Consciousness as Social Perception (BSP 108)

Michal Graziano and Kevin (click image to play interview)

Michal Graziano and Kevin (click image to play interview)

In his latest book Consciousness and the Social Brain  Princeton neuroscientist Michael Graziano proposes a unique and compelling theory of consciousness. He proposes that the same circuits that the human brain uses to attribute awareness to others are used to model self-awareness. He emphasizes that his attention schema theory is only tentative, but it is testable and it does fit our current knowledge of brain function.

In a recent interview for the Brain Science Podcast (BSP 108), Graziano used the following clinical example to clarify his approach. A colleague had a patient who was convinced that he had a squirrel in his head. When confronted with the illogic of his claim the patient replied “Not everything can be explained by science.” In this example it is clear that the squirrel doesn’t really exist, so the question to be answered is HOW did his brain reach the conclusion that it does.

While imagining one has a squirrel in one’s head is thankfully rare, we also know that our subjective experiences of the world are not necessarily accurate. Our perception of the world is shaped by how our brain processes the sensory inputs it receives. For example, we perceive white light as an absence of color even though in reality it consists of all wavelengths.

Perception is something our brains do constantly and which we can not consciously control. In considering awareness (and by extension consciousness) perception-like Graziano is emphasizing several important features. The most important is probably the fact that it is only “quick and dirty model” of what is really going on, which means that our intuitions about consciousness are not necessarily reliable. In fact, humans have a strong tendency to over-attribute awareness to the world around us. This is part of the social circuitry that has made us the most successful species in the earth’s history, but it can also lead to amusing results (as anyone who has interacted with Siri on an iPhone has no doubt observed).

Another implication of considering awareness as a form of social perception is that it reverses the usual approach taken to understanding consciousness. Instead of asking how a physical brain can produce something subjective and non-physical called consciousness, we ask what kind of information processing leads to the conclusion that I (or anyone else) is conscious. As Graziano points out, this is a “mechanistic” model. Not only can it be tested but it has interesting implications. Dr. Graziano concluded that one of the key implications is "that awareness and consciousness are tools for information processing, and they are mechanistically understandable, and presumably can be engineered.”

I find the attention schema theory to be very compelling. Besides being testable, it has a simple elegance that I appreciate. It also explains why most humans experience a world filled with spirits, and are utterly convinced that their own consciousness is something special and non-physical.

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Related Episodes:

Since understanding consciousness is one of the deepest questions facing neuroscience, it has been explored on many previous episodes of the Brain Science Podcast. Rather than list all those episodes I want to mention just a few that I think are particularly relevant to this month’s episode. 


Review of "Self Comes to Mind" by Antonio Damasio (BSP 90)


Episode 90 of the Brain Science Podcast is a discussion of Self Comes To Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain, by Antonio Damasio. Damasio's book focuses on the answer to two key questions: How does the brain generate the Mind? and, How does the Brain generate Consciousness? His approach is unusual because many scientists and writers treat the Mind and Consciousness as identical. In contrast, Damasio argues that Mind precedes Consciousness. Listen to this podcast to learn how the Mind becomes Conscious.

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Related Episodes of the Brain Science Podcast: 

  • BSP 21 and BSP 23 How the Brain Creates Maps of the Body
  • BSP 65: Jaak Panksepp talks about the subcortical origins of emotions
  • BSP 89: Evan Thompson talks about his book, Mind in Life


  • Next month's Brain Science Podcast will be a return interview with Jaak Panksepp to talk about his new book, The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions.
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"Mind in Life" with Evan Thompson (BSP 89)


Evan Thompson, PhD


Embodied Cognition is a movement within cognitive science that argues that the mind is inseparable from the fact that the brain is embedded in a physical body. This means that everything that the brain does, from the simplest perception to complex decision-making, relies on the interaction of the body with its environment.  Evan Thompson's book, Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind, is an in-depth look at what he calls the "enactive" approach to embodied cognition. The enactive approach was pioneered by Thompson's mentor Francisco Varela, and it emphasizes the importance of the body's active engagement with its environment.

In a recent interview (BSP 89) I talked with Thompson about some of the key ideas in Mind in Life. Unlike most episodes of the Brain Science Podcast, this is not really a stand-alone episode. It is part of my ongoing exploration of both embodied cognition and the controversial topic of emergence. It is also intended as a follow-up to my recent interview with Terrence Deacon.

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Related Episodes: 

  • BSP 5: A bried introduction to philosphy of mind
  • BSP 25: Embodied Intelligence with Rolf Pfeifer
  • BSP 36: Art Glenberg on Embodied Cognition
  • BSP 53: Discussion of Did My Neurons Make Me Do It? (emergence and free will)
  • BSP 62: Warren Brown, co-author of Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?
  • BSP 73: Lawrence Shapiro, author of Embodied Cognition.
  • Books and Ideas #47: Terrence Deacon, author of Incomplete Nature.


