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.



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.

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.



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.

What Is the “Nature” In Naturalism?

Religious or spiritual naturalism (I’ll use spiritual for both) is a subject dear to my heart. But sometimes I wonder about what exactly we have in mind when we use the word nature. In what I read and even in what I’ve written, the meaning of nature seems prone to being shifted or narrowed to suit the discussion. I bring up the topic with some trepidation because nature is at the core for groups I am happily part of. But maybe that’s a good reason to raise it.

Virtually everyone values nature in the form of the woods, the fields, the mountains and ocean, the animals, plants, the air and water around them. But if asked for a definition of nature, spiritual naturalists offer up a generally accepted definition that is much broader than any of this earthly scenery. Nature as spiritual naturalists conceive of it is all that would not be considered supernatural. Nature refers to the universe of materials and forces that we perceive with our senses and that scientists infer from their observations.

But the breadth of this definition may take us places we had not planned on going. We often reiterate, for example, that we humans are part of nature. But many people might be reluctant to include our cities, cars, computers, pollution and other human products as part of nature, even though all of these fall within the category of things in the universe.

Another complication in labeling the whole universe as nature is that this natural vastness possesses almost none of the characteristics that we often attribute to it. The light at sunset shines in various wavelengths, but without humans to admire those sunsets, they would not be so famously gorgeous. Similarly, while the universe may resemble organic life in its evolution and its cycles, the universe—nature in its totality— is not “alive” in our usual sense of the word. In short, apart from certain principles of physics, nature has no universal characteristics at all, no living qualities, no values.



Still, so many of us seek meaning and understanding from nature at large or from some piece of it. We take strength from our traditions of gratitude and reverence for the universe. In doing so we select from nature according to our spiritual needs. We value the land, sea, and sky for the transcendence they offer from our rough-and-tumble society (even though that society too is natural). And we cherish the cooperation and interconnection that we find in the cosmos and among living things—even though such collaboration is not always benign, for animals and humans often cooperate in order to prevail over others. We find in nature what we need and we set other parts of it aside.

Up into my middle age, I was intrigued by accounts of how the universe began and how it unfolded. But for the last couple of decades, that question has faded and others have moved to the foreground. These are questions related to reviewing my life, anticipating death, and trying to grasp the flow of daily life. Today, the universe story no longer raises the hair on the back of my neck. But the history of living things still does. I too have sliced nature my own way.

Loyal Rue has written, “Nature is enough.” I sometimes think that “nature is too much.” It is big, it is both unchanging and in constant transformation, and it is easy for us to read into it without realizing that we are doing so. Perhaps inevitably, we carry a double vision of nature. We need to hold in mind the totality of nature that is beyond easy description at the same time that we revere the portions of it that move us.



Spirituality and Evolution

My wrestling with various late-life questions that might be called “spiritual” has taken me to a fuller appreciation of evolution and our biological history. The sequence here, the process—or so it has seemed to me—is that I’ve been looking for answers and the result or goal has been a new appreciation of our past. Those who believe in traditional religions often describe a similar sequence: their search for meaning leads them to God. The pattern seems to be that the human impulse comes first, the connection with a spiritual something-larger follows.

But what if the sequence is actually the other way around, if the something-larger has been doing the prompting in some way, if what we experience as our search is the work of the “larger” force. This idea is quite common in Christianity. Christians often say, more or less, “I was looking for God, but of course it was God all the time who wanted me to find Him.”

Maybe a similar reversal makes some sense for naturalists who replace God with evolution and biological history. That is, perhaps it has been beneficial for our survival and reproductive success to be inclined towards thinking about such topics as how we got here, where we go when we die, what the essence of life is. Perhaps spiritual thinking has been adaptive.

One writer who has made this case is a commenter on this blog who goes by the name of Discovered Joys. He or she seems to be both a skeptic and a broad thinker. In a comment on a post, he describes how most of the inanimate,“stateless” processes that fill the universe take place without connection to the past; matter and energy do what they do without any “adjustments” to how those reactions have taken place in the past. However, a few “stateful” bits of matter—i. e., us—adjust our responses and processes according to memories of previous conditions. To make such adjustments successfully, it helps to have an understanding of how and why things come about as they do. Discovered Joys writes,

I think it likely that stateful organisms such as us are inclined (as a result of evolutionary processes) to be selected for building ‘narratives’, ‘rules of thumb’ etc. to improve our stateful responses. As a consequence we are conditioned to try and find meaning and purpose…. For me, the hunger for spiritualism (meaning and purpose) is an individual’s evolutionarily driven behaviour.

In other words, natural selection has fostered the rudiments of spirituality in us, the inclination to look deeply at how and why things have happened, because that tendency has been to our advantage for survival and reproduction.

A different connection is fleetingly suggested by a pair of sentences from a very different source. Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl Wudunn’s A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity (2014) is a must-read about the current reformation in our knowledge of how to help other people effectively.

At one point the authors are discussing the well-established fact that our helping others benefits our own health because it creates social ties. Then they add this: “Maybe this deep-rooted social element in all of us explains our yearning for a life of meaning. We wonder about our purpose: we care about our legacy” (17).

In other words, maybe what happens is not that we help others in order to find a life of meaning. Maybe it’s the other way around: we seek purpose and meaning in the first place because unconsciously it prompts us to get out and make the social ties that are good for us. Kristoff and WuDunn don’t say more than that, but the “deep-rootedness” of the human social drive that is so important to our well-being does suggest that any quality that contributes to it, including spirituality, would have an evolutionary benefit.

Such discussions about evolution-driven spirituality are certainly speculative. Finding out if they have any foothold in reality would require a large study of whether people with so-called spiritual characteristics, whatever those may be exactly, are more successful at survival and reproduction than a random sample of the population. For all we know, the data may show that spirituality makes no difference at all in achieving evolutionary success. It may even carry a disadvantage; moody thoughtfulness about life and purpose might turn out to be a handicap for people struggling against hard circumstances. Still, the fact that spirituality is engrained in so many of us, even in our DNA, begs the question of why it got there.