COLLOQUIUM: Consciousness and the Social Brain
What is consciousness and how can a brain, a mere collection of neurons, create it? In my lab we are developing a theoretical and experimental approach to these questions. The theory begins with our ability to attribute awareness to others. The human brain has a complex circuitry that allows it to be socially intelligent. This social machinery has only just begun to be studied in detail by neuroscientists. One function of this circuitry is to attribute a state of awareness to others: to build the intuition that person Y is aware of thing X. In our hypothesis, the machinery that attributes awareness to others also helps attribute the property to oneself. Evidence from the clinic shows that when the same brain areas are damaged, people suffer from a catastrophic disruption in their own awareness of objects and events. The theory also draws on the relationship between awareness (subjective experience) and attention (the brain’s data-handling method of focusing resources on a limited set of signals). In laboratory experiments, awareness seems to act as though it were the brain’s cartoon sketch of its own state of attention.
Through these perspectives we hope to understand awareness and consciousness as part of the information-processing toolkit used by brains. One possible ultimate benefit from this type of research, perhaps decades in the future, is an artificial intelligence that has the human-like social capability to attribute awareness to itself and to others – a machine that understands what it means to have a mind. These topics are discussed in greater detail in my recent book, Consciousness and the Social Brain.
The Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory 2014-2015 Colloquium Committee is comprised of the following people. Please feel free to contact them by e-mail regarding any possible speakers or topics for future colloquia.
- Carol Ann Austin 609-243-2484