October 12, 2014

Consciousness is a cartoonish illusion

We love to see ourselves as conscious creatures -- and I use the word "love" advisedly. If you tell someone that consciousness is merely an illusion, there's a good chance you'll terrify the person. "Abandon the idea that there is a me inside my body!? Perish the thought!" In a sense, fear is a natural reaction to this news because the concepts of consciousness and self are neatly woven together. It seems you can't have one without the other. So if consciousness isn't what we think it is, does the notion of "self" also implode?

Evidence points to a new understanding of the experience of consciousness than the one presented to us by our all too fallible brains. In a NYT article titled "Are We Really Conscious?", Michael Graziano questions whether we're way, way off in our estimation of what consciousness is. And that leads naturally to a second question: what is this thing that I call "me"?

We believe that we're conscious. "Why, it's self-evident!" we cry. "After all, we have perceptions that only a conscious being could entertain. We're special, doncha know." Well, here's the short version: hahaha. It just ain't true. We are not what we think we are. Having read a few books by Daniel Dennett (whose books are mentioned in the article), I'm ready to accept this concept and its implications. But what is the real explanation of the phenomenon we call consciousness? Graziano provides a few hints.

Here he is, referring to the fact that the color white isn't really white, for every color exists within what we call "white". It's why light can be fractured into bands of color with a prism. Here's Graziano:
Take again the case of color and wavelength. Wavelength is a real, physical phenomenon; color is the brain’s approximate, slightly incorrect model of it. In the attention schema theory, attention is the physical phenomenon and awareness is the brain’s approximate, slightly incorrect model of it. In neuroscience, attention is a process of enhancing some signals at the expense of others. It’s a way of focusing resources. Attention: a real, mechanistic phenomenon that can be programmed into a computer chip. Awareness: a cartoonish reconstruction of attention that is as physically inaccurate as the brain’s internal model of color.

In this theory, awareness is not an illusion. It’s a caricature. Something — attention — really does exist, and awareness is a distorted accounting of it.
I know the first time you encounter this idea, it's like someone pulled the rug out from under you. See, I love when that happens. So I adore this idea. Ever since reading about consciousness in Dan Dennett's books, I've been watching my brain to see what it does and how it does it -- and I've caught it engaging in some shady activities. I truly believe that consciousness is an illusion, an approximation of something going on in the brain. It's a nice illusion, mind you. And on the level where we live, there is no reason to change anything. Our lives are still our lives. Nothing has changed except possibly our understanding of ourselves. And progress in that area is always good news.

Read the whole article for an expanded version of this idea (and then start reading Dennett's books). And then, my friends, you can toss your former understanding of consciousness in the trash. Fun, huh? Just something to think about on your Sunday morning. Here's hoping you didn't go to mass. Enjoy your day!

No comments: