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. 

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Sleep Science with Penny Lewis (BSP 107)

Penny Lewis (click image to play interview)

Penny Lewis (click image to play interview)

In The Secret World of Sleep: The Surprising Science of the Mind at Rest Dr. Penelope A. Lewis provides a highly readable account of the fascinating world of sleep research. Fascinating research is being carried out with animals as varied as fruit flies and rats, as well as with humans. I was surprised to learn that most people actually find it fairly easy to fall asleep in an fMRI scanner.

I have just posted an interview with Dr. Lewis (BSP 107) that includes a discussion of the role of sleep in memory as well as interesting findings about how synapses in the brain actually change during sleep. We still don't know exactly what sleep (and dreaming) are essential, but research in this field is growing. Dr. Lewis is excited about emerging research that suggests improving slow wave sleep may significantly improve learning and memory.

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"The Autistic Brain" by Temple Grandin (BSP 98)

 The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum  by Temple Grandin (with Richard Panek), is a tremendous gift, not just to patients and their families, but also to teachers, mentors, friends, and everyone who is interested in understanding how our brains make us who we are.

I think that this is a book everyone should read because as we come to appreciate the fact that the strengths and challenges of autism occur across a broad spectrum, we may also realize that some of these issues actually affect people who aren't considered autistic.  It is not the label that matters.  What does matter is recognizing that each of us has his or her own strengths and weaknesses, but thanks to brain plasticity, we all have the potential to nurture our strengths and, when necessary, accommodate our weaknesses.

 

How to get this episode:

  • FREE: audio mp3 (click to stream, right click to download)
  • Buy Transcript for $1.
  • Premium Subscribers now have unlimited access to all old episodes and transcripts.
  • The most recent 25 episodes of the Brain Science Podcast are still FREE. See the individual show notes for links the audio files.

References and Related Episodes:

Announcements: 

  • I am still trying to schedule an interview with Dr. Temple Grandin, but there is a possibility that the next episode of the Brain Science Podcast will not come out until August 2013.
  • The Deadline for listener submissions to Episode 100 is August 1, 2013.
  • Several products are not available directly on this website including the PDF version of Are You Sure? The Unconscious Origins of Certainty by Ginger Campbell, MD and a zip file contain BSP 1-10. Click here to learn more.
  • Be sure to sign up for the Brain Science Podcast Newsletter so that you can receive show notes automatically and NEVER miss a new episode. (But there was a glitch last month, so if you did not get the show notes for BSP 97, please click here.

"The Self Illusion" with Bruce Hood (BSP 88)

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Bruce Hood, PhD

 

The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity, by Bruce Hood, is a fascinating look at how our brains create both our experience of the world and our sense of being a single, coherent self.  As the word "illusion" in the title indicates, neither is exactly what it seems.  When I interviewed Dr. Hood (BSP 88), he explained that The Self Illusion is a broad introduction to this somewhat surprising idea. The  Self Illusion was written with a general audience in mind.  For those already familiar with the topic, he also puts a new emphasis on the role of development.  All readers should come away with a new appreciation for the critical role social interactions play through out human life.

How to get this episode:

  • FREE: audio mp3 (click to stream, right click to download)
  • Buy Transcript for $1.
  • Premium Subscribers now have unlimited access to all old episodes and transcripts.
  • The most recent 25 episodes of the Brain Science Podcast are still FREE. See the individual show notes for links the audio files.

Related Podcasts:

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Brain Science Podcast Turns Five Years Old (BSP 80)

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Original Logo from 2006

I launched the Brain Science Podcast in December 2006, so to celebrate I am posting my Fifth Annual Review Episode (BSP 80).  This podcast includes a review of the highlights from this year's episodes along with my reflections on what we have learned about brain health over the last few years.  I also take a look ahead to 2012 when I hope to continue to produce a Brain Science Podcast every month.

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This Year's Episodes:

  • BSP 72:  Stephen L. Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde, authors of Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions.
  • Extra: Books and Ideas  with Dr. Paul Offit, author of Deadly Choices: How The Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All.
  • BSP 73: Lawrence Shapiro, author of Embodied Cognition.
  • BSP 74: Olaf Sporns, author of Networks of the Brain.
  • BSP 75: David Eagleman, author of Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.
  • BSP 76: Sian Beilock, author of Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To.
  • BSP 77: Fabrizio Benedetti, author of Placebo Effects and The Patient's Brain
  • Extra: Books and Ideas with Carol Tavris, co-author of Mistakes were Made (But Not By Me).
  • BSP 78: Review of Beyond Boundaries: The New Neuroscience of Connecting Brains with Machines---and How It Will Change Our Lives by Miguel Nicolelis.
  • BSP 79: Interview with Miguel Nicolelis.