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  • Next month's Brain Science Podcast will be a discussion of Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain by Antonio Damasio. Self Comes to Mind is also available from our sponsor
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Update on Consciousness Research with Christof Koch (BSP 84)


Christof Koch, PhD

he scientific study of consciousness was once viewed with skepticism, but this has changed dramatically in recent years.   According to pioneering neuroscientist, Christof Koch, "the great thing is we’re not condemned to just sort of philosophical speculation, but we can make some predictions, and then go out and measure them.  And those are the things I talk about in this book, Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist." In Brain Science Podcast  #84, Koch reflects on the progress that has been made since I interviewed him back in 2007 (BSP 22), and he also talks about the latest initiatives at the Allen Institute for Brain Research, where he as recently become the chief science officer. 

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Thomas Metzinger Explores Consciousness (BSP 67)

The free podcast version of Brain Science Podcast 67 is now available.  It is an interview with German philosopher Thomas Metzinger, author of The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self , and Being No One.   Dr. Metzinger argues that any credible model for how the brain generates the mind must incorporate unusual human experiences, such as so-called out of body experiences (OBE), and psychiatric conditions.  In this interview we explore how OBE and virtual reality experiments shed light on how the brain generates the sense of self that characterizes normal human experience.

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Related Episodes of the Brain Science Podcast:



  • BSP 68 will be an interview with geriatric neurologist, Peter Whitehouse, author of The Myth of Alzheimer's: What You Aren't Being Told About Today's Most Dreaded Diagnosis.  The premium version will be available on April 1 and will include an additional interview with his co-author Daniel George.  The free podcast will come out the second week of April.  
  • The latest episode of my Books and Ideas podcast is an interview with best-selling horror writer Scott Sigler.  We discuss the challenges of incorporating accurate science into fiction writing. (Listen to the end to get a coupon code for his book The Rookie.) 
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Premium Version of Interview with Thomas Metzinger

The next episode of the Brain Science Podcast (BSP 67) is an interview with German philosopher Thomas Metzinger, author of The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self. The free podcast version will be released  on March 10, but the premium version is available now.

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Interview with Philosopher Alva Noë (BSP 58)


Episode 58 of the Brain Science Podcast is an interview with philosopher, Alva Noë, whose book, Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness, argues persuasively that our minds are MORE than just our brains.  He says that "the brain is necessary but not sufficient" to create the mind.     

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Show Notes and Links:

Important scientists mentioned in the interview:

  • Paul Bach-y-Rita: pioneering studies in sensory substitution using tactile stimuli to substitute for vision.
  • Held and Hein: experiments with cats showing that development of normal vision requires motor-sensory feedback.


  • Brain Mechanisms in Sensory Substitution by Paul Bach-y-Rita, 1972.
  • Bach-y-Rita, P "Tactile-Vision Substitution: past and future", International Journal of  Neuroscience 19, nos. 1-4,  29-36, 1983.
  • Held, R and Hein, "Movement-produced stimulation in the development of visually guided behavior." Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology. 56(5), 872-876, 1963.
  • Held, R.  "Plasticity in sensory-motor systems." Scientific American. 213(5) 84-91, 1965.


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Exploring Consciousness in the Blogospere

I am not very good at keeping up with all the great blogs about neuroscience, but I did happen to find two that I thought you might enjoy.  Both Developing Intelligence and Conscious Entities explore both the meaning of consciousness and the relationship between the human brain and computers.

Journey to Perplexity: "The Mind Is Not a Computer"

The blog, Journey to Perplexity, notes that Gerald Edelman's book, Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge, offers some valuable insights into why "the mind is not a computer."   I am not sure who writes this blog, but he seems to be writing from a philosophical background.

It has been a while since I read Edelman's book.  Edelman won the Nobel Prize in 1972 for important discoveries about the structure of antibodies, but he has devoted the last several decades to studying neuroscience.  His two most well-known contributions are his theory of so-called 'neural Darwinism,' and his study of the importance of redundancy and feedback loops within the brain.  He has written quite a few books on the subject including, Wider Than the Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness (2005).

Second Nature is Edelman's attempt to address some of the philosophical issues about consciousness, while Wider than the Sky introduces some of his theories about how the brain generates consciousness.

Year-end Review for 2007 (BSP 27)


Episode 27 is a look back on the first 26 episodes of the Brain Science Podcast.

I look back on some of the main topics that we have explored including memory, consciousness, emotions, decision-making, body maps, and plasticity.  Then I talk a little about what I hope to do in the covering year.  This episode is a little more personal than most, and will mainly be of interest to regular listeners.  It includes some ideas about how you can help the Brain Science Podcast grow and prosper.

