Attention Schema Theory of Consciousness
I picked up this book in early February with the intention of following through with my new years resolution: read a new book every two weeks.
Unsurprisingly, like most new year’s resolutions, this one didn’t last very long either. BUT, with the whole corona virus situation and colleges cancelling their classes (I’m an undergrad at UC Davis btw), I had some time on my hands so I was finally able to finish the book. And let’s just say I don’t regret how I have spent my quarantine hours so far. :)
I first came across Michael Graziano, the author of this book, when I was browsing through all the labs at Princeton University while applying for a summer program. His lab interested me in particular because of his work on consciousness– originally focused on the fundamental areas of neuroscience and the primate brain, Graziano did a complete 180 flip and decided to focus on the mechanisms of consciousness in the human brain fairly recently.
Coincidentally, I also saw this very same book on my post doc’s desk at the lab that I work at back in Davis, and I took it as a sign that this book is probably worth reading.
Ok enough background, more about the book.
For starters, there are tons of books on consciousness and multiple written by Graziano himself, but this one is very lay and simple to understand. Graziano does a solid job laying down the initial premises and building up to the crux of his argument such that it flows logically and seamlessly.
1. Defining Consciousness
According to Graziano, consciousness isn’t just the information inside us, because we are conscious of only a small amount of it at any given time.
Instead, something has to happen to that information; it needs to be integrated collectively to generate a subjective experience. For example, in a thought experiment that shows up many times, Graziano urges the reader to envision a digital camera hooked up to a computer that can process visual information. It can extract color, shape, and size but unlike a human brain, it doesn’t have a subject experience of what it sees. It knows an apple is red, but it doesn’t know what it feels like to see an apple or to see red. Consciousness is what it’s like to feel something.
2. Laying the Framework
Graziano employs the use of engineering schematics to build the scaffolding for his consciousness theory. Taking the example of a self driving car, he states that it’s not enough for a car’s computer to simply receive information about its surroundings and adjust the steering wheel and acceleration accordingly. Instead, it needs constant information about itself, an internal model that is constantly giving it real time feedback on its handling, speed, acceleration, position, etc.
Graziano then goes on to prove how this principle also applies biologically. For example, if you step on an escalator and hop off at the end, your body automatically adjusts to the difference in walking pace. This adjustment can attributed to the internal model that is constantly updating itself, making your movements smooth and accurate. If it weren’t for these internal models, there would be no place for all these separate streams of information to get consolidated.
3. Attention Schema Theory of Consciousness
Earlier, I mentioned that consciousness is not just about the content of information but the integration and subjective experience of it. Here is where Graziano’s genius comes in.
We have 5 external senses: sight, touch, smell, sound, and taste. How does the brain integrate all of this formation coming through different networks in the brain? What is the binding agent, if you will?
Well, according to Graziano, visuospatial location allows us to connect the dots between our sense. For example, if we see a bird sitting on a tree and hear a chirp from the same direction, our sense of location in a 3-D space allows us to connect the visual stimuli to the auditory stimuli. As another example, if you see your mom cooking food in the kitchen and you also smell the aromas wafting into the living room, you can easily connect what you’re seeing with what you’re smelling.
But what about non-external senses? What about emotions or memories or mental states? What connects those?
This is the crux of the attention schema theory. Graziano says that attention is the binding agent in this case. Regardless of whether the stimuli is external or internal, we are always paying attention to it at some level in order for it to enter our consciousness. Attention is the necessary prerequisite for consciousness. In addition, we also have an attention schema or an internal model that tells us how much attention we are paying to each object/thought and how that’s continuously changing over time.
This, to me at least, was a pretty novel way to think of consciousness, and the more I think about it the more sense it makes. We certainly aren’t the only organisms that are capable of attention, but I would argue that our cognitive processes are at a higher level of sophistication than any other organism.
Frogs, for example, can still pay attention but they are only capable of overt attention. In other words, they can only pay attention to whatever their eyes are looking at directly in their line of vision, which would explain why they haven’t attained the level of consciousness that we humans have.
One thing that I am not sure about after reading this book is whether attention is necessary AND sufficient for consciousness. In other words, are there other networks that help integrate all the information into a subjective experience or is attention alone enough?
Maybe I missed it in the book, so if anyone has any thoughts, I would be happy to hear them :)