Announcements:

Send your feedback to Dr. Campbell at brainsciencepodcast@gmail.com.

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.

Click here to learn more about premium podcasts.

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Memory: Challenging Current Theories with Randy Gallistel, PhD (BSP 66)

Episode 66 of the Brain Science Podcast is an interview with Randy Gallistel, PhD, Co-Director of the Rutgers Center for Cognitive Science and co-author (with Adam Philip King) of Memory and the Computational Brain: Why Cognitive Science Will Transform Neuroscience.

We discuss why read/write memory is an essential element of computation, with an emphasis on the animal experiments that support the claim that brains must possess read/write memory.  This is significant because current models, such as neural nets, DO NOT incorporate read/write memory in their assumptions about how brains work.  It is not necessary to have any background in information theory or computation to appreciate the experiments that are discussed in this episode.

Episode 3 and Episode 12 of the Brain Science Podcast  provide  background information for this episode.

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Announcements:

Send feedback to gincampbell at mac dot com or leave voice mail at 205-202-0663.

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Affective Neuroscience with Jaak Panksepp (BSP 65)

Episode 65 of the Brain Science Podcast is an interview with Jaak Panksepp, PhD, author of Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions.   Dr. Panksepp has done pioneering work on the neural origins of emotions.   In this interview, we discuss how his work challenges some of the common assumptions about emotions and some of the important implications of his discoveries.  New listeners may want to go back and listen to Episode 11 for an introduction to the neuroscience of emotion.

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Reviewing Year 3 of the Brain Science Podcast (BSP 64)

BrainScience-logo1

Episode 64 of the Brain Science Podcast  is our Third Annual Review Episode.  It includes a review of some of the major ideas we talked about in 2009 and a look ahead to what I have planned for 2010.

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Main Books Discussed in 2009:

Guests who appeared on the Brain Science Podcast in 2009:

  • David Bainbridge, PhD: University Clinical Veterinary Anatomist from Cambridge University (BSP 63).
  • Stuart Brown, MD: retired psychiatrist and founder of the National Institute for Play (BSP 60).
  • Warren S. Brown, PhD: experimental psychologist from Fuller Theological Seminary (BSP 62).
  • Guy Caldwell, PhD: molecular biologist from the University of Alabama (BSP 59).
  • Patricia Churchland, PhD: neurophilosopher from University of California at San Diego (BSP 55).
  • Chris Frith, PhD: neuropsychologist from University College London (BSP 57).
  • Allan Jones, PhD: Chief Science Officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Research (BSP 61).
  • Eve Marder, PhD: neuroscientist from Brandeis University (BSP 56).
  • Michael Merzenich, PhD pioneer in neuroplasticity (BSP 54).
  • Alva Noë, Phd: philosopher from the University of California (BSP 58)

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David Bainbridge on The Teenage Brain (BSP 63)

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Episode 63 of the Brain Science Podcast is an interview with David Bainbridge, author of Teenagers: A Natural History.  Our focus is on how the brain changes during the teenage years.  Bainbridge teaches veterinary anatomy and reproductive biology at Cambridge University and has published several other popular science books, including Beyond the Zonules of Zinn: A Fantastic Journey Through Your Brain , which I discussed back in Episode 32.

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"Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?" with Warren Brown (BSP 62)

Warren Brown and Nancey Murphy

Warren Brown and Nancey Murphy

Episode 62 of the Brain Science Podcast is an interview with Warren Brown, PhD, co-author (with Nancey Murphy) of Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?: Philosophical and Neurobiological Perspectives on Moral Responsibility and Free Will.  This book was discussed in detail back in Episode 53, but this interview gave me a chance to discuss some of the book's key ideas with Dr. Brown.  We focused on why a non-reductive approach is needed in order to formulate ideas about moral responsibility that are consistent with our current neurobiological understanding of the mind.

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Why Play is Essential to Brain Health with Dr. Stuart Brown (BSP 60)

In Episode 60 of the Brain Science Podcast, Ginger Campbell, MD, interviews Dr. Stuart Brown, author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul Our focus is on the importance of play for normal mental development and psychological health. We also explore the importance of play in adults.

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Send email to Dr. Campbell at brainsciencepodcast@gmail.com.

Interview with Philosopher Alva Noë (BSP 58)

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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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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.

