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Consciousness and the Social Brain 1st Edition

4.5 out of 5 stars 39 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0199928644
ISBN-10: 0199928649
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Editorial Reviews


"Theories of consciousness are a dime a dozen. This one is different. Here is what makes Graziano's central idea distinctive: it makes sense - good scientific and logical sense. It fits with what we know about brain anatomy and physiology. It accounts for a wide swath of psychological data and clinical data. It does not peddle the preposterous nor rely on semantic mumbo jumbo. It has no gigantic holes it has to pretend not to notice. It connects to other reasonable approaches deftly and productively. It is masterfully clear. It is surprising in places, and probably wrong in some places, as any rich and deep theory inevitably is. The central idea, however, is quite probably right, or very close to. Almost invariably I find that I hurl books on consciousness to the floor midway through. Not this one."
Patricia S. Churchland, PhD, Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of California, San Diego

"Orchestrating how our personal awareness jives with the stuff we think about has eluded us all. Graziano has a plausible and rich theory about how it all articulates without giving away the store, and he explains it vividly."
Michael S. Gazzaniga, PhD, Director, Sage Center for the Study of Mind

"Graziano proposes a new and intriguing theory of consciousness.. Graziano guides readers step-by-step through his captivating and convincing theory of consciousness, explaining how the theory accounts for many oddities in human perception. This book is an essential read for anyone interested in consciousness from either a scientific or philosophical perspective." -- Library Journal

"In most scientific theories, awareness emerges from the physical functioning of the brain, almost like heat rising from circuits. Laid out in his recent book, Consciousness and the Social Brain, Graziano's theory takes a completely different approach to explaining consciousness. 'In this theory, the brain is an information-processing device. It doesn't produce non-physical essences -- it computes information,' Graziano said. Graziano has given consciousness a more solid footing in the real, tangible world even if it remains a creation of the brain, Schurger said. 'If anything, his theory stands to demystify consciousness, in the same way that our understanding of genetics and self-organizing systems has begun to demystify 'life,' which was once thought to depend on an unseen force.'" -Morgan Kelly, Princeton University News

"The author offers an engaging and accessible explanation of his theory. Rather than merely touting its merits, he aims to show how it is compatible with other popular theories. Avoiding technical details, he uses anecdotes, drawings, and metaphors to convey an understanding of the important concepts. [Consciousness and the Social Brain] turns the field's contemporary wisdom on its head, and from its new vantage point one has the sense that an answer to the problem of consciousness might be in sight. Graziano's attention schema theory marks a milestone by offering a plausible, mechanistic answer to the hard problem." --Aaron Schurger, Science Magazine

"Well known for his work on the motor cortex, Graziano is a newcomer to the field of consciousness research. His ideas and approach here are outliers in the theoretical arena, but that makes Consciousness and the Social Brain all the more intriguing. It turns the field's contemporary wisdom on its head, and from its new vantage point one has the sense that an answer to the problem of consciousness might be in sight." --Science

About the Author

Michael S. A. Graziano, Professor of Neuroscience at Princeton University, is an internationally renowned scientist and an award-winning novelist. His books include the popular science book God, Soul, Mind, Brain and the short novels The Divine Farce, The Love Song of Monkey, and Death My Own Way.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 280 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (September 2, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199928649
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199928644
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 0.9 x 5.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #801,080 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Steven H. Clason on October 17, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Graziano, a Psychologist and Neuroscientist at Princeton, here carefully and methodically lays out his argument that consciousness, rather than being an epiphenomenon, an emergent phenomenon or some ethereal, immaterial thing, is instead a straightforward (though complex) brain function.
His theory is easily summarized -- he does it himself 8 pages in (total spoiler, gives the whole story away):

"The brain does two things that are of particular importance to the present theory. First, the brain uses a method that most neuroscientists call attention. Lacking the resources to processes everything at the same time, the brain focuses its processing on a very few items at any one time. Attention is a data-handling trick for deeply processing some information at the expense of most information. Second, the brain uses internal data to construct simplified, schematic models of objects and events in the world. Those models can be used to make predictions, try out simulations, and plan actions. What happens when the brain inevitably combines those two talents? In the theory outlined in this book, awareness is the brain's simplified, schematic model of the complicated, data-handling process of attention."

The rest of the book explains and supports this theory in great detail. He doesn't evade obviously controversial issues, like where religion and spirituality fit in to this scheme or whether or not other creatures possess consciousness, and he places the development of consciousness as an adaptive feature of human evolution, important for our development into a deeply social animal, and now important for additional reasons.
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Format: Hardcover
"Consciousness Explained" might have been a more accurate title for this book, but it was already taken.

Author Michael Graziano's previous research in neuroscience is on the body schema and the motor cortex, which makes him an unlikely candidate for cracking open a new perspective on the hard nut of consciousness. But just as the motor cortex controls and directs our movements, there's the sense that consciousness controls and directs our thoughts.

The theory in brief: Attention itself is our automatic ability to focus on one or two aspects of our environment at a time so that our cognitive capacity is not overloaded by trying to focus on everything around us at once. To be able to control something, in this case what we mentally are attending to at any moment, we need a representation of that thing. As our mental representation of our body helps us control our body movements, our mental representation of our attention helps us control our attention. What we pay attention to is crucial for not only carrying out simple tasks but also for high-level and long-term planning. So we need some kind of mechanism for controlling our attention in order to carry out complex tasks in a complex world. And voila, the representation of attention facilitates this control and is what we experience as consciousness.

The theory isn't complicated, but it is rather abstract. Reading summaries or reviews of it will probably not make it seem convincing or even immediately comprehensible, but the book lays out all of the parts and shows how they fit together to create a coherent mechanism that we call consciousness. After the basic ideas are grasped, the theory is quite simple, as all good and far-reaching scientific theories are.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I'm a neuroscientific-book addict. I've read lots of them. Graziano's book is the best one I've come across. Clearest. Best-written. Most convincing.

Over and over, I found myself saying "yes, yes, yes." Yet not, as Graziano notes in several places, without some disturbing underlying feelings behind those "yes's." His theory that awareness is information concerning a sketch of the brain's attention processes goes against our subjective intuition that consciousness is, if not other-worldly, something mysterious -- the well-known Hard Problem.

Well, maybe. But this book persuasively argues that the problem is simpler than it appears. Philosophers, mystics, scientists, and others have assumed that consciousness has certain characteristics, then they try to explain how those characteristics come to be. I find Graziano's approach refreshingly creative and out-of-the box.

Awareness is information. So is consciousness. The information available to awareness does not contain all of the neurological facts, as these are unnecessary for effective functioning in everyday life.

Here's one of my favorite quotes: "Consciousness is composed of information that says, in effect, 'This information is not information'...The brain has constructed a model of something, a picture painted in the medium of information. The model is not terribly accurate."

Brilliant. A word I kept saying about Graziano as I read his book.

Again, I've read many books dealing with consciousness and how the brain works. Usually I get to the last page feeling like I've been exposed to a lot of facts, most of which I'll quickly forget, but few insights into how seemingly immaterial consciousness/awareness relates to physical goings-on in the brain.
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