Consciousness: the science behind you reading this

Consciousness is awareness of an internal simplified model enabling you to have control over your attention. This is quite different from the often believed ideas that either consciousness is an illusion, or it’s a mysterious emergent self that suddenly comes into being. The extraordinary and spiritual are caused by abnormal disruptions in our never-objective, but usually “good enough” model. Knowing this, we can recognize the truly immense power of the brain, and no longer separate consciousness, mind, body, and universe from each other, an empowering concept.

Instead of asking how neurons produce a magical internal experience, the Attention Schema Theory (Graziano, 2015) concerns itself with how a brain attributes experience to itself. It posits that awareness is your brain’s simplified model to make attention possible. Attention is only useful if controllable, allowing you to use conscious effort to achieve a goal. The models necessary for awareness are of surroundings, the self (autobiographical and body), and the relationship between the self and external. It’s essential that this model be inaccurate, we’d be wasting loads of resources to construct objective ones, and without models, we’d be drowning in excess information, unable to find the attention that AST views as essential. This theory solidifies consciousness into something that isn’t in any way magic, but is real. Graziano states, “The most basic, measurable, quantifiable truth about consciousness is simply this: we humans can say that we have it. (…) Speech is controlled by muscles, which are controlled by neurons. Whatever consciousness is, it must have a specific, physical effect on neurons, or else we wouldn’t be able to communicate anything about it” (Graziano, 2013).

Attention Schema counters the Emergent Consciousness Theory, which goes back to the mid 1800s, believing consciousness is a non-physical essence:

“Mind is something which the body achieves, or which nature achieves by means of the body. When nature achieves the molecule, the atom ceases to be the thing of primary importance, worth, or even of reality. When nature achieves the cell, the molecule is eclipsed. When the organism is achieved, the cell is eclipsed. When mind is achieved, the body is eclipsed. Mind is a new reality, gained, achieved, won. Mind emerges from the body,” (Patrick, 1922)

One hundred years later, the AST contrasts, believing consciousness is a dedicated part of the brain, of no hierarchical difference from anything else physical. We would experience consciousness wherever our brains report the model of the information they receive, computing a description and experience of a color to itself. Instead of Patrick’s assertion that, “consciousness is simply the relationship between the mind as perceiving and the thing perceived. The perceived thing gets a meaning, as we say, that is, it takes its place in a familiar group of memory images, making a connected story,” (Patrick, 1922), AST would state that consciousness is perceiving a model of the thing, which is drawn by unconscious physical parts.

Attention Schema theory asserts that out-of-body, altered conscious states can be described by the computation of awareness being disrupted, and the brain doing its constant process of simplifying what it has left to parse, resulting in a breakdown of our comfortable spatial framework. According to AST, we interact with a greatly simplified model of our our limbs and muscles rather than being aware of each needed to complete a movement. A disturbance in the brain’s model can be found as easily as stroking someone’s hand that’s out of their view while simultaneously stroking a foreign object in their view, causing their brain to project sensations. When the external object is threatened or attacked, their body will react as if it were real (Armel, 2003). “Many of our superstitions — our beliefs in souls and spirits and mental magic — might emerge naturally from the simplifications and shortcuts the brain takes when representing itself and its world,” (Graziano, 2013). For example, “During saccadic movement [rapid eye movement between fixed points], the perceived order of events can be also inverted” (Wassenhove, 2011).