However, in preparing this episode, I went back over the past year's episodes, and I have prepared a list of all the episodes so far and the main topics.  This should help both new listeners and regulars to find episodes that pertain to particular topics.

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Consciousness with Christof Koch (BSP 22)


Brain Science Podcast #22 is an interview with Dr. Christof Koch of Cal Tech, one of the pioneers in the neurobiological study of consciousness.  About two decades ago, when Koch and Francis Crick began looking for what they called the neural correlates of consciousness (NCC), such a quest was considered controversial; but now the field is increasing in popularity.  In our interview, we talked a little about his book,The Quest for Consciousness, as well as his on-going research and his thoughts about what the future might bring.

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Here is a list of some of the topics we discussed:

  • Why Francis Crick was an outstanding mentor and colleague.
  • A Working definition of consciousness.
  • How consciousness relates to awareness.
  • What are neural correlates of consciousness.
  • Why vision is the focus of Koch's research.
  • The search for the "footprints" of consciousness.
  • The role of functional imaging and the use of monkeys.
  • Neurons-"the atoms of perception".
  • Why we need a theory of consciousness.
  • The role of the frontal lobes in consciousness.
  • Is consciousness an emergent property?
  • What about zombies?
  • Why do we need consciousness?
  • Will artificial intelligence become conscious?
  • The hard problem:  how does the brain generate subjective experience  (qualia).


Update on 2012-05-03 15:42 by Ginger Campbell, MD

Christof Koch returned to the Brain Science Podcast in Episode 84.

Why Quantum Mechanics Can't Explain Consciousness

Quantum mechanics can't explain consciousness, and I am going to explore why.

The reason I bring this up is that many people seem to be worried that the mounting evidence that the brain generates the mind implies that free will can not exist.  Of course, most of us feel strongly that we do have free will.  Various arguments are put forth to "save" free will. (I am not going to tackle the claim that it needs saving in this post.)  One recent approach has been to use the uncertainty inherent in quantum mechanics as a potential location for free will.  John Searle has observed that this only gives us randomness, not free will, but that doesn't seem to reduce the appeal of such an approach.

Today I wish to argue against using quantum mechanics to explain any aspect of consciousness by considering and entirely different point of view.  My argument is simple: I think trying to use quantum mechanics is taking the argument in the wrong direction.

Consciousness is clearly an emergent property.  The latest evidence is that there is no master site of consciousness or control in the brain.  If that is the case looking to the subatomic level is clearly a move in the wrong direction.  It makes as much sense as trying to understand the properties of water by studying hydrogen and oxygen.  Because water emerges from the combination of the two, studying its components tells us little about water.

Consciousness: A Brief Introduction to Philosophy of Mind (BSP 5)

Show Notes for BSP 5

Until the last few decades the question of consciousness fascinated philosophers, but was considered off-limits to science; but the discoveries of the last few decades have brought consciousness into the realm of neuroscience.  Scientists such as Nobel Prize Winner, Francis Crick, have proposed that the brain has “neural correlates of consciousness.”  (Francis Crick,  Astonishing Hypothesis, 1994.)  This episode is an introduction to the topic.

After considering the definition of consciousness, I introduce some of the classical questions of the philosophy of the mind:

  • The "hard problem" (proposed by David Chalmers):  How does the physical brain create subjective experience.
  • Dualism: Is there some aspect of mind that is not physical?
  • Free will: If the brain creates consciousness, can we still have free will?

I also introduce several famous thought experiments:

  • Mary the color scientist  (Frank Jackson,1982).  Chalmers has argued that the subjective qualities of experience, which he calls qualia, can not be explained by what the brain does.
  • What is it like to be a bat?    (Thomas Nagel)  Do qualia exist?
  • The philosopher’s zombie:  Chalmers argues that a robot could exist that looks and acts just like us but that is “dark inside.”
  • John Searle’s Chinese Room:  An argument against what he calls “strong” artificial intelligence."  Listen to John Searle argue against dualism onThe Philosopher's Zone.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett rejects the existence of both qualia and zombies, and argues that the hard problem does not exist.  To me, the interesting question is whether these arguments will be answered or made obsolete by scientific discoveries.

Perhaps the hard problem will disappear.  I consider how the discovery of neurotransmitters has changed our understanding of the role of emotions in consciousness.  We now know that neurotransmitters provide two-way signaling between our brains and the rest of our bodies, producing our experiences of emotions and feelings.  Though there is still a tendency to regard logic as superior to emotion, researchers like Antonio Damasio are showing that emotions play an essential part in decision-making and other aspects of intelligence.

Philosophers are not the only ones unwilling to let go the idea that consciousness is a mystery that can’t be explained; but those philosophers who keep up with the science can help science ask new questions.

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I will continue to introduce books about consciousness on future podcasts.  Susan Blackmore writes books for general audiences, so I have listed a few of hers below.