Michael Graziano is a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Princeton University. He is also a writer, composer, and occasional ventriloquist. He is the author of many books (both novels and neuroscience books), and has written for the Atlantic, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other media outlets. His research at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute has spanned topics from movement control to how the brain processes the space around the body. His current work focuses on the brain basis of consciousness. He has proposed the Attention Schema Theory of consciousness, a mechanistic explanation of how brain-based agents believe and insist they contain consciousness inside them, and how that self model is useful for effective cognitive and social function.
Neuroscientists understand the basic principles of how the brain processes information. But how does it become subjectively aware of at least some of that information? What is consciousness? In my lab we are developing a theoretical and experimental approach to these questions that we call the Attention Schema theory (AST). The theory seeks to explain how an information-processing machine could act the way people do, insisting it has consciousness, describing consciousness in the ways that we do, and attributing similar properties to others. AST begins with attention, a mechanistic method of handling data. In the theory, the brain does more than use attention to enhance some signals at the expense of others. It also monitors attention. It constructs information – schematic information – about what attention is, what the consequences of attention are, and what its own attention is doing at any moment. Both descriptive and predictive, this “attention schema” is used to help control attention, much as the “body schema,” the brain’s internal model of the body, is used to help control the body. The attention schema is the hypothesized source of our claim to have consciousness. Based on the incomplete, schematic information present in the attention schema, the brain concludes that it has a non-physical, subjective awareness. In AST, awareness is a caricature of attention. In addition, when people model the attention of others, we implicitly model it in a schematic, magicalist way, as a mental energy in people’s heads. Our deepest intuitions about consciousness as a hard problem, or as a mystery essence, may stem from the brain’s sloppy but functionally useful models of attention. This theory also lends itself directly to constructing artificial consciousness.