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.

Invisible costs

I find great wisdom and insight in the writing of David Cain. He has quit his “day job” to pursue writing full time and shares what that transition feels like. Looking back to my final days, I recognize some of what he describes. Following ‘graphs are part of a longer post I hope you’ll read.

“A weight that had been resting on my mind for long enough for me to forget that it was possible to remove it. For the first time in a long time I didn’t have to answer to anyone. I knew my company-issue Blackberry wasn’t going to ring, I knew nobody was going to ask anything of me. It was like walking up to a glass barrier that had always been there and realizing it was only air.”

“Our lifestyles come with costs, many of which are invisible, or at least become invisible to us once we’re used to paying them. At all times these enormous invisible forces are acting on your life, shaping what it feels like to be you. They only become visible — and only momentarily — when they change.”

“Because we’re so immersed in our lifestyles, it’s hard to see what individual parts of them are pushing and pulling on our minds. Imagine trying to describe what a building looks like when you’ve only ever been inside it. Moving parts of our lifestyles around gives us the necessary angles to know what it is we’ve actually built with our decisions about career, relationships and living situation. If they never change we never know what they’re doing to us.”

Meditation Now or Never

meditationPublisher’s Weekly: Zen priest Hagen, author of Buddhism Plain and Simple and Buddhism Is Not What You Think, offers a brief and wonderfully accessible primer on meditation, which can be a surprisingly difficult practice for many beginners. He helpfully defines meditation via negativa: meditation is not a self-help program, a quick fix, a mind-training technique or a way to relax before jumping right back into the fray of our busy lives. It’s a lifelong practice that can, and should, seep into every arena of the quotidian, so that when we’re attentively folding laundry or taking out the trash, we’re doing meditation. It involves teaching the mind just to be here, says Hagen. Amazon.

A few excerpts:

We live tuned in to ourselves, but tuned out from life.

We easily lose sight of the distinction between Reality and our ideas about Reality.

Meditation is an expression of faith in direct experience itself.

Meditation is useless. (Because) meditation is, finally, just to be here. Not over there, in some other place called peace or freedom or enlightenment. Not longing for something else. Not trying to be, or to acquire, something new or different. … We can’t do meditation for any reason other than to be aware. … If you’re sitting in meditation to get something — you’re not here.

Meditation is about deeply seeing what’s going on within your own mind.

In meditation, we see that there is no cosmic mystery to break through. … Reality and Truth don’t require any “figuring out.”

You can’t become enlightened (because) you’re already here, immersed in it. It’s like trying to become human.

The practice of meditation frees us from our insane desire to control ourselves and others.

If you can get past the resistance to meditation, nothing else in life will be an obstacle.

In each new moment we can live in either awareness or ignorance.

Our meditation practice reflects the attitude we take in life.

At the heart of meditation is the intention to be awake. (To experience) Reality as it is,before goals, ideas, or desires sprout. … Meditation is never a means to an end.

Meditation is not about doing anything. It is simply paying attention. … If our will is directed toward any object or purpose — even toward meditation correctly — then we’re not in meditation.

Meditation is continually returning to life so that we don’t miss it. There’s no gap, no distinction, between you and what you’re doing.

Instead of practicing now and here, we get lost in thought about it.

Enlightenment isn’t something we need to figure out. It’s just remembering — waking up to what you knew all along but were not paying attention to. There’s nothing to figure out. It’s only a matter of seeing and not talking to yourself.

Over time you’ll discover that meditation won’t give you ideas at all.

Meditation is a matter of zero or 100 percent. Either you’re present or you’re not. There are no in-betweens.

To the extent that we’re not fully present as we live our life, a good portion of our life passes away unlived.

Meditation is awareness.

The very distinction of “out there” and “in here” is just another mental construct. It isn’t Real.

The more present we are, the bigger the picture we see. The bigger picture we see, the more things seem to slow down. And when the Whole is seen, all is utterly still.

Almost everything we do is done for a purpose a result, an outcome. In meditation, however, we let go of hopes and fears, plans and outcomes, and simply come back to here and now.

The desire of one who is awake is simply to be awake.

We can ever really explain how we feel — we can only feel how we feel.

Waking up means, more than anything else, that we learn to see ourselves.

Meditation is about your attitude toward life.

We put together a world in our mind. We carry all kinds of ideas, beliefs, notions, and prejudices — and, for most of us, that is our reality. It’s where we live. We regularly confuse what we believe with what we actually know.

Everything in culture is built around the premise of going after something else.

We find awakening so elusive because we’re looking for it. And if we’re looking for it, that means we believe it’s not here.

There is no “out there.”

We need to awaken, again and again, in each new moment. And in each moment, we have a new opportunity to wake up.

Life is all at once. It’s forever now. It’s never “then.”

Scott Adams’ View of the World

I suppose a lot of people don’t take Scott Adams serious because he’s a cartoonist (the creator of Dilbert). I’ve read all (most?) of his books have found his explanation of… well, pretty much everything, makes the most sense to me. Today on his blog he gives a tidy summary of his world view.

  1. Willpower isn’t a real thing. Some people just have greater urges than others. If I resist a cookie and you don’t, it doesn’t say anything about your willpower, but it might say you are hungrier than I am, or you simply like cookies more than I do.
  2. I don’t believe in a creator. I see humans as a collection of particles bumping into each other. Or maybe we’re a computer simulation created by some earlier civilization. In either case, no group of particles, or arrangement of ones and zeroes, is superior to another.
  3. I have no individual skill that is not topped by at least one person in every demographic group. Every group has people who are smarter than me, stronger than me, kinder than me, more generous than me, more talented, and so on.
  4. There is no logical way to rank talents or virtues. Is one person’s excellent musical skill somehow better than another’s good parenting skills? Is your kindness better than your friend’s work ethic? None of these things can be compared objectively.
  5. Genes are often destiny. You were probably born with your personality and your preferences, in which case you are not to blame. Or you might have been the victim of some sort of nastiness in your past that changed you permanently, and that probably wasn’t your “fault” in any objective way either. Your particles bumped around until something bad happened, nothing more.
  6. For purely practical reasons, the legal system assigns “fault” to some actions and excuses others. We don’t have a good alternative to that system. But since we are all a bunch of particles bumping around according to the laws of physics (or perhaps the laws of our programmers) there is no sense of “fault” that is natural to the universe.

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

The sun is always setting

“The state of the world is a relative truth. It’s mostly relative to how much news you watch. If you’re a CNN junkie, you live in a more worrisome, dangerous world than I do. You can argue all day that it’s the same world, but all that matters is what world you experience, not what the world is supposed to be likeoutside your experience. So zoom in, live from here. Don’t let others tell you what the world is like, because they live in a different world.”

David Cain on sunsets and how the world works.

Your head would explode

I’ve never met David Cain but when I think of “enlightenment,” he comes to mind. If I could pick one person to give me tips on how to live, I think it might be him. From a recent post:

“I now see all instances of minor physical discomfort as a chance to get better at being relaxed. I relax into the discomfort, I let it hang out with me. When you first try it it’s an exhilarating experiment — to voluntarily open up to minor pain when that’s what the moment brings you, to refrain from listening to the impulse to cringe or harden. It feels like you’re walking freely in an area you thought you weren’t allowed to go.”

“The present moment is the only concrete reality you will ever have to deal with. Sometimes it contains pain. We prefer that our realities don’t contain pain. But that can only ever be a preference, because ultimately we don’t have control over the present once it becomes the present. If you truly needed reality to be something other than reality, your head would explode that instant. But it doesn’t. You prefer it to be one way, but don’t need it to be.”