Rethinking Consciousness: A Q&A with Michael Graziano

This article was originally published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

Most theories of consciousness, says Neuroscientist Michael Graziano, rely on magic. They point to a feature of the brain—vibrating neurons for instance—and claim that feature to be the source of consciousness. The story ends there. The magician points to his hat—vibrating neurons—and pulls out a rabbit—consciousness.

But how does the hat produce the rabbit? By what mechanism would neural vibrations lead a brain to become aware of itself? Graziano points out that theories of consciousness typically lack an explanation of the trick. Perhaps that’s because consciousness simultaneously feels both intuitive and mysterious. We can talk about being conscious. We feel that we’re conscious. But at the same time, we have little insight into how consciousness actually works or why we’re even conscious at all. No single, agreed-upon explanation for our conscious experience exists.

Graziano has spent much of the last decade thinking about consciousness. He has proposed the Attention Schema theory of consciousness which he outlined in his book Consciousness and the Social Brain. His theory attempts to reveal the magic behind the trick—to provide a mechanism for how conscious experience operates in the brain. Graziano suggests that consciousness is not unsolvable, but the result of a process very similar to how our brains make sense of other incoming information. From an immense amount of input, we create a representation, which is not exactly reality, but close enough to be useful. In this view, our experience of being aware is a representation, a useful description, of our attention. Consciousness, according to Graziano, is both solvable and, in principle, buildable. The challenging part is overcoming our powerful intuitions of what conscious experience is, in order to think about it in a way that doesn’t rely on a rabbit and a hat.

We spoke with Graziano to discuss some of the big ideas surrounding consciousness—what building it might look like, why he thinks it is one of the three biggest questions in science and philosophy, and whether or not it is a uniquely human phenomenon.

Evan Nesterak: Understanding consciousness is one of the long-standing questions in philosophy and science, but why should the average person care about theories of consciousness? 

Michael Graziano: Really great, transformative ideas are rejected by the general public because there’s no practical benefit to it. It’s not until there’s a practical benefit that suddenly the whole world starts to believe it. You can go to something like the flat Earth theory versus the round Earth theory in ancient Greece. It was widely understood among philosophers [that] the Earth is round, but it wasn’t until global travel that it became relevant to the rest of the world. Really practically, economically relevant. Then suddenly the whole rest of the world believed it was round.

If you look at evolution, and in this country we have this appalling lack of belief in evolution, but there’s one corner of it that everyone believes and everyone intuitively understands—the evolution of germs. We all accept that germs mutate and evolve. The reason is because it has this huge practical impact on our lives.

In consciousness research, what will be the practical consequence that touches everyone’s lives?…The advent of artificial consciousness.

In consciousness research, what will be the practical consequence that touches everyone’s lives? I think the practical effect is coming very, very soon, certainly within this century, and it’s huge. It’s the advent of artificial consciousness. We are so primed to see consciousness in things, it’s sort of part of who were are as social beings, we can’t help it. We have this incredibly strong intuition that our pets are conscious. Children see consciousness in their stuffed animals. People are prone to see consciousness in things that are inanimate, like beliefs in angry rivers and storm gods.

When you give people computers that act conscious, truly act conscious, talk about consciousness, and can report their internal experiences just like other people do, and discuss it like Data on Star Trek, at that point I think you’ll have a widespread acceptance of this kind of theory. As widespread as the round earth theory, something that pervasive, that economically and practically intertwined in our lives. People will be forced to reckon with it.

EN: In your New York Times Op-ed, you describe our current conception of conscious as very egocentric, and you compare it to how society thought about our position in the solar system pre-Copernicus and the origin of humans pre-Darwin. There were obvious social ramifications for both Copernicus’ and Darwin’s theories, especially in relation to the church. In a way it knocked humans off of their perceived pedestal. Do you think rethinking consciousness could have similar ramifications?

MG: Yes, certainly. I think that there are three really giant questions in human science and philosophy. One of them is what’s our relationship to the rest of the universe? That’s of course Copernicus. We’re not at the center, the universe is huge, we’re just somewhere in it. That was very justly called the Copernican revolution because it truly revolutionized the picture people had of ourselves, science, and the world around us. Certainly that whole issue ran afoul of the church. It’s not what people wanted to believe about themselves.

The second great philosophical question is what is our relationship to the rest of the living world? Of course the ego-flattering answer is we’re unique, we’re a special act of creation. Darwin essentially answered that question. His theory elegantly explains the diversity of life and the relationship among all life, and puts us right in there among the rest of it in a really marvelous way. It’s very exciting to have that kind of insight even though very distressing to many people at the time and still so.

In some sense it is the biggest, deepest, and most difficult questions of all—what is the relationship between consciousness and the physical world? It’s really the question, what are we?

The third huge question and in some sense the biggest, deepest, and most difficult of all—what is the relationship between consciousness and the physical world? It’s really the question, what are we? What is that inner essence that seems to experience and see and know? It’s really modern neuroscience that’s answering that question. My particular theory is a step, I hope a big step in that direction, but it’s really all of modern neuroscience that’s beginning to answer this question.

