31 of 37 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
I'm a neuroscientific-book addict. I've read lots of them. Graziano's book is the best one I've come across. Clearest. Best-written. Most convincing.
Over and over, I found myself saying "yes, yes, yes." Yet not, as Graziano notes in several places, without some disturbing underlying feelings behind those "yes's." His theory that awareness is information concerning a sketch of the brain's attention processes goes against our subjective intuition that consciousness is, if not other-worldly, something mysterious -- the well-known Hard Problem.
Well, maybe. But this book persuasively argues that the problem is simpler than it appears. Philosophers, mystics, scientists, and others have assumed that consciousness has certain characteristics, then they try to explain how those characteristics come to be. I find Graziano's approach refreshingly creative and out-of-the box.
Awareness is information. So is consciousness. The information available to awareness does not contain all of the neurological facts, as these are unnecessary for effective functioning in everyday life.
Here's one of my favorite quotes: "Consciousness is composed of information that says, in effect, 'This information is not information'...The brain has constructed a model of something, a picture painted in the medium of information. The model is not terribly accurate."
Brilliant. A word I kept saying about Graziano as I read his book.
Again, I've read many books dealing with consciousness and how the brain works. Usually I get to the last page feeling like I've been exposed to a lot of facts, most of which I'll quickly forget, but few insights into how seemingly immaterial consciousness/awareness relates to physical goings-on in the brain.
In contrast, "Consciousness and the Social Brain" left me feeling like a window had been opened on a whole new way of looking upon myself, other people, and reality as a whole. There are still curtains over that window. Graziano's theory isn't close to being universally, or even widely, accepted. But personally, I have no problem with the book's contention that I have as much consciousness as a puppet does. (Read the book to learn why this is true.)
Or, as God does. I much appreciated the next to last chapter, "Some Spiritual Matters." Graziano holds a view of religion and spirituality that makes excellent sense. He accepts two simultaneous truths:
"One, literally and objectively, there is no spirit world. Minds do not float independently of bodies and brains. Two, perceptually, there is a spirit world. We live in a perceptual world, a world simulated by the brain, in which consciousness inhabits many things around us, including sometimes empty space."
17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
Steven H. Clason
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
Graziano, a Psychologist and Neuroscientist at Princeton, here carefully and methodically lays out his argument that consciousness, rather than being an epiphenomenon, an emergent phenomenon or some ethereal, immaterial thing, is instead a straightforward (though complex) brain function.
His theory is easily summarized -- he does it himself 8 pages in (total spoiler, gives the whole story away):
"The brain does two things that are of particular importance to the present theory. First, the brain uses a method that most neuroscientists call attention. Lacking the resources to processes everything at the same time, the brain focuses its processing on a very few items at any one time. Attention is a data-handling trick for deeply processing some information at the expense of most information. Second, the brain uses internal data to construct simplified, schematic models of objects and events in the world. Those models can be used to make predictions, try out simulations, and plan actions. What happens when the brain inevitably combines those two talents? In the theory outlined in this book, awareness is the brain's simplified, schematic model of the complicated, data-handling process of attention."
The rest of the book explains and supports this theory in great detail. He doesn't evade obviously controversial issues, like where religion and spirituality fit in to this scheme or whether or not other creatures possess consciousness, and he places the development of consciousness as an adaptive feature of human evolution, important for our development into a deeply social animal, and now important for additional reasons.
Graziano's frequent repetition of the fundamental ideas might put some people off, but, not being anything like an expert on the subject matter I found that the frequent guideposts prevented my getting lost in unfamiliar intellectual terrain.
I haven't a clue about the scientific value of his claims, but I recommend the book for its fresh approach to the "problem" of consciousness and for the care and grace with which the author makes his case.
In the Kindle version, you should be warned, some footnotes are difficult to access because the author often cites supporting documents in bulk, like "[15-18]" referring to footnote numbers 15 though 18. Numbers 16 and 17 would be hard to read, in this case.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
"Consciousness Explained" might have been a more accurate title for this book, but it was already taken.
