamp, only to settle into the place as if it were a soothing whirlpool bath once they get elected. The city exists to be condemned. … You still hear the term “public service” thrown around, but often with irony and full knowledge that “self-service” is now the real insider play.”

“Washington may not serve the country well but has in fact worked splendidly for Washington itself— a city of beautifully busy people constantly writing the story of their own lives.”

“I have lots of Washington friends and also some real ones.”

“You know someone big has died when they play “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes.”

“The city of Washington feels like a conspiracy we’re all in together, and nobody else in America quite understands, even though they pay for it.”

“God just loves Washington; of that we are certain. His presence is indeed potent at the Kennedy Center, although everyone keeps looking around for someone more important to talk to.”

“Fly on the wall,” a journalistic practice that is both a cliché and a misnomer: no one notices an actual fly on the wall while everyone is fully mindful of the maggot reporter taking notes.”

“No single development has altered the workings of American democracy in the last century so much as political consulting,” Jill Lepore wrote in the New Yorker.”

“Political Washington is an inbred company town where party differences are easily subsumed by membership in The Club.”

“Whether journalists are gathered on a physical bus or reading a virtual document, it is a shared space. They are encountering the same names and characters and, after a while, acquiring a shared language and sensibility. “If there was a consensus,” Crouse wrote, “it was simply because all the national political reporters lived in Washington, saw the same people, used the same sources, belonged to the same background groups, and swore by the same omens. They arrived at their answers just as independently as a class of honest seventh-graders using the same geometry text— they did not have to cheat off each other to come up with the same answer.”

“Parallels between Facebook and D.C. come up a lot. Both are spaces to collect people, show off our shiny hordes, and leverage our “connections.” … Like D.C., Facebook is a vast and growing network, evolving and under some assault, but secure in its permanence as an empire.”

“By the middle of 2011, at least 160 former lawmakers were working as lobbyists in Washington, according to First Street, a website that tracks lobbying trends in D.C., in April 2013. The Center for Responsive Politics listed 412 former members who are influence peddling, 305 of whom are registered as federal lobbyists.”

Take time to empty ourselves

“For the first two hundred thousand years of human history, we were only exposed to the news (and the suffering) of those immediately around us in our tribes and villages. We saw birth, sickness, death, and wars, but on a limited scale. Only in the last forty years or so has the news media poured the suffering of the entire world—wars, natural disasters, torture, starvation—into our ears and eyes every day, day after day. This suffering that we are helpless to fix accumulates in our mind and heart, and makes us suffer in turn. When the mind and heart become too full of pictures of violence, destruction, and pain, we must take time to empty ourselves.”

How to Train A Wild Elephant by Jan Chozen Bays, MD

Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking


I really enjoyed this little book by Oliver Burkeman. It’s a more thoughtful book than the title might lead you to believe. I don’t review books but will share a few excerpts:

“At best, it would appear, happiness can only be glimpsed out of the corner of an eye, not stared at directly. … The effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable.”

“Learn how to stop trying to fix things, to stop being so preoccupied with trying to control one’s experience of the world, to give up trying to replace unpleasant thoughts and emotions with more pleasant ones, and to see that, through dropping the ‘pursuit of happiness’, a more profound peace might result.”

“What motivates our investment in goals and planning for the future, much of the time, isn’t any sober recognition of the virtues of preparation and looking ahead. Rather, it s something much more emotional: how deeply uncomfortable we are made by feelings of uncertainty. Faced with the anxiety of not knowing what the future holds, we invest ever more fiercely in our preferred vision of that future – not because it will help us achieve it, but because it helps rid us of feelings of uncertainty in the present.”

And how gratifying to find my philosophy of life within the pages of this book:

“You should sun yourself on a lily-pad until you get bored; then, when the time is right, you should jump to a new lily-pad and hang out there for a while. Continue this over and over, moving in whatever direction feels right.”

A couple of times, in fact:

‘A good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving.’ — Lao Tzu

And this for you Dale Carnegie devotees:

“The ‘cult of optimism’ is all about looking forward to a happy or successful future, thereby reinforcing the message that happiness belongs to some other time than now.”

I’ve been reading self-help and motivation books for half a century, with limited success. This was a refreshing new perspective.

The chief danger to freedom of thought

“The chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of … any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face. … The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary.”

— George Orwell (via Brain Pickings)

People who don’t read books

I encounter far more people who rarely/never read a book, than those read regularly. The stats below seem to support my anecdotal findings.

  • 50% – U.S. adults who are unable to read an 8th grade level book
  • 33% – U.S. high school graduates who will never read a book after high school
  • 42% – College students who will never read another book after they graduate
  • 80% – U.S. families who did not buy a book this year
  • 70% – Adults that have not been in a book store in the past 5 years
  • 57% – Books started that aren’t read to completion

I found these at statisticbrain.com. The post gives the source for these stats as something called Read Faster, Reading Stats and and “Research Date: of April 28, 2013. I confess these are hard for me to believe so if anyone can call bullshit (with sources), please do. Now, here’s my nasty little secret:

I feel a little… superior… to people who don’t read books. I know I shouldn’t but an informed opinion just somehow seems more… valid?

Going Clear

Going Clear grabbed and held (and disturbed) me as few (non-fiction) books have. “Couldn’t put it down” is usually a cliche, but…

Reading this incredible story is as close to being in a cult as I’m ever likely to be. For my money, Scientology is far more frightening (and dangerous) than the Taliban.

Tom Cruise figured prominently in the second half of the book so I had to go back and take one more look at this video.

Rebirth

starry-sky-washington_25309_990x742

“You are lounging on a magnificent balcony open to the starry sky, divine music is playing with such exquisite perfection you can hardly stand it, when all of a sudden something terrible occurs: the magical sounds break up into an obscene cacophony. What is happening? Are you dying? You could put it that way. That awful noise is the first scream of an infant: you. You have been born into a human body hardwired with each and every transgression from the last time around, and now you must spend the next seventy years clawing your way back to the music. No wonder we cry.”

— Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett

Who wants to die for a supermarket

Trolley in supermarket, exact date
“The greatest weakness of the West is that it has nothing with which to inspire loyalty except wealth. But what is wealth? Another washing machine, a bigger car, a nicer house to live in? Not much to feed the spirit in all that. What is the West but a gigantic supermarket? And who really wants to die for a supermarket?”

— Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett

Americans can never be defeated by war

SecCameras-6

“Without a war, America would descend into total confusion and would have to form itself into a police state to survive, because its people no longer have any internal structure. Americans can never be defeated by war. It is peace they find intolerable.”

A line from a novel by John Burdett (2005). As we wind down two wars and crank up the police state in America, Mr. Burdett seems frighteningly prescient.