Michael Graziano on How the Brain Creates Consciousness and Spirituality

Psychologist Michael Graziano proposes that our consciousness is more mechanical and less mysterious than we think. But he argues as well that this theory does not diminish the validity of our spiritual experiences.

Graziano, in Consciousness and the Social Brain, fully appreciates what our consciousness, our awareness, means to us. It is “the spark that make us us. Something lovely apparently buried inside us is aware of ourselves and of our world” (Kindle location 66). And many of us believe this lovely spark to be our spirit, even our soul.

 (langmaidpractice.com)

(langmaidpractice.com)

But how does it work? Despite all that neuroscientists know about the brain, what remains elusive is how it goes about giving us the experience of being aware, awake, taking it all in. Theories suggest that the brain’s signals are “boosted, improved, maintained, or integrated” in some way that creates the sensation of awareness. But they don’t say how.

Graziano’s explanation is not really complicated, but it is so different from our everyday experience that it helps to understand first the main concept that it is built on, one that is well-established in neuroscience. This concept is that the brain recognizes things because it makes simplified models of them, shorthand versions that are similar to codes or diagrams. Examples of these schema include the formula a child’s brain will store away for identifying a dog (four legs, fur, friendly) and the sequence that adults know for entering a restaurant and ordering food. The brain stores such schemas and uses them to identify and even to imagine.

Schema theory is popular in early education. (4.bp.blogspot.com)

Schema theory applied in early education.
(4.bp.blogspot.com)

The twist that Graziano adds to the schema idea is that our consciousness itself is a schema, the brain’s shorthand version of the act of paying attention. “In the present theory, awareness is an attention schema. It is not attention but rather a simplified, useful description of attention” (377). As for attention itself, it is an actual, physical activity; it “lights up” sections of the brain in ways we can take pictures of. The attention schema, on the other hand, is a simplified model of that activity as it is stored by the brain.

Here is Graziano’s proposal in a nutshell. Take the example of a moment when we look at the bright green of spring and think, perhaps wordlessly, wow, what a bright, lovely green.

Suppose that you are looking at a green object and have a conscious experience of greenness. In the view that I am suggesting, the brain contains a chunk of information that describes the state of experiencing, and it contains a chunk of information that describes spectral green. Those two chunks are bound together. In that way, the brain computes a larger, composite description of experiencing green. (317)

Once that description is in place, other parts of our brain can verbalize it. We can say, “The green on this leaf is beautiful.” We are not experiencing green directly; a “color” is physically only electric and magnetic waves. We are experiencing the brain’s combination of two of its descriptions, the schema of greenness and of conscious attention.

Such a view has prompted me to experience my own conscious awareness a little differently. I think it is like a camera that clicks twice every time it takes a picture. One click is the picture of the object in front of it, the second click is the camera recording that it took a picture. When I think to myself, like the man in the cartoon above, “I’m standing here” or some other self-aware thought, there is a click of noticing what’s around me and a click of noticing my noticing.

Graziano adds that the attention schema comes with a GPS marker. The GPS usually locates the attention experience as “inside our head.”

But often it locates awareness inside someone else’s head, when we are imaging what other people might be thinking, saying, planning.

Or it might locate awareness in our dog, in thunderstorms, in luck, or in a god. Or floating above our body when our brain is compromised during surgery and we have a near-death experience. And Graziano,  a “passable” ventriloquist, notes how readily an audience will locate awareness and attention in a wooden dummy.

Finally, one might expect a prominent psychologist such as Graziano to take a dim view of religious and superstitious beliefs. But in fact he eloquently embraces spirituality in particular. It is, after all, a matter of consciousness.

(bespirituality.com)

(bespirituality.com)

To me personally, the most reasonable approach to spirituality is to accept 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….The perceptual world and the objective world do not always match. We sometimes must live with both sets of knowledge. Neither side can be ignored. (2946)

In the present hypothesis, people intuitively understand consciousness to be spirit-like because the information representation in the brain encodes it in that manner. [The spirit concept,] the diaphanous invisible stuff that thinks and perceives and flows plasma-like through space and time,… that normally inhabits the human body but can sometimes flow outside of it, and that therefore ought to be able to survive the death of the body—this myth so ubiquitous in human culture is not a mistaken belief, a naïve theory, or the result of superstitious ignorance, as many scientists would claim. It is instead a verbalization of a naturally occurring informational model in the human brain. (1154)

For me, Graziano’s work affirms the spiritual value I find in the presence and the history of living things. This is not only because of his acceptance, just described, of people’s spiritual awareness. It is also because his analysis of consciousness helps me to see it as the work of natural selection. I see human consciousness as a unique elaboration of the capacities for perception and memory that are found in simpler forms in the brains of other and earlier animals.

Meditation and Animal Consciousness

I’ve been meditating more regularly for the last couple of months—about 20 minutes once or twice a day. I’m still very much a novice but the experience is vivid and calming. I’ve been thinking about how it may be showing me a piece of the history of my consciousness.

