Quote for the Day – The Attention Schema Theory of Consciousness

One way to approach the theory is through social perception. If you notice Harry paying attention to the coffee stain on this shirt, when you see the direction of Harry’s gaze, the expression on his face, and his gestures as he touches the stain, and when you put all those clues into context your brain does something quite specific: it attributes awareness to Harry. Harry is aware of the stain on his shirt. Machinery in your brain, in the circuitry that participates in social perception, is expert at this task of attributing awareness to other people. It sees another brain-controlled creature focusing its computing resources on an item and generates the construct that person Y is aware of thing X. In the theory proposed in this book, the same machinery is engaged in attributing awareness to yourself-computing that you are aware of thing X.

~Michael Graziano, Consciousness and the Social Brain

I’m planning on doing a write up on this book soon. I could not put the book down and read it in a few days. Compared to most books on consciousness, Graziano’s central thesis is clearly stated, suitably modest in ambition, neurologically plausible, and theoretically compelling.  I was impressed that Graziano applied his theory to explain “weird” aspects of human experience like out-of-body experiences, Mesmerism, religion, etc. I predict Graziano is going to be a big player in the consciousness debates from here on out. That I am really drawn to the theory is not surprising given its affinities with some things Julian Jaynes said e.g. “It is thus a possibility that before an individual man had an interior self, he unconsciously first posited it in others, particularly contradictory strangers, as the thing that caused their different and bewildering behavior…We may first unconsciously (sic) suppose other consciousnesses, and then infer our own by generalization” (Origin, p. 217) Jaynes also explicitly proposed that some features of consciousness are analogs (models) of sensory attention, which is at the heart of Graziano’s theory, albeit not as worked out rigorously.



Filed under Books, Consciousness, Psychology

3 responses to “Quote for the Day – The Attention Schema Theory of Consciousness

  1. I’m curious to see what you have to say, Gary. Aside from the initial steps he takes to look at the problem in privative terms, I’m not convinced he does anything more than reorganize the mystery.

  2. Hi rsbakker,

    I’m really torn about this theory. On the one hand, I really like the theory relative to others on the table because it seems to cohere with a lot of empirical research and theoretical developments. On the other hand, it inherits the same philosophical baggage that all representationalist theories do, namely, the problems of mental content and intentionality. I don’t really mind that Graziano ignores these deeper problems since he is a neuroscientist after all and seems rather modest in his ambitions (compared to, say, Tononi).

    Ultimately, I guess I agree with you that this is a reorganization of the mystery. However, I think it’s probably one of the better reorganizations, and certainly an improvement over extant theories as far as making concrete predictions that can be straightforwardly tested.

    Also, I really like Graziano’s “relational” or “response-dependent” idea about consciousness as an ascription:


    I’ve talked to some of my friends who think this is really weird, but it makes perfect sense to me and I think can be reconciled with a stronger, Dennettian eliminativism about consciousness as a “real” or “intrinsic” substance with determinate properties. But yeah…still a lot of deep mysteries, but probably not ones that Graziano needs to worry about, because if you start worrying about those issues there are much bigger fish to fry than consciousness. Beliefs and desires fall away too, which I take it is a more fundamental shift given belief/desire talk is taken is unproblematic by almost everyone.

    • I agree, pretty much. He pretty clearly hasn’t read Dennett all that closely, otherwise he would realize that his general approach isn’t all that revolutionary. But the fact that he doesn’t seem to recognize how helping himself to semantic information could be question-begging suggests to me that he really doesn’t have much familiarity with *any* philosophical thinking on the topic.(He makes a couple throwaway remarks regarding the Hard Problem that suggests he may not even appreciate that). He just has that dogged conviction that I often find in neuroscientific circles that correlation ‘just is’ explanation. We’re told over and over again that consciousness is this ‘chunk of information’ associated with the ‘attention schema,’ but he never gives any account of what makes this particular chunk of information so special, let alone explain what makes that information meaningful. For me it just seemed like he had stumbled on the ‘intentional stance’ independently, was wowed by the way it transformed his own thinking on the subject, and so managed to convince to himself that he had made real headway on the problem.

      That’s probably a little too harsh, I’m sure. But the idea of solving consciousness without solving content just strikes me as naive.

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