What is consciousness and how can a brain, a mere collection of neurons, create it? Michael Graziano, on the neuroscience faculty at Princeton University, is developing a theoretical and experimental approach to these questions. The theory begins with the ability to attribute awareness to others. The human brain has a complex circuitry that allows it to be socially intelligent. One function of this circuitry is to attribute a state of awareness to others: to build the intuition that person Y is aware of thing X. In Graziano's hypothesis, the machinery that attributes awareness to others also helps attribute the property to oneself. The theory also draws on the relationship between awareness and attention (the brain’s data-handling method of focusing resources on a limited set of signals). Awareness may act as though it were the brain’s cartoon sketch of its own state of attention. That cartoon sketch is sometimes inaccurate, and it is those moments of inaccuracy -- when awareness and attention become dissociated -- that reveal most about the underlying mechanisms. Through these perspectives Graziano hopes to understand awareness and consciousness as part of the information-processing toolkit used by brains. One possible ultimate benefit from this type of research, perhaps decades in the future, is an artificial intelligence that has the human-like social capability to attribute awareness to itself and to others – a machine that understands what it means to have a mind.
Read the American Psychological Association Interview.
More information about this research can be found on Michael Graziano's website.