The latest addition to the rapidly expanding literature is Michael Graziano’s Consciousness and the Social Brain. Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Princeton, as well as a novelist and composer, Graziano attempts to solve the central problems of consciousness within the orthodox mechanistic framework. But, unlike much of the literature produced by neuroscientists and their ilk, Graziano’s account is lucid and logical, with fascinating implications.
The traditional problem that has confronted attempts to explain consciousness in mechanist terms dates right back to Descartes. Descartes divided the world in two: the physical world of animals and rocks and the human body composed entirely of inert, lifeless matter; and the spiritual world, which included God, the angels and the human soul, or consciousness. The question of how the two interacted with each other was never addressed particularly convincingly, although Descartes did believe that such interaction took place in the pineal gland, a tiny organ in the centre of the brain, named after its pine-cone shape. This was, according to Descartes, ‘the principal seat of the soul’.
Descartes’ dualist theory has proved remarkably durable and still provides the critical framework for much discussion around consciousness today. The key issue now is that, with God no longer allowed in any self-respecting scientific theory, how is something as apparently non-material as consciousness explained within a worldview that permits the material as the only reality? The answer is: with great difficulty.
David Chalmers famously distinguished between the ‘easy’ problems of consciousness (such as explaining the ability to discriminate between different objects) and the ‘hard’ problem, which he phrases as the following question: ‘why does the feeling which accompanies awareness of sensory information exist at all?’ In 1991, Daniel Dennett attempted to do away with the ‘hard’ problem of consciousness altogether, arguing, in Consciousness Explained, that subjective, conscious experiences cannot and do not exist, and that even to discuss them is unscientific. Consciousness, for Dennett, is merely an illusion. ‘We’re all zombies,’ he says.
In opposition to Dennett, some have understood consciousness as a (largely functionless) by-product of physical brain activity – an epiphenomenon. Evidence for this seems to come from tests in which subjects can respond to a stimulus within 200 milliseconds, even though it takes up to half a second for this same stimulus to become part of the conscious experience. John Searle, meanwhile, has his cake and eats it, by arguing that consciousness is both a real, subjective experience and one that is caused by physical processes in the brain. ‘The mind,’ says Searle, ‘is a real part of the real world.’
In some ways, Graziano is doing something similar. His ‘attention schema theory‘ is summarised as follows: ‘awareness is a fictionalised sketch of attention.’ The brain, for Graziano, is simply an ‘information processing device’: information floods in from a variety of sources, and the brain chooses from amongst this competing information what requires its attention at any particular moment. It then constructs a simplified internal model of reality based on this information.
Graziano’s argument is that it was of evolutionary benefit for animals – and social animals in particular – to be able to comprehend the attention of other animals. In this way, as with any other information input, the brain constructs a simplified model of the attention of another. From here, it is only a short step for the brain to start constructing similar models about its own attention. And so consciousness arises as material information: ‘described by the brain, not produced by the brain’.
Like Searle, Graziano seeks to remove the so-called ‘hard’ problem by reconceiving consciousness as information, and therefore apparently explicable in materialist terms. He also seems to have succeeded in explaining both how consciousness occurs and how it then acts to influence decision-making. The theory benefits from a strong internal logic and a certain clarity of thought, although Graziano’s writing is thick with the kinds of technological terminology so beloved of contemporary neuroscience. He describes the brain repeatedly as an ‘information processing device’, or a ‘mechanistic computation’ – one which ‘scans’ its own ‘internal data’ in order to ‘conclude’ and ‘report’. But it’s never entirely clear what form this ‘information’ takes or in what form this ‘internal data’ might be stored. How literally are we meant to take all these metaphors?
More problematic perhaps is what gets left out, and Graziano skates disconcertingly quickly through some potentially significant difficulties. Let us take just one of these examples: the out-of-body experience (OBE). Consciousness and the Social Brain is admittedly a slim book, but of its 268 pages (including notes and index) just two are devoted to the phenomenon. Unsurprisingly, these are among the least convincing pages of the book.
Graziano begins his account of OBEs by associating them with something ‘wrong’ or ‘disrupted’: ‘in an out-of-body experience,’ he writes, ‘awareness is mislocalized to a place outside the body.’ He then proceeds to cite various studies in which the feeling of an OBE has been induced through electrical stimulus to the brain. From here, for the out-of-body experience elides into an ‘out-of-body illusion‘ and disappears from the discussion altogether.
Such dismissals are common in this kind of literature, but they’re also flawed. As out-of-body experience researcher Graham Nicholls has pointed out to me in the past, just because an out-of-body experience can be simulated, to conclude that all reported out-of-body experiences therefore are simulated, is a logical fallacy. Nicholls, whose books include Avenues of the Human Spirit and Navigating the Out-Of-Body Experience, has described numerous personal experiences that not only differ quite dramatically from accounts of lab-induced OBEs but also contain certain pieces of information that cannot be explained by the illusion theory. One that Nicholls details in Avenues involved seeing the list of the day’s specials outside a restaurant. A later waking visit found the sign exactly as he’d seen it in the OBE, ‘down to the colour of the paint and position in the street’. Neither remote viewing nor precognition, another phenomenon Nicholls has experienced, are addressed in Consciousness and the Social Brain.
