The Caricature of Consciousness

Photo by Charlemange Olivier

Long after Copernicus booted humans from the center of the universe, and Darwin reduced us to another twig on the tree of evolution, scientists are finally taking aim at the last vestige of human uniqueness—our consciousness.

This new perspective on consciousness rises out of an understanding of how the brain approximates physical phenomena with slightly incorrect models, as is the case with color and wavelength. Whenever you shop for clothing or watch a fireworks display, what you experience as color is actually an approximate (and slightly incorrect) model of real-world wavelength.

In the same way, says Michael S. A. Graziano, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton, and the author of Consciousness and the Social Brain, awareness is the brain’s approximation of attention, the ability of the brain to focus its resources on specific signals—a straightforward skill that could be programmed onto a computer chip.

According to the “attention schema” theory of consciousness put forth by Graziano and his colleagues at Princeton University, “awareness is not an illusion. It’s a caricature. Something — attention — really does exist, and awareness is a distorted accounting of it.”

But if awareness is so inaccurate, why would the brain waste precious resources on it? Graziano suggests two reasons: the brain needs this model of awareness in order to control attention properly; the model also helps the brain predict the behavior of other creatures by identifying where their attention lies (Is that lion looking at me? Is my mother paying attention to me?).

While this avenue of research takes aim at the veil covering our own minds, it is limited by Graziano’s definition of consciousness. While he says that awareness is a key component of most theories of consciousness, some would argue that consciousness extends beyond the way our brain focuses on certain signals, as can be seen during unconscious periods and near-death experiences.

In spite of that limitation, it may be time to shift how we think about consciousness, and let go of ideas meant to keep humans in the center of or at the top of the universe. As the real nature of consciousness becomes clearer, we may eventually experience another shift in our universal status—call it our expulsion from the Garden of Delusion.

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