Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds /Milk Tea Alliance

Consciousness and the Social Brain

Another book I absolutely must read but don’t have time: Michael S. A. Graziano’s Consciousness and the Social Brain (2013, Oxford Univ. Press) I scanned the summary page that encapsulates his theory of consciousness:

social brain.jpg


I will reproduce the text here:


The theory at a glance: from selective signal enhancement to consciousness. 

About half a billion years ago, nervous systems evolved an ability to enhance the most pressing of incoming signals. Gradually, this attentional focus came under top-down control. To effectively predict and deploy its own attentional focus, the brain needed a constantly updated simulation of attention. This model of attention was schematic and lacking in detail. Instead of attributing a complex neuronal machinery to the self, the model attributed to the self an experience of X—the property of being conscious of something. Just as the brain could direct attention to external signals or internal signals, that model of attention could attribute to the self a consciousness of external events or of internal event. As that model increased in sophistication, it came to be used not only to guide one’s own attention, but for a variety of other purposes including understanding other beings. Now, in humans, consciousness is a key part of what makes us socially capable. In this theory, consciousness emerged first with a specific function related to the control of attention and continues to evolve and expand its cognitive role. The theory explains why a brain attributes the property of consciousness to itself, and why we humans are so prone to attribute consciousness to the people and objects around us.

Timeline: Hydras evolve approximately 550 million years ago (MYA) with no selective signal enhancement; animals that do show selective signal enhancement diverge from each other approximately 530 MYA; animals that show sophisticated top-down control of attention diverge from each other approximately 350 MYA. Primates first appear approximately 65 MYA; hominids appear approximately 6 MYA; Homo sapiens appear approximately 0.2 MYA.


5 comments on “Consciousness and the Social Brain

  1. John Willemsens

    Reblogged this on Advayavada Buddhism.

  2. jhwriter

    Do you think by “consciousness” he means “conscious experience” as Chalmers defines it? (http://consc.net/papers/puzzle.html) I guess it’s this turn that bothers me: “The theory explains why a brain attributes the property of consciousness to itself, and why we humans are so prone to attribute consciousness to the people and objects around us.” This implies, I think, that conscious experience is a projection–an illusion–both internally and externally. But the model itself suggests that, at least where brains of any kind exist, consciousness exists.

    Bottom line: I need to read this book, too! But the pile on my nightstand is dangerously tall and unstable….

  3. Shaun Bartone

    Yes, I think he is saying that consciousness is a model of reality, a kind of shorthand for processing sensory input (externally and internally). That’s part of why I dispute the contemporary Buddhistic notion that there is any such thing as “direct experience”, experience that is unfiltered, “pure.” Everything we get into our consciousness is filtered through and reconstructed by our sense organs and our brain. We have at best a working model of reality. There is no such thing as “direct experience” except if one defines it as “sensory experience without labels.” I also don’t think there is any such thing as “pure” consciousness, in the Zen or Dzogchen sense, i.e. “rigpa.” In fact, I don’t think that was what the Buddha meant at all by awareness or consciousness. The Pali is clear that the Buddha taught that “mind and world arise together.” Consciousness is a conditioned process, conditioned on sensory input from the environment.

  4. scraggyjack

    Consciousnesses — in the plural — is what is referred to in the Heart Sutra as the fifth skandha, or “tendency that confused mind has to identify with,” along with body, sensations, feelings, and mental formations.

    ChogyamTrungpa Rinpoche writes, in the Introduction to his 1973 book, Cutting through Spiritual Materialism, “The heart of the confusion is that man has a sense of self which seems to him to be continuous and solid. When a thought or emotion, or event occurs, there is a sense of someone being conscious of what is happening. You sense that you are reading these words. This sense of self is actually a transitory, discontinuous event, which in our confusion seems to be quite solid and continuous.” And then two paragraphs later, “Since there are always gaps in our self-consciousness, some insight is possible.”

    Apart from the experiential knowledge of Buddhist meditators, there are also very interesting thoughts on the evolution of consciousness, from a scientific viewpoint, in the chapter “Mind and consciousness,” of the 2014 book by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, The Systems View of Life.The authors refer to the “Santiago theory” of Humberto Maurana and Francisco Varela as positing that cognition is associated with all levels of life, whereas consciousness “unfolds at certain levels of cognitive complexity that require a brain and a higher nervous system,” p. 257.

    The writing in this chapter to too rich in concept — including how language links the inner world of concepts to the social world of organized relationships and culture, and delineating two different -types of consciousness, such as Graziano posits — to excerpt further here, but I do commend it to readers of this blog posting.

    • Shaun Bartone

      I’ve begun reading Consciousness and the Social Brain. It’s a brilliant argument based on neuroscience research. Confirms one critical Buddhist idea: “self” is an illusion produced by the brain; in part, it is awareness being aware of itself as awareness. Cool thing about reading this book is that it makes you hyper-aware of awareness.

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This entry was posted on 2016/08/24 by and tagged .


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