Upcoming seminar by Michael Graziano (Princeton University): "Understanding Consciousness: The Possible Origins of the Belief in a Mental Substance"


Thursday, 26 March, 2020 - 11:00

Title: Understanding Consciousness: The Possible Origins of the Belief in a Mental Substance

Speaker: Michael S. A. Graziano (Princeton University)


Some aspects of consciousness are scientifically approachable, such as memory, decision-making, or attention. Some aspects are more mystical – the magic, non-physical, mind-essence that people often believe they possess. In my lab, we study how, and for what cognitive use, the brain builds physically incoherent self-models that can lead to intuitions of a magical mind. In one series of experiments, we found that, as a part of the basic toolkit for social cognition, people build an automatic, implicit model of the visual attention of others. That model, however, is schematic, depicting attention as an invisible mind substance that can emanate from an agent and flow toward the object of attention. The presence of that model can be measured by how it subtly affects people's perception of motion. It can also be observed in brain imaging data, in the interaction between visual motion areas and social cognition areas. All people apparently implicitly construct this quick-and-dirty model of the attention of others. We suggest that such built-in models of mind, which may have evolved for fast and efficient social computation, form the basis of the common intuitions about a magical, non-physical consciousness. In this perspective, understanding consciousness may not be a matter of explaining how the brain generates a non-physical product, a hard problem at which so many scholars have failed. It may also not be a matter of dismissing or trivializing consciousness as an illusion. It may instead be a matter of understanding how the brain evolved to construct useful, automatic, simplified models to monitor and predict itself and its social world.