How The Human Brain Creates Consciousness

optimized_brainMichael Graziano, professor of neuroscience at Princeton University and author of Consciousness and the Social Brain, thinks neuroscience has discovered how consciousness comes about. He explains at Aeon:

Scientific talks can get a little dry, so I try to mix it up. I take out my giant hairy orangutan puppet, do some ventriloquism and quickly become entangled in an argument. I’ll be explaining my theory about how the brain — a biological machine — generates consciousness. Kevin, the orangutan, starts heckling me. ‘Yeah, well, I don’t have a brain. But I’m still conscious. What does that do to your theory?’

Kevin is the perfect introduction. Intellectually, nobody is fooled: we all know that there’s nothing inside. But everyone in the audience experiences an illusion of sentience emanating from his hairy head. The effect is automatic: being social animals, we project awareness onto the puppet. Indeed, part of the fun of ventriloquism isexperiencing the illusion while knowing, on an intellectual level, that it isn’t real.

Many thinkers have approached consciousness from a first-person vantage point, the kind of philosophical perspective according to which other people’s minds seem essentially unknowable. And yet, as Kevin shows, we spend a lot of mental energy attributing consciousness to other things. We can’t help it, and the fact that we can’t help it ought to tell us something about what consciousness is and what it might be used for. If we evolved to recognise it in others – and to mistakenly attribute it to puppets, characters in stories, and cartoons on a screen — then, despite appearances, it really can’t be sealed up within the privacy of our own heads.

Lately, the problem of consciousness has begun to catch on in neuroscience. How does a brain generate consciousness? In the computer age, it is not hard to imagine how a computing machine might construct, store and spit out the information that ‘I am alive, I am a person, I have memories, the wind is cold, the grass is green,’ and so on. But how does a brain become aware of those propositions? The philosopher David Chalmers has claimed that the first question, how a brain computes information about itself and the surrounding world, is the ‘easy’ problem of consciousness. The second question, how a brain becomes aware of all that computed stuff, is the ‘hard’ problem.

I believe that the easy and the hard problems have gotten switched around. The sheer scale and complexity of the brain’s vast computations makes the easy problem monumentally hard to figure out. How the brain attributes the property of awareness to itself is, by contrast, much easier…

[continues at at Aeon]


Majestic is gadfly emeritus.

Latest posts by majestic (see all)

35 Comments on "How The Human Brain Creates Consciousness"

  1. “But everyone in the audience experiences an illusion of sentience
    emanating from his hairy head.”

    Quite apart from the elephant-sized assumptions in that sentence, a) how do you know it’s an illusion? and b) if they are illusions, how are these illusions generated? are illusions emergent properties too?

    Today is Obvious Question Friday.

    • Anthony Neilsen | Aug 26, 2013 at 1:42 pm |

      We can verify our ‘illusions’ by comparing them to those of others. Just so happens that most people perceive the same way we do! They see red as red and coffee smells like coffee! Too easy. OK, everyone can pack up and go home now, I’ve solved it for you.

  2. BADGERSMILK | Aug 23, 2013 at 9:27 am |

    Kind of vague. It is well known that Leary was experimenting with the 8-circuit model of consciousness in the early 70’s. “Lately, the problem of consciousness has begun to catch on in neuroscience. How does a brain generate consciousness?” is just rubbish. There are plenty of works around. What’s more, most experimental neuroscience studies are limited by what is legal. As Leary points out, most of these academic studies are forced into the underground, where due to context are claimed as invalid. The ones in the public eye are going to be limited and vague.

  3. BuzzCoastin | Aug 23, 2013 at 11:24 am |

    consciousness is a byproduct of awareness
    awareness is the essence of consciouness

  4. Sergio Poalsky | Aug 23, 2013 at 11:48 am |

    “Consciousness is the ‘hard problem’, the mystery that confounds science and philosophy. Has a new theory cracked it?”
    Cant believe they even tried to play that theory off as a possible solution to the hard problem. Essentially says conciousness is the brains model of attention… It leaves qualia completley unexplained.

  5. Ted Heistman | Aug 23, 2013 at 12:30 pm |

    Consciousness actually produces brains.

  6. Maybe he just needs to smoke more DMT. Then again, salvia also really brings home the impression that consciousness permeates reality entirely, when used right.

    It seems more likely to me that the brain both receives (or tunes into) and generates consciousness.

    • Anyone who wants to talk to us about consciousness and its possible origins, but hasn’t investigated psychedelics needs to just shut up. My days with Salvia convinced me of just how weird and misunderstood consciousness may really be.

      • I think it was Grof who said psychedelics for the study of consciousness was comparable to the microscope for biology and the telescope for astronomy..

        They’re never going to understand consciousness if they’re scared to use the keys that open up its doors.

