A psychologist proposes that our consciousness is more mechanical and less mysterious than we think. But he argues as well that such a view of consciousness does not diminish the validity of our spiritual experiences.
In Consciousness and the Social Brain, Michael Graziano fully appreciates how much our consciousness, our awareness, means to us. He describes it as “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 of ourselves and the world. Many theories have suggested that the brain’s signals are “boosted, improved, maintained, or integrated” in some inexplicable way that creates our inner 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. The brain recognizes things because it makes simplified models of them (what the different colors look like, for instance), stores the models, and uses them to identify, remember, and imagine. These descriptive, models are called schema. “A schema is a coherent set of information that, in a simplified but useful way, represents something more complex. In the present theory, awareness is an attention schema. It is not attention but rather a simplified, useful description of attention” (377). Attention and awareness are the important pair here. Attention is an actual, physical activity; it “lights up” sections of the brain in ways we can take pictures of. The attention schema is a simplified model of it. When the brain activates that model, we call it awareness. The attention model (= our sense of awareness) is information that gets attached to every perception we are conscious of.
So here is Graziano’s proposal in a nutshell:
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 and think about it. (We can say, “the green on this leaf is beautiful.”) The key word is description. Strange as it may seem, we are not experiencing green directly, according to Graziano. We are experiencing the brain’s combination of two its descriptions, of greenness and of conscious attention.
This attention schema chunk comes with a GPS marker. “Awareness comes with a computed spatial arrangement” (1022). The actual process of attention takes place in a complicated network of neurons throughout the brain. But the attention schema simplifies that network down to a feeling that seems to float inside our head.
Or inside someone else’s head. Much of our daily mental energy goes into being aware of what other people might be thinking, feeling, planning, saying. Graziano says that this crucial social function of our brain consists of the same process of awareness as our experience of green except that instead of locating attention in us, the brain locates it in someone we know.
Or in our cat, in a tree, in storms, or in a god. Or floating above our body when our brain is compromised and we are in surgery. And Graziano, who describes himself as a “passable” ventriloquist, notes how readily an audience will locate awareness and attention in a wooden dummy.
For me, Graziano’s theory seems successful as an explanation of awareness and is certainly clearly explained. But an added pleasure in the book is his appreciation of spirituality and his polite critique of the many scientists who dismiss it. Spirituality 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)
Such a physical, materialist analysis of consciousness is bound to upset many people. It will seem deflating, insulting, too contrary to experience. But that is also how many people reacted to the shocking idea that humans are only one of the many creatures on an evolutionary tree and to the proposal that our planet circles the sun instead of the other way around. Successful scientific explanations may take us down a peg from our flattering view of ourselves, but they do not actually diminish us. For no matter how much science can explain, the reality remains that we must all grapple with being part of something larger and figure out how to live our lives within it.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.