Author Michael Graziano's previous research in neuroscience is on the body schema and the motor cortex, which makes him an unlikely candidate for cracking open a new perspective on the hard nut of consciousness. But just as the motor cortex controls and directs our movements, there's the sense that consciousness controls and directs our thoughts.
The theory in brief: Attention itself is our automatic ability to focus on one or two aspects of our environment at a time so that our cognitive capacity is not overloaded by trying to focus on everything around us at once. To be able to control something, in this case what we mentally are attending to at any moment, we need a representation of that thing. As our mental representation of our body helps us control our body movements, our mental representation of our attention helps us control our attention. What we pay attention to is crucial for not only carrying out simple tasks but also for high-level and long-term planning. So we need some kind of mechanism for controlling our attention in order to carry out complex tasks in a complex world. And voila, the representation of attention facilitates this control and is what we experience as consciousness.
The theory isn't complicated, but it is rather abstract. Reading summaries or reviews of it will probably not make it seem convincing or even immediately comprehensible, but the book lays out all of the parts and shows how they fit together to create a coherent mechanism that we call consciousness. After the basic ideas are grasped, the theory is quite simple, as all good and far-reaching scientific theories are.
A major strength of the book is how Graziano places his ideas in the context of other contending theories. While his framework for explaining consciousness is novel, his theory incorporates many of the insights of existing rival theories, like the integrated information hypothesis and various social theories of consciousness. The integrated info hypothesis makes sense in light of how when we attend to an object, our representation of that object appears to be integrated; its shape, color, texture, and location are not separate but tied together in our consciousness. Social theories of consciousness focus on how our consciousness is bound up with the stories we insert ourselves into in order to make sense of our relations with other people and our physical environment. But while both of those theories on their own seem to only each account for partial aspects of how we experience and study consciousness, Graziano's account integrates them so that they plug each other's theoretical gaps.
Graziano discusses the neuroscience of the theory, including how and which brain areas are involved. He also examines the philosophical questions at stake, like those relating to free will and qualia, aka the sensation of 'being' conscious. Perhaps the highest praise for this part of the book is that two of the most prominent philosophers of consciousness, Patricia Churchland and Dan Dennett, have come out in support of Graziano's theory.
If there was one bone that got stuck in my chops, it would be that the main terms themselves can mean so many different things that occasional passages seemed ambiguous in the broad theoretical sketch contained in the early chapters. However, in the middle of the book he defines his terms more fully and the ambiguity disappears. One wonders whether those fuller definitions could have come earlier or if they were necessarily postponed for the sake of giving an initial big-picture view.
Consciousness is something many have strong intuitions about because of its centrality to our experience as experience--a property that seems to not merely belong to us but to define us. This book is for those, not everyone, who are curious about consciousness as a phenomena that is in principle susceptible to philosophical and neuroscientific understanding.
19 of 25 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
As a Graduate student in Neuroscience, usually, when I hear people begin expounding on their theories of consciousness, I swear to God, I reach for my gun.
There are two traps that people tend to fall into: for thinkers like Tononi, Koch, or Penrose and others, the trap is that rather than actually explain consciousness, they are happy to attribute it to something equally mind-blowing and decidedly non-explanatory, the magic = magic fallacy. Take your pick, consciousness emerges from "information integration" or quantum mechanics, or something equally opaque and indecipherable. Identifying an obscure foundation for something already mysterious only replaces one mystery for another and ultimately fails to explain either. They are incoherent and unprincipled.
At the other end of the spectrum are social neuroscientists who examine attribution, attention, and theory of mind, but often fail to account for the rich phenomenological components of conscious awareness, Chalmers would argue that they are tackling the "easy problems" of consciousness.
Mike Graziano's book is something new. It is something different. It is extraordinary and eye-opening. It is the best written, most convincing and clearest book I have ever read on the subject.
Graziano's ideas succeed in delineating a clear and parsimonious account of consciousness where so many other ideas fall short.
