Written by Tori DeAngelis

Consciousness has long been the province of philosophers and mystics, but Michael Graziano is putting it in its scientific place.

Cognitive psychologist Michael Graziano, PhD, has a low-key, affable manner that belies his stature as a trailblazer of neuroscience research. As director of the Sensory Motor Laboratory at Princeton University’s Neuroscience Institute, he has conducted an extended series of studies showing how a set of multisensory neurons in the brain encode and protect the space immediately around the body, for example by signaling the presence of an object near to or touching part of the body whenever a person sees, feels, hears or even remembers that object.

His subsequent research landed on an even bigger discovery: that the classic map of how the motor cortex links to the body — the so-called homunculus, familiar to any student of neurology — fails to capture the true brain-body dynamic. It depicts the connection between specific areas of the cortex and specific muscles in the body and face, but Graziano showed that when you stimulate areas of a monkey cortex over time, entire behavioral repertoires emerge — the hand reaches up to the mouth to eat, the arms move in a defensive posture, the legs ready themselves to leap.

“It suddenly became apparent why the traditional muscle map was so lousy,” Graziano explains. “All of these movements and functions are in fact not discrete. Instead, they all intermingle and overlap.”

Lately, Graziano has turned his attention to the even bigger quarry of consciousness, a topic that has eluded philosophers for centuries and neuroscientists for at least 30 years. In “Consciousness and the Social Brain” (Oxford University Press), he will explicate the notion that consciousness isn’t as mysterious as we think: It can be understood as a function of a brain that for various evolutionary reasons holds great stake in attributing the property of awareness to itself and others.

Graziano spoke about his new book, his radically rationalist views on consciousness and his other endeavors, which include composing music, writing darkly imaginative adult fiction, and penning equally inventive children’s books under the pseudonym B.B. Wurge, a Mensa-level orangutan who lives in a New York City elevator.

What got you interested in studying consciousness, after years of researching more traditional areas of neuroscience?

Consciousness may be the most fundamental human question there is, because in essence it asks the question, “What are we?” It’s not, “What’s the body made out of?” or “What’s the brain made out of?” but “What is the essence of our experience?” It’s a very deep question that I think everyone has pondered at some point. To be able to study the brain and to realize as you study it that you’re starting to understand something about that question, is just very exciting.

How are you approaching its study?

From a rationalist perspective. A basic tenet of rationalism is that all phenomena are understandable at some level — that you can study them and try to come to some understanding of them. In particular, we’re looking at consciousness from the framework of the brain as an information-processing device — the notion that brains decide that they have awareness and assign a high degree of certainty to that decision. Putting it this way places consciousness in the realm of computation, something that can be studied in its entirety scientifically.

Our theory also considers why and how consciousness may have arisen from an evolutionary perspective. What is the adaptive advantage of a brain attributing awareness to itself? What function does that serve? Once you have a framework for and tentative answers to those questions, you can design your studies accordingly.

How does your theory differ from others?

Almost all previous scientific theories of consciousness have a very inconvenient gap in them. They say there’s a mechanism in the brain that’s responsible for consciousness, but then neglect to mention how you get from that circuit to the actual feeling. These theories tend to point to the magician, without explaining how he does the magic trick. I hope we’ve gotten the question into a realm where one can study it every step of the way without the inconvenient gaps.

How does your theory explain the evolution of consciousness?

Our theory says that the first thing brains do evolutionarily is to develop attention. By attention, I mean something very specific: the ability to focus resources on one set of signals.

Next, brains evolve a kind of simplified schematic model of attention so that they can keep track of and even predict their own state of attention. That schematic model is close to what we think of as awareness or experience. When the brain attributes to itself that it has an experience of something — the red color of an apple, let’s say — it is effectively employing an accounting trick for keeping track of the fact that it’s paying attention to that thing, in this case that red color.

Third, and much more recently, humans evolved the ability to use this model not only to monitor our own attention, but to reconstruct and monitor other people’s attention. A lot of our research is starting to focus on that question, how people specifically attribute awareness to someone or something else.

What do we know about people’s propensity to attribute awareness to others?

In psychology, it falls within the realm of what is called social attribution — part of this rich mental machinery that helps us to understand, predict and interact with people, whether it’s with others or ourselves.

Social attribution research already shows us that we attribute all kinds of things to others — “I think he’s angry,” “I think he’s about to open the door” and so on. But in my view, there is something more fundamental going on here, something terribly relevant to social attribution that is not often studied and is the core of what we’ll be looking at. We can also attribute to that person, “He is aware,” “He is aware of me,” “He is aware of the door he’s reaching toward” and so on.

Because we can attribute this very basic property of awareness to others, we must have some circuitry that helps us make that attribution. Research already suggests parts of the brain that may be responsible for this, including the temporoparietal junction, or TPJ [an area above the ear and toward the back of the head where the temporal and parietal lobes meet]. We’ll examine this potential connection through experiments that link social attribution tasks and brain-imaging work.

What practical implications does your research have?

A major one is its potential application to artificial intelligence. Once you have considered how people’s awareness of things can be thought of as computations and what direction you need to go to chase down those computations, you can then build machines that have self-awareness and awareness of others. Those abilities would make it much easier to talk to and interact with those machines.

As weird and sci fi as that sounds, I think it’s totally inevitable. Given the pace of progress in computer technology — the fact that computers can win at chess against grandmasters, for example — this is just another problem of that nature, albeit an extraordinarily complicated one.

Outside of your research, you’ve written children’s books authored by “B.B. Wurge.” What do those initials stand for?

The name is quite random; I don’t know what B.B. stands for! But B.B. Wurge is a super-intelligent orangutan who lives in New York City and writes children’s books. Because he’s an orangutan, the books have a very strange outside perspective. Some people have compared them to Roald Dahl. Dahl’s books are also zany, outside normal reality. So I think the orangutan perspective helps with that.

You’ve authored adult novels, too. Is there a common theme in your writing?

If there is, I guess it’s the importance and joy of being imaginative. The characters in my books always encounter that. Self-reliance as well. My children’s book “The Last Notebook of Leonardo da Vinci,” for example, has a very extravagant, wild and crazy plot, but at heart it’s really a father-son story, with the father telling the son what’s important in life — the imagination, gaining new perspectives.

You’ve also written symphonies and a variety of other musical works. Do music and fiction writing provide a welcome counterpoint to your scientific work?

I actually find it all very similar. To me, good science should also be imaginative and go in directions people haven’t gone before. And in science, the problem of taking a nonlinear pile of thoughts and figuring out how to arrange them in sequence is in some sense the same process as writing fiction. The same is true with music, though you’d think they’d be totally different.

When you look at your career so far, what makes you happiest?

I feel very lucky, very privileged to be able to indulge anything that interests me. Life is a giant hobby. That’s kind of what it feels like.

One common path of science is to find a niche. I would find that dreadfully boring. I tend to stop investigating an area not when the issue is resolved necessarily, but when I feel like I’m no longer contributing new insights to it.

Keywords: Consciousness, psychology, music

About the author: Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y