This definitely jives with studies on how non-linear experiences of the timeline our brains create to make everything logical. According to the Multiple Drafts Model, “discriminations are distributed in both space and time in the brain. These events do have temporal properties, but those properties do not determine subjective order because there is no single, definitive “stream of consciousness,” only a parallel stream of conflicting and continuously revised contents”. In other words, different sensory inputs arrive and are interpreted at different times, editing our awareness as new information is worked out in either a “Stalinesque” (where your point of view is smeared pre-experientially) or “Orwellian” (where your point of view is written over post-experientially) way. Subjective experience has been studied as lagging 300-500ms behind behavioral response and stimuli, putting into question how aware we are of our decisions. MDM calls the self the “center of narrative gravity,” and not separate from any other behavior. (Dennett, 1992)

Another study, published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, found how fluid the experience of time is:

“The time percept is fundamentally labile and variant. For instance, an auditory and a visual event of equal duration are not perceived as such: a sound is typically perceived as being longer than a visual event. The first event in a sequence of identical stimuli, or an unexpected or surprising event can lead to a relative overestimation of its duration. Temporal illusions can be systematically elicited, thereby allowing the assessment of natural (architectural and computational) constraints on the construction of a time percept. What is the object of attention when we attend to time? Are all senses sensitive to temporal aspects of the environment and if so, to which extent? We take it that time, as an experience, requires specific neural mechanisms allowing for the construction of a mental representation in the reference frame of the embodied and conscious self,” (Wassenhove, 2011)

A key concept this study makes is in determining what could be one of the physical elements of consciousness that AST theorizes. The study observed test subjects face new visual stimuli, and noted the inaccurate subjective response for how long the period of looming was coincided with increased activation of specific parts of the brain. They concluded that, “the representation of self is incorporated in the encoding and analysis of a world event. Formally, a self-referential process functionally implicates the self, for instance, as a reference frame or context of the event being analyzed. The neural structures likely implicated in such contextual representation of self are the cortical midline structures,” (Wassenhove, 2011)

The AST finds practical benefit in the reason awareness evolved. Having an internal model of the world allows you to begin believing others have the same abilities, which promotes species cooperation through socializing. Can one’s model become too accurate for someone’s mind to handle and allow attention, or too inaccurate, that they’re no longer conscious? Perhaps that’s Alzheimer’s, or death in general. How does lucid dreaming fit into this definition of consciousness, when one is aware that their mind is creating a model in absence of sensory input?

From René Descarte’s “I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am,” we can approach the study of consciousness assuming we have it, even if the awareness we interact with isn’t objective reality and the choices we make aren’t derived from our stream. It’s difficult to contend the AST with any chance of an afterlife or reincarnation. The disruption of death and few minutes of remaining brain activity could cause essentially anything in terms of continued experience. “Our brains are not equipped with time receptors and time” (Wassenhove, 2011). Knowing all of this, the spiritual and unsecular feeling can be completely real, and no longer separated from either the mind or body. We can acknowledge that physical consciousness promoting need fulfillment coexists with raw and powerful experiences of emotion, a phenomena more complex than the death of a star. For now, things within it mean something to someone, and can be altered in a way that’s meaningful in other people’s models and altering the emotions of their existence. We may never be able to experience anything that isn’t just a model, but our minds make the universe palatable and observable.

Armel, K. C., and V. S. Ramachandran. Projecting Sensations to External Objects: Evidence from Skin Conductance Response. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 270.1523 (2003): 1499-506. Web.

Dennett, Daniel C., and Marcel Kinsbourne. Time and the Observer: The Where and When of Consciousness in the Brain. Behavioral and Brain Sciences Behav Brain Sci 15.02 (1992): 183-201. Web.

Graziano, Michael S. A., and Taylor W. Webb. The Attention Schema Theory: A Mechanistic Account of Subjective Awareness. Frontiers in Psychology Front. Psychol. 06 (2015): n. pag. Web.

Graziano, Michael S. A. “How the Light Gets Out.” Aeon.co. N.p., 21 Aug. 2013. Web. 07 June 2016.

Patrick, G. T. W. The Emergent Theory of Mind. The Journal of Philosophy 19.26 (1922): 701. Web.

Wassenhove, Virginie Van, Marc Wittmann, A. D. (Bud) Craig, and Martin P. Paulus. Psychological and Neural Mechanisms of Subjective Time Dilation. Front. Neurosci. Frontiers in Neuroscience 5 (2011): n. pag. Web.

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