Graziano concludes his all-too-brief section on OBEs by approvingly citing the work of Olaf Blanke and colleagues. Their findings, says Graziano, have ‘suggested that there is a primacy to constructing a body-centred understanding of oneself’. Towards the end of the book, Graziano returns fleetingly to the ‘out-of-body illusion’ in order to argue that ‘the fact that awareness ‘feels’ like it is in a specific location suggests that it is a computed model that included a computed spatial structure.’ Likewise, Henrik Ehrsson, for example – another researcher cited approvingly by Graziano – describes himself on his website as ‘interested in the problem of how we come to sense that we own our body’. At the top of every page is the following question: ‘why do we feel that our self is located inside the body?’
This is a telling question; one based on an assumption that underpins (and arguably undermines) much contemporary neuroscientific research. Before plunging headlong into a world of fMRI scans, genetic coding and neural substrate mapping, might it not be beneficial just to stop for a moment, and think: who is this ‘we’ that it is so blithely spoken of, and spoken for? By starting from an assumed shared understanding of ‘we’ and ‘I’, neuroscience seems to take for granted that such concepts are consistent across historical and cultural boundaries. But that seems unlikely.
As Dougald Hine argues in Dark Mountain Book 4, the present day understanding of the self as atomised individual might perhaps be understood less as an intrinsic property of self-identity than as a historically constructed consequence of various systems of thought – especially economics. In Hine’s discussion with Gustavo Esteva, the latter cites Catholic priest Raimon Panikkar’s assertion that we are ‘knots in nets of relations’: ‘behind this individual mask…what I find is an ‘I’ that is always a ‘we’. Because I am a collection of relations…’
Without getting sucked too far into a nature/nurture debate, if ideas around self-identity differ across cultural and historical boundaries, then surely this should be addressed prior to neuroscience’s universalising tendencies? But then, perhaps Graziano would understand his attention schema theory as itself participating in just such a network of relations. The strapline of Group Ehrsson, meanwhile, is ‘Brain, Body & Self Laboratory’, as if the phenomenon of identity will one day be explained entirely in terms of the physical properties of the brain and body. Problem solved.
But this still excludes what is termed parapsychology, dismissed as simply ‘Illusions and Myths’ in Graziano’s book. But there are many scientists who are not so dismissive. Cognitive neuroscientist Michael Persinger, for example, has published studies that seem to provide evidence for both telepathy and remote viewing. Another scientist exploring these areas is Rupert Sheldrake, who has risen to increasing prominence since the publication of The Science Delusion in which he critiques many of the hypocritical dogmas of mainstream materialist science. Sheldrake has published research into the sense of being stared at, dogs that know when their owners are coming home, and the feeling of knowing (without the help of caller ID) who it is that is phoning before you pick up the phone. Sheldrake has described such phenomena as ‘natural, not supernatural’ and claims that his theory of morphic resonance is able to explain how they might take place.
Morphic resonance posits that nature is habitual – that biological growth and behaviour are guided by patterns established through repetition over time. These patterns are governed by morphogenetic fields, which operate across time and space in a manner not dissimilar to electromagnetic or quantum fields and are comparable in some ways to the idea of the implicate order posited by theoretical physicist David Bohm. Scientists like Dean Radin and Brian Josephson have also posited the idea that consciousness might be extended through some kind of quantum entanglement.
How likely these theories are is open to question. But they do have the advantage over mainstream mechanism of providing potential explanations for the so-called ‘supernatural’such as, for example, extra-sensory perception. This is an interesting one, because even committed skeptic Richard Wiseman (a one-time musician and now Professor of Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire) has admitted that ‘by the standards of any other area of science [ESP] is proven’. But he still refuses to admit it. ‘Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence,’ is something of a mantra for materialist skeptics. But there’s a circularity at work here, whereby ‘extraordinary’ is defined as that which doesn’t fit into the mechanist worldview, and can therefore be dismissed as ‘illusion’ rather than experience, until such time as the weight of evidence is so great as to be unignorable – which, of course, is never.
On 6th November, Tom is chairing a panel discussion at Swedenborg Hall in Bloomsbury, London, entitled Consciousness Beyond the Individual. On the panel are out-of-body experience expert Graham Nicholls; science writer Anthony Peake; poet, philosopher and neuroscientist Raymond Tallis; philosopher Stephen Law; Editor of The Skeptic, Deborah Hyde; and neuroscientist Jane Aspell. Tickets are £10 and you can book here: http://wildculture-conscious.eventbrite.co.uk/