153: Consciousness and the Social Brain by Michael Graziano

by Gerard


153: Graziano, Michael S.A. Consciousness and the Social Brain. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013. 227 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-992864-4.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 100: Philosophy and Psychology
  • 150: Psychology
  • 153: Conscious mental processes and intelligence

How do we become aware of things? How do we become aware that we are aware? How does this awareness shape the way we think about ourselves and others? And how does this awareness become what we call “consciousness”? These are very complicated and heady questions. Psychology and neuroscience have grappled with them for years (and will continue to do so well into the future). But Michael Graziano, in Consciousness and the Social Brain, tries to parse through all the ideas and data surrounding awareness in order to come up with a viable theory that explains this basic human process.

This is not a easy book to read. You have to muscle through both the technical neuroscience bits and the linguistic gymnastics that tie together the concepts of attention, awareness, and consciousness. But once you make it through all that, though, there are a lot interesting theories concerning how the human brain actually may become aware of things and itself. One of the recurring motifs in Graziano’s theory is the idea of the “strange loop.” Imagine two mirror facing each other. They both reinforce and reflect each other, but any action made to one causes a reaction in the other. Position them better and you get a better reflection. Break one and the infinite reflection goes away. Awareness and consciousness work in much the same way. Each requires the other and therefore reinforces the other. But damage one of the areas in the brain that controls these and the other suffers.

Graziano’s inquiries and studies into awareness seem to place the mechanism responsible in both the superior temporal sulcus and the temporo-parietal junction. These areas contain sub-units of brain matter that interact with each other and the rest of the brain as a whole. He also integrates the processes by which a person stores information about an object or fact and how that information is then access and thought about. Combine this with the twin ideas of phenomenal consciousness and access consciousness and you begin to see just how intricate the theory can get just for a single person. This whole schema is then ramped up a level when you talk about social attention models and how we monitor the attentions and awareness of other people. All in all, Graziano does a decent job at trying to make his ideas accessible for the layman reader. While I’m not clamoring for more, this book will at least broaden your psychological horizons. Or give you a headache. Either way, it’s worth it.