The Construction of Awareness and Modeling of Minds

Consciousness and the Social BrainIs there a substantial difference between your ability to recognize someone else awareness and point of focus and that of our own attention? While it is clear we have greater insight into our own behavior, desires and thoughts, Michael Graziano suspects that the cognitive machinery remains the same. In Consciousness and the Social Brain, Graziano suggest that the role of this machinery is simply to model the mind of ourselves and of others.

“You may understand someone else’s intellectual point of view by activating a version of that point of view in your own brain. You may understand other minds in general by simulating them using the same machinery within your own brain. The entire brain may be a simulator of other brains.”

Rather than simply having more access into our own mind, our simulation is unique in that it can alter our mind, leading to a feedback loop.

“In constructing a model of someone else’s mind, there is no direct mechanism for that model to alter the other person’s mind. The loop is open, not closed. There is no resonance. But in constructing a model of your own mind, the model alters the thing that it depicts. The model is both a perceptual representation and an executive controller. It is a description and an actor.”

What purpose does this ability serve?

“If you can better predict that person’s behavior, then you can choose your actions more effectively, survive more effectively, and pass on genes more effectively. Likewise, if you understand your own attentional state, you can better predict and guide your own behavior. Awareness has an evolutionary advantage. It has a use.”

But like many human capacities the modeling of attention and awareness can go awry.

“Suppose you attribute awareness to a puppet, or a tree, or an imagined ghost. In that case, the awareness is misapplied. If awareness is a model of attention, and attention is a property of a brain, then attributing awareness to a thing that has no brain is a misuse of the skill.”


“Take the case of the human foot. It evolved in a way that makes it good for walking and running. But is the purpose of a foot to help us walk and run? If I use my foot for some other reason, am I violating an evolutionary purpose? Am I guilty of a transgression? Hardly. People use feet in a great variety of opportunistic ways. We tap rhythms, we kick each other, we use our feet to showcase fashionable shoes, we tickle a child’s feet as a part of social interaction. These have nothing to do with walking or running.”

For more, check out Michael Graziano’s Consciousness and the Social Brain.

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