        • ellis dee | Aug 24, 2013 at 8:53 pm |

          What terribly misguided statements. No amount of drugs can substitute for actual learning and experience in the real world. These guys have spent years studying the brain, in actuality. Not just through the use of mind altering substances. These guys are the ones who look at the brain and can tell you what is going on when you’re under the influence of such drugs. That is pretty exciting when you think about it. Many academics have also been advocates of such things. Just because they don’t subscribe to the new age or pseudo-scicnce paradigm doesn’t mean they don’t understand the brain or reality, quite the contrary. You think these guys need a trip? Maybe you should put down the bong and read a book.

          • Amacai Zerand | Aug 25, 2013 at 1:35 pm |

            While I appreciate your stance, I don’t believe consciousness can be studied in the “real world” or using conventional “reality”.

          • Anthony Neilsen | Aug 26, 2013 at 1:40 pm |

            If you think that all the answers lie in a test tube, then you are seriously delusional yourself.

          • I think perturbing consciousness is a logicalway to study it considering the angle that we might be swimming in it…probably helps to have some sober peoplein the mix though..

  7. I do find the “attention schema theory” unsatisfying. It seems to me Graziano is almost playing a semantic game, replacing “consciousness” with “attention” and then using the latter to explain away the former.

    I’m not convinced by either dualistic spiritual or monistic materialist models. It seems to me that if this universe has 11 (or so) dimensions, one of them is probably a dimension that consciousness exists in. Of the 4 we usually think of, time seems different than height, depth, or width, and I suspect the consciousness dimension is even more different. “Consciousness” is clearly an attribute that “matter” can have, and they affect each other, so I think they exist adjacently on a spectrum of existence.

    I also think consciousness is not an either/or attribute that humans have fully achieved yet.

  8. Hoarfraust | Aug 23, 2013 at 3:20 pm |

    I seriously doubt the brain generates consciousness any more than a television produces a movie, or an .mp3 file composes music.

  9. Meh….

    I have yet to see a satisfactory theory of consciousness.
    It’s a topic I’m massively interested in. I’ve read all the preeminent literature from Dennet’s “Consciousness Explained” to Hoffstander’s “I Am a Strange Loop.”
    All interesting books….but they always ALWAYS either skim over or dismiss the “hard problem.”

    You can explain how and why consciousness arises and does what it does till you’re blue in the face. But these people never so much as come close to bridging the gap to the actual first-person awareness of qualia itself.

    Ok…so consciousness is understandable as an evolutionary adaptation to this and that. Makes good sense. But….why should there be a “being” that is aware OF the contents of consciousness?

    That first person awareness simply is not NECESSARY for a being to do any of what it does. It would be like building a super computer that could do every single thing a human could do with 100% accuracy…..and then asking, “yeah, but is there an aware being that is aware of the computations themselves?”
    The person who built the computer would rightly say, “That simply wasn’t necessary. The computer functions perfectly without that.”

    Consciousness is so absurdly mysterious. Sometimes I honestly think the Buddhists and Taoists were right…that ALL of reality is a dream within a mind; that there are no actual “things” or “objects.” It’s all as ineffable and effervescent as any dream. That is honestly the only explanation that seems to make sense of an otherwise impossible mystery.

    EVERYTHING we every experience is within consciousness. Even if we use super advanced instruments to measure reality…those final outcomes are apprehended by a conscious mind…else they simply might as well not exist. Trying to explain the very thing that holds all of reality within it…may be impossible. What makes the problem harder is that consciousness, unlike EVERYTHING else in existence, isn’t actually a “thing” at all.

    It’s like the no-thing that balances out the some-thing of reality….a symmetrical balancing act on the fulcrum of Tao.

    Who knows….
    It sure is interesting though.

    • Anthony Neilsen | Aug 26, 2013 at 1:35 pm |

      “I have yet to see a satisfactory theory of consciousness.” Have you ever tried looking into the Bible? It has all the answers.

    • Anthony Neilsen | Aug 26, 2013 at 1:39 pm |

      “But….why should there be a “being” that is aware OF the contents of consciousness?”
      Exactly! How could a mechanistic, animalistic, materialist evolution ever bring about a consciousness. Answer: it couldn’t and it didn’t.

    • Yeah, I think the “observer effect” in physics sheds more light on the nature of consciousness than a mapping of neurology. My intuition is that nothingness and consciousness are intimately related or maybe even the same thing.

  10. DeepCough | Aug 24, 2013 at 10:31 pm |

    The most basic, measurable, quantifiable truth about consciousness is simply this: we humans can say that we have it..

    Ergo “consciousness” is word invented by a species of automated noisemakers.

  11. Anthony Neilsen | Aug 26, 2013 at 1:28 pm |

    The brain does not ‘generate consciousness’ it houses consciousness. Of course, scientists will never accept that because they (for the most part) don’t believe in God. They don’t believe man is a special creation, made in the image of God, and distinct from the animals. They refuse the supernatural and have their heads stuck up their materialistic, empirical butts. Science has become a dead end endeavor because of this. Woe be to scientists.

Comments are closed.