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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Consciousness Is Not Mysterious by Michael Graziano.

Photo: Michael Graziano
"It’s just the brain describing itself—to itself." summarizes Michael Graziano, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton University.  
Photo: The Atlantic 

When Isaac Newton was 17 years old, he performed a series of experiments with prisms and light beams. Within weeks he discovered the scientific explanation for color, invented the reflecting telescope, proposed the particle theory of light, and deduced that the human eye contained three receptor types corresponding to the three primary colors. Not bad for a teen.

Newton’s insights were not easily accepted. At the time, the prevailing theory of color was metaphysical. White light was thought to be pure, heavenly, and scrubbed of all contaminants, whereas colored light was contaminated by the worldly surfaces it touched. To scholars, the exact process by which white light became dirtied was a philosophical hard problem worthy of debate.

We now know why that hard problem was so darn hard. The brain processes the world in a simplified and inaccurate manner, and those inaccuracies gave people the wrong idea about color. Deep in the visual system, the brain reconstructs information about light. In that simplified code, white corresponds to the color channels registering zero and the brightness channel cranked up high. Pure luminance without color is a physical impossibility, because white light is a mixture of all colors. The pre-Newtonian problem of color was hard because it had no possible solution.

Why would the brain evolve such an inaccurate, simplified model of the world? The reason is efficiency. The brain didn’t evolve to get all the scientific details right. That would be a waste of energy and computing time. Instead, it evolved to process information about the world just well enough, and quickly enough, to guide behavior. All the brain’s internal models are simplified caricatures of the world it models. Arguably, science is the gradual process by which the cognitive parts of our brains discover the profound inaccuracies in our deeper, evolutionarily built-in models of the world.

The hard problem of our own time is the mystery of consciousness. Let me be precise about what I mean by consciousness. These days it’s not hard to understand how the brain can process information about the world, how it can store and recall memories, how it can construct self knowledge including even very complex self knowledge about one’s personhood and mortality. That’s the content of consciousness, and it’s no longer a fundamental mystery. It’s information, and we know how to build computers that process information. What’s mysterious is how we get to be conscious of all that content. How do we get the inner feeling? And what is that inner feeling anyway?

It’s been called awareness, phenomenology, qualia, experience. It seems non-physical, ethereal, more like an energy than a substance, by definition private and therefore not objectively testable. And the fact that it seems like anything at all is the thing itself—the seeming.
Read more... 

Additional resources

Consciousness and the Social Brain
Consciousness and the Social Brain

Amazon writes, "What is consciousness and how can a brain, a mere collection of neurons, create it? In Consciousness and the Social Brain, Princeton neuroscientist Michael Graziano lays out an audacious new theory to account for the deepest mystery of them all." 

Source: The Atlantic