I’m gradually finding it easier to stay tuned to my breathing and lengthen the quiet spaces between the word streams that seep through my head. I think those quiet moments take me briefly to a state that has elements in common with the consciousness of animals. Of course we can’t know much about what goes through the heads of a crocodile or a horse or what nuances of emotions they may feel. But we can be fairly sure that animals experience their sensory world without the complications and distractions of language and the social web that language is anchored in. I think meditation has about it a kind of withdrawal from mental complexity that takes us back to a small portion of the calm and direct sensory life of animal consciousness.

buddhaweekly.com

buddhaweekly.com

But in my meditative 20 minutes, this peaceful withdrawal doesn’t last long and soon the words come banging at the door again. No matter how earnestly but gently I try to float them away, they return like a too-friendly dog that refuses to be pushed off. This fervent activity is what our brains are good at. Even when they are idling with no particular task at hand, they crank away, replaying bits of yesterday, rehearsing bits of tomorrow. That’s how our minds protect us, that’s why they evolved: to anticipate the future on the basis of the past.

I have the image of two lines running through me, two orientations in time and place. One runs through me from back to front, from past to future. This is the calculating cognition of language and our intense social lives; we are almost always, in our heads, thinking about and talking to people. The other line runs through me sideways, in the here and now, the wordless, calm mindfulness of meditation (or any other concentrated task such as playing music). With more practice, I find this orientation growing a little more available even when I am not meditating. I can take a minute to focus on myself, relax my body, turn down the volume in my head. I think of this orientation as an outrigger, extending sideways to the immediate world, stabilizing me, with little fuss about where I’m heading.

The sages like to warn us that our imagination is too good at just the kind of of theorizing and imaging that these paragraphs are about, creating a lovely picture that distracts us from the solid realities. Still, I think about the history of consciousness that runs to us and through us. I’m moved by the notion that meditation taps into some of the serenity of animals to give us relief from the word-maker-wonder-maker-trouble-maker of our cognition.

The Purpose Problem

Years ago I heard about a book on the purpose-driven life. I rushed to a bookstore (ah, bookstores), only to find that it was mostly about God. But I realized then that I had uncertainties that had snuck up on me about my life’s purpose . Now, years later, I’m thinking that life is indeed purpose-driven but not at all in Rick Warren’s terms.

But let me back up and summarize some basic ideas about purpose.

A traditional view has been that things happen in order to achieve a final goal, a goal often involving God. Today we often think about goals on the more modest scale of strategic plans and personal targets. And yet the idea that everything is part of a grand plan remains very comforting. People seem calmer about bad news after saying that “everything happens for a reason.”

Over the last century, this traditional view has been largely dismantled. Things in nature and life happen for reasons—physical, social, psychological—that are rooted in the past and present more than in the future. A woman who is looking for a job might say that her purpose for doing so is to earn money so her young children will be able to go to college some day. The traditional analysis of her actions would be that she is “pulled along” through her job search by the final goal of college for her kids. But her friends today might tell you that while that distant goal may boost her spirits from time to time, her actions are more the result of her history, her personality, and her current debts.

god and purpose statement

People take comfort from viewing the world, including themselves, as full of purpose. (heartprintsofgod.com)

Now the pendulum is swinging again and a different perspective about purpose is getting attention. This is the observation that certain ordinary actions are indeed clearly purposeful. If you’re getting hungry and planning your dinner, your planning is purposeful. Maybe you need to drive to Subway to buy that sandwich; the drive is purposeful. Once you’ve eaten the sandwich, your digestive system will take up its own purposeful process. It turns out that most of what you and your body parts do—your stomach, your heart, your sleeping, your socializing—is purposeful in that it accomplishes some basic biological function or meets a biological need.

In other words, human organs and behaviors did not come into existence for a purpose but came into existence because they served a purpose. There is very little in us that is not purposeful in terms of functioning to keep us alive. 

Evolution of the heart

The heart evolved not for a purpose but because it served a purpose. (antibodyreview.com)

So back to the big question about the purpose-driven life. Are the purpose-serving activities of the organs that keep us alive related to that Purpose with a capital P that we look for in our  life as a whole? Do these biological functions and behaviors with their specific purposes make up part of  what we can think of as “the purpose of life”?

I think so. I think it would be surprising if they didn’t. We may each frame our Purpose in a different future-oriented way—to live happily, to be creative, to find peace, to achieve success. But each vision of a direction seems to me to be the work of our brain as it extends and embellishes the biological functionality that keeps us alive. We are indeed purpose-driven.

 

 

Note: A useful source has been a paper by Nathan Bourne, “Teleology as Evolutionary Etiology: An analysis of teleological explanations of biological phenomena,” at http://www.sewanee.edu/philosophy/Capstone/2011/bourne.pdf. Bourne draws on the work of Larry Wright, especially his book Teleological Explanations: An Etiological Analysis of Goals and Functions, UCal Press, 1976.