Consciousness, Brain, and Spirit

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.

(cc) Allan Ajifo

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.


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2 thoughts on “Consciousness, Brain, and Spirit”

  1. We generalize experience into concepts and use language to share experience. For example, we say, “I walked through the woods and many of the green leaves had turned to red, yellow, or brown.” I presume a “schema” would be what normal people call a “concept”. But the idea of “green” is more than just an idea. People using different languages will understand the same walk in the woods when translated into their own language, because they too have taken a walk in the woods in the Fall season.

    The “greenness” of a leaf exists in the physical properties of the leaf that reflect light in a way that produces the perception of green in our eyes and mind. It is a real property of the leaf that we are perceiving. It is not an “illusion” that only exists in the mind, but rather something in the real world that we do in fact experience directly, or at least as directly as anything is experienced, and therefore as directly as “directly” can possibly mean. And it can be confirmed as objective truth by the witness of multiple observers.

    The same can be said of “thought”, “self”, and “free will”. These concepts describe experiences we confirm subjectively to ourselves but which are objectively confirmed by communicating with others and learning that their subjective experience is the same.

  2. Marvin, I just saw your thoughtful comment today and am sorry not to have replied sooner. I think Graziano would respond that a schema is not a concept or an idea in the way that, say, free will is a concept. It is more of a code or a pattern or shorthand or even a diagram—a useful simplification of something more complex. It seems to have been used early on as a technical term in philosophy and data processing, but these days, in psychology, children learning language are said to acquire a schema of what a horse consists of (size, four legs, mane) and adults have a mental schema of the usual sequence for entering and ordering food in a restaurant.

    A green leaf, for psychologists, reflects light to the eye which in turn responds by sending nerve signals to the brain which decodes the signals as referring to its stored schema of green. The green is not simply an illusion, there is a real leaf out there that changes colors, but our experience of green is the brain’s rendering of the light from the leaf. Others agree with us that the leaf is green because their brains work in the same way. It’s less a matter for Graziano of whether the leaf (or the self, etc.) is real or not than of how it is possible that we can have such a very full awareness of them. It seems to be a question of what the word that you use, “directly,” can mean in the moment-to-moment working of the brain.

    To me, Graziano’s theory may not be the final word in explaining consciousness, but I think that discovery will be something like it: a physical and chemical analysis of what we experience as the inner, free-wheeling stuff of our mental lives. Strange things.


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