References:

  • 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.

Announcements:

  • Special thanks to Diane Jacobs, Jenine John and Lori Wolfson for transcribing all the episodes of the Brain Science Podcast.
  • Don't forget to post your reviews in iTunes®. Your word of mouth helps us find new listeners.
  • The Brain Science Podcast is supported by listener donations.

Please send your feedback to brainsciencepodcast@gmail.com.

How our Brain Creates Our World with Chris Frith, PhD (BSP 57)

frith

Episode 57 of the Brain Science Podcast is an interview with neuropsychologist, Dr. Chris Frith, author of Making up the Mind: How the Brain Creates Our Mental World.   Our brain processes information about the world outside us (via our senses) in the same way that it processes information from within our bodies and from our own mental world.  In this interview.  Dr. Frith and I explore the implications from recent discoveries about how our brain generates our mental world.

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Selected References:*

*These references are from Making up the Mind: How the Brain Creates Our Mental World by Chris Frith.

Send feedback to brainsciencepodcast@gmail.com.

Interview with Neuroscience Pioneer Eve Marder, PhD (BSP 56)

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Episode 56 of the Brain Science Podcast is an interview with neuroscientist, Eve Marder, PhD.  Dr. Marder has spent 35 years studying the somatogastric ganglion of the lobster.  In this interview we talk about how she got into neuroscience during its early days, her recent tenure as president of the Society for Neuroscience, and how some of her key discoveries have implications for studying more complex nervous systems.

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Neurophilosophy with Patricia Churchland (BSP 55)

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Episode 55 of the Brain Science Podcast is an interview with highly respected philosopher Patricia Churchland.  Churchland is the author of Neurophilosophy and Brain-Wise.  She is currently on the faculty of the University of California at San Diego, and she was a featured speaker at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in 2008.

In this interview, we talked about neurophilosophy, which is an approach to philosophy of mind that gives high priority to incorporating the empiric findings of neuroscience.   We also talk about the evolving relationship between philosophy and neuroscience.   Churchland shares her enthusiasm for how the discoveries of neuroscience are changing the way we see ourselves as human beings.  We also talked a little about the issues of reductionism that I first brought up in Episode 53.

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Related Episodes of the Brain Science Podcast

  • Episode 5: Introduction to philosophy of mind and the question of consciousnes.
  • Episode 22: Interview with Christof Koch about consciousness.
  • Episode 53: Discussion of Did My Neurons Make Me Do It? a defense of free will.

Here Is a Working Link to the Enhanced Version of Episode 32

I want to apologize to anyone who got the "enhanced version" of episode 32 in their feed, but found that it had no graphics.  The Brain Science Podcast is currently part of an ad campaign on Wizzard Media (Libsyn). They failed to tell us that the technology they use to insert ads will not work with enhanced files, so they just converted it back to a stripped down mp3.

Since I can't put the episode into the normal feed, but you can get it here. It should play in Quicktime™ on your computer. To save the file on to  your computer, right click on the link and choose "save as." All iPods can handle this format, but many other players, such as the Zune™ will not. Sorry about the inconvenience. (Note: If you are using Windows make sure you have the latest version of Quicktime™.)

If you just want to look at the illustrations on your computer click here.

Brain Anatomy: Illustrations for BSP 32

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I have posted  the illustrations I  promised last week when I released Episode 32 of the Brain Science Podcast.  Except for the colored diagram of the lobes of the brain, these illustrations come from Beyond the Zonules of Zinn: A Fantastic Journey Through Your Brainand have been used with the permission of the author, David Bainbridge.

Click here to see thumbnails of all the illustrations, along with the approximate time they were discussed during the episode.  (Note: because of the automatic ad insertion process the times may be off by up to 67 seconds.) http://brainsciencpodcast.wordpress.com/episodes/figures-for-episode-32-a-whirlwind-tour-of-brain-anatomy/

Here is a link to the enhanced version of the podcast, which includes the illustrations but not the captions.  Unfortunately, due to some technical issues with Libsyn's ad-server software, I am currently unable to put the enhanced version into the regular feed.

Brain Science Podcast #32: A Brief Introduction to Brain Anatomy

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Episode 32 of the Brain Science Podcast is a whirlwind (55 minute) tour of brain anatomy.  It is based on David Bainbridge's new book: Beyond the Zonules of Zinn: A Fantastic Journey Through Your Brain (2008).  Click here for some of the key illustrations from the book.  I want to thank David for sharing these images, and I encourage everyone to read the book.

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