Rethinking Consciousness: A Scientific Theory of Subjective Experience

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W. W. Norton & Company, Sep 17, 2019 - Science - 256 pages

Neuroscientist and psychologist Michael S. A. Graziano puts forward a groundbreaking new theory on the origin of consciousness.

Focusing attention can help an animal find food or flee a predator. It also may have led to consciousness. Tracing evolution over millions of years, Michael S. A. Graziano uses examples from the natural world to show how neurons first allowed animals to develop simple forms of attention: taking in messages from the environment, prioritizing them, and responding as necessary.

Then some animals evolved covert attention—a roving mental focus that can take in information apart from where the senses are pointed, like hearing sirens at a distance or recalling a memory.

Graziano proposes that in order to monitor and control this specialized attention, the brain evolved a simplified model of it—a cartoonish self-description depicting an internal essence with a capacity for knowledge and experience. In other words, consciousness.

In this eye-opening work drawn from his and other scientists’ experiments, Graziano accessibly explores how this sense of an inner being led to empathy and formed us into social beings. The theory may point the way to engineers for building consciousness artificially, and even someday taking the natural consciousness of a person and uploading it into a machine for a digital afterlife. Graziano discusses what a future with artificial conscious might be like, including both advantages and risks, and what AI might mean for our evolutionary future.


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Rethinking Consciousness: A Scientific Theory of Subjective Experience

User Review  - Michael S a Graziano -

Graziano (The Spaces Between Us), a Princeton psychology and neuroscience professor, lays out a “promising theory of consciousness... that can apply equally to biological brains and artificial ... Read full review

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Clear v Cluttered: Towards Good Scientific Prose
Philosophers and scientists like to ask why – and then explain their reasoning. They both have a big picture
concerns, but still need step-by-step tools. For philosophers, logical steps are neatly ordered to yield systematic conclusions. For scientists, experimentation and documentation are necessary tools. Short-cuts in either field lead to disastrous, misleading, and confusing work. Sometimes we rely on familiar vocabulary, historical precedent, innovative theories, and just creative analysis. Sometimes, philosophical and scientific themes also overlap: what is consciousness, what is human action, what is a mind. Twenty-first century philosophy and scientific literature have both improved our understanding of living beings, ecologies, evolutionary connections. No longer stuck in a 17th and 18th dualistic universe, we now see embodied life; we connect brains and bodies; we see individuals within communities.
Nevertheless, four common prose problems seep into otherwise thoughtful and insightful writing. Clarity of expression, focus of reflection, and balanced argument are cornerstones of good scholarly prose. Avoiding a variety of problems makes a theory intellectually stimulating, critically inviting, and personally appealing. Even when science misleads us, we maintain confidence in scientific terms, methods, and conclusions. We are also often seduced by the new theory and mesmerized by fancy terms and supposedly new discoveries. Good prose can help overcome such detours.
These four prose issues are:
1. Excessive use of hypotheticals and suppositions
2. Popular jargon: misleading model for human experience
3. Subject-matter variability v specificity of topic
4. Conceptual framework creating limits
--Clear prose should not have to rely on vague transitions: what if, maybe, or it could be. Especially in scientific writing, such transitions do not link ideas. Rather, they create gaps in understanding.
--Clear prose should not rely on popular jargon. These are never appropriate as they create confusion. Computer terminology is particularly popular across disciplines. It is not helpful because human beings are not computers!
--Clear prose should very specifically define its topic of exposition. Too many subjects in one article or book divert attention. One specifically determined topic should guide the whole text. Cluttering of subject matter is confusing.
--Clear prose should also have a well-defined framework for analyzing its topic. A framework is a general pattern for reflective focus. Such a pattern needs to fit exploration of the subject, not diminish it.
In his new book, Rethinking Consciousness, by Michael S. Graziano, we can see these four prose problems as the author explains his views. An evolutionary psychologist, the author details of a range of life forms, showing their common physiological structures in what he calls the “attention schema theory” (AST). This theory provides a structural pattern for understanding a variety of living beings – including human beings. AST is built around an analysis of the nervous system from bacteria to jelly fish to the crab to the trilobite and eventually to the human nervous system. Ironically, it is the octopus which has the most interesting nervous system. The octopus, not the human being, does not exhibit behavioral patterns of other animals. Its sensory link to the world is engineered differently. While the octopus story is interesting, the prose of the book as a whole illustrates the four problems.
Problem #1: Vague transitions
The text is filled with these kinds of phrases:
“a plausible, rough estimate”
“may have been”
“merely” (comparing crabs and human beings)
“must have been”
“could be irrelevant”
These phrases have no scientific validity. They are guesswork interspersed among factual details and theory explanations. If nothing else, these phrases leave doubt regarding the strength of argument. The


Elephant in the Room
The Central Intelligence of a Frog
The Cerebral Cortex and Consciousness
Social Consciousness
Yoda and Darth How Can We Find Consciousness
The Hard Problem and Other Perspectives
Conscious Machines
Uploading Minds

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About the author (2019)

Michael S. A. Graziano is professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton University, where he teaches and heads a lab. The author of four previous neuroscience books, he has written for the Atlantic, the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and Aeon, and lives in Princeton, New Jersey. His hobbies include writing fiction, composing music, and ventriloquism.

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