EN: Can you unpack your view that many theories of consciousness rely on magic?

MG: Almost all theories [fail] to explain the observable phenomenon. The observable phenomenon is that brains insist they have consciousness—we can say it, we can talk about it. If you have a theory that says consciousness is vibration of neuronal activity in the brain, [the theory] essentially [stops] at that point—“Aha that’s it, that’s what consciousness is. It’s vibrating activity in neurons.” But there’s not even an attempt to explain why that would lead a brain to insist and report that it has consciousness. It doesn’t actually explain the behavior of the brain because there’s no attempt to explain how the proposed consciousness stuff actually physically impacts neurons. In other words it’s not really a theory. Something like 99% of so-called theories are not really theories. They’re non-explanatory.

What we have [with the Attention Schema theory] is essentially something that could be built in principle. We think it will one day be built. It’s a machine that accesses its internal models. These internal models are bundles of information that have been constructed in it. Whatever information those internal models contain, the machine concludes to be true. The machine reports these physically incoherent properties, like a mystical consciousness inside, because its internal models contain blurry descriptions of physical reality, and the machine is captive to its internal models. It can’t believe or conclude anything outside the information available to it. This is the heart Attention Schema theory.

EN: Can you describe some of the thinking that lead you to your Attention Schema theory?

MG: There’s several starting points that led us to the theory. One starting point is that we realized one of the ways that people use [the] concept of awareness is that we attribute it to each other. We don’t just attribute awareness to ourselves. In fact, it’s terribly important for us. The heart of our social ability is that we look at another person and have this intuition that they’re conscious, they’re aware, and they’re aware of specific things. They’re aware of you, or they’re aware of the cookies on the plate, or they’re not aware of the puddle in front of them. We use that to help predict other people’s behavior.

We began to realize what’s going on here is awareness, this thing that we attribute to other people, is in a sense a simplified proxy. It’s a model of the other person’s brain focusing its resources on something. Let’s say your brain is focusing its resources on the cookies on the plate. I’m near you and I look at your behavior. I construct a kind of simplified almost cartoonish model of that and attribute to you that you’re aware of the cookies. It’s an easy quick and dirty way to keep track of your behavior and predict your behavior.

We realized we essentially do the same thing to ourselves. We construct these simplified models of the very complicated processes in our brains, like awareness, intention, and so on. We attribute these things to ourselves and it helps us predict our own behavior.

EN: If consciousness is an aspect of attention that evolved over time, as you write in your book, is it plausible to think that primates and other animals may experience a certain level of consciousness? 

MG: Some form of attention probably existed as far back as half a billion years ago. Insects have it, fish have it, frogs, turtles, birds, mammals of all sorts. My thinking is that an attention schema, an internal model of attention, would have come in very early in evolution, in order to help control this property of attention. Maybe we wouldn’t recognize it as human-like awareness, but something of the same kind of algorithm may be present in almost all animals with complex nervous systems. It’s presumably a long, slow evolution to our human-like awareness, especially an ability to recognize awareness in others as well as ourselves. Are monkeys conscious? They obviously don’t have human consciousness, but I’ll bet they have monkey consciousness. Same for dogs and cats, probably for birds. Right now it’s speculative, but equipped with a theory of consciousness that is testable and linkable to specific systems in the brain, we should be able to answer that question more definitively someday.

EN: What do you think the conception of consciousness will be in 300 years?

MG: The kind of consciousness in the brain is, I think at this point, really clear. It’s part of the style of information processing. That general conception I don’t think is going to change. But there’s a lot of ways that you could build consciousness, and I’ll go out on a limb here. There are things that I think are coming if you look into the future. If consciousness is buildable, which I think it is, if the human brain is just giant, massive information processor, which I think it is, if the technology for scanning the brain improves, which it obviously will, you reach this kind of conclusion that at some point we will be scanning the pattern of functional connectivity in a brain and collecting the data and simulating it or duplicating it in other formats, artificial computer formats.

It’s not just building conscious machines, but copying conscious minds and creating copies. What happens to the sanctity of life when it doesn’t matter when you kill of one of two [copies] because the rest can be copied and preserved as long as you want?

In other words, it’s not just building conscious machines, but copying conscious minds and creating copies.  At that point we run into a whole bunch of really bizarre philosophical issues that we’ve never had before. What is individuality if there are eight copies of me and they all feel and think like they’re me? What happens to the sanctity of life when it doesn’t matter when you kill of one of two [copies] because the rest can be copied and preserved as long as you want?

One of the fundamentals of individuality right now is that even though we interact with each other, in the end, we can’t actually mind meld. But if we have artificial copies of ourselves, those artificial copies can actually do that. You can start melding minds together in really bizarre ways. You start getting into this question what does it even mean to be a mind or a person. All of those issues are inevitable consequences of the march of this information technology.

Correction: A previous version of the introduction in this article referred to consciousness as the hard problem rather than the hard problem of consciousness.