The literature lacks testable ideas and functional claims about consciousness, like biology before the innovation of evolution. Graziano begins by delineating what a theory of conscious must account for and proposes a novel mechanism which explains both the phenomenological and social components of consciousness (and it is a doozey!). Like Darwin's idea, Graziano's theory accounts for so much complexity with an idea that feels so obvious, if only in retrospect, that it is almost brilliant.
I'm not going to give away the spoilers, because I think this is one of the most important theories in decades on this subject and if you are interested in the topic, you are hereby commanded to put this book at the top of your reading list. In ten years, I believe that his approach to studying this topic will prove decisive and the field will take these ideas for granted.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Michael S. A. Graziano, Consciousness and the Social Brain (Oxford University Press 2014)
There are two major problems in understanding consciousness. The first is: how do we account for the qualia of consciousness---the sensation of seeing a sunset, feeling pain, hearing a symphony or a bird call. This is often called the hard problem. The second is accounting for the brain mechanisms that are responsible for being conscious. This is often called the easy problem. Of course, the easy problem is extremely difficult; it is just easy compared to the hard problem.
If you are concerned with the hard problem, this is not the book for you. Indeed, I know of no scientific treatment of the problem of accounting for qualia. If you do, dear reader, please inform the rest of us. I know of no plausible philosophical treatment either, but I am not very interested in philosophical treatments.
If you are interest in the easy problem, this book has a lot to offer. I am generally uneasy about neuroscientists who watch the brain light up and then try to tell us the nature of the human spirit. They remind me of actors who play TV doctors, to whom many fans turn for medical advice. But this book is extremely judicious and informative. Indeed, the book is rare in that it gets more interesting as you move into later chapters. So don’t despair if you find the first few chapters less than satisfying.
Graziano identifies consciousness with awareness. He begins with the notion of attention. The mind, inundated with much more sensory information that it can handle, must select out at any point in time a small subset of signals to process intensively. This is attention. He then identifies awareness with a reconstructed model of attention in others and in oneself. The basic question is: why do we need a model of attention at all? What is consciousness for?
Graziano argues that attention plus low-level cognitive processing (I suppose he means the stimulus-response and operant conditioning so loved by behavioral psychologists) are sufficient for many purposes and do not require awareness. But there is often a huge fitness gain to an organism that can decipher the nature of it environment more subtly.
For instance (my example, not the author’s), take the awareness of pain. Basic behavioral psychology explains why a brain might register pain and learn to avoid conditions that give rise to pain. But consider preparing food with a sharp knife. The first time you cut yourself, your behavioral brain might instruct you to keep away from knives, but it cannot do more than that. But suppose we have brains equipped with expert systems that make high level models of the networks of complex causality involved in cooking a meal. Suppose that when we cut our finger while chopping, our attention turns to this expert system and we become aware of the multiple possibilities for adjusting our behavior so as to reduce the probability of cutting our fingers in the future. No system of operant condition could handle this adjustment process, but if we focus our attention on this expert system (i.e., if we become conscious of being in pain), then we might be able to work out a superior coping mechanism. This, for Graziano, is the essence of consciousness.
I find this a very compelling analysis. Of course, it does not explain the qualia of feeling pain, but that is a bit too much to ask. Moreover, it is a purely functional explanation. It does not tell you at all what brain processes are involved. Graziano does talk about the regions of the brain in which the mechanisms producing consciousness are located, but this is extremely poorly known.
This book might be supplemented by another the tracks the biological roots of consciousness. We know that members of some non-human species are conscious, including probably many birds, most mammals, and all primates. But I know of no study that attempts to explain the evolutionary process of the emergence of consciousness in animals. Perhaps some erudite reader can help me here. Of course some will say that we can’t know that an animal is conscious. True, but I can’t know you are conscious, either. We can however, list some behavioral and physiological conditions that appear to be associated with awareness of the environment and high-level problem solving. The biological roots of these conditions would be nice to know in some detail.