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Consciousness and the Social Brain

By: , Posted on: September 30, 2015

Warren Tryon Swan Lake Featured

In this blog I continue to show that my book, Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy: Network Principles for a Unified Theory, is not as radical as some readers may think by reporting on a book written by Michael S. A. Graziano (2013) entitled Consciousness and the Social Brain.

The question of consciousness is fundamental to psychological science because all discussions about psychology presume consciousness. Assumptions are necessary but care must be taken in selecting them because one reasons from assumptions not to them. This means that one cannot ever explain their assumptions. Hence, all that is assumed is excluded from explanation. While assuming a lot facilitates theory construction, doing so also restricts what the final theory can explain.

Cognitive psychology assumes consciousness and therefore cannot ever explain it. This is a serious constraint that limits what cognitive psychology can eventually explain. Since almost everything psychological presumes consciousness, this means that contemporary cognitive psychology cannot fully explain almost all of psychology. My book avoids this problem via its unconscious-centric orientation that incorporates, is consistent and consilient (Wilson, 1978) with, neuroscience explanations of consciousness. This means that the theoretical orientation I have proposed has a much greater explanatory scope than contemporary cognitive psychological theories, other than neural network theories, can possibly have.

I discuss consciousness in many places in my book and reproduce a wagon-wheel model on page 181 where the thalamus is responsible for integrating sensory and other information. Graziano (2013) offers a much more through explanation of consciousness that is fully consistent with positions that I have taken in my book. I therefore briefly review his ideas next.

The crux of Graziano’s position is that the brain makes models of external reality. The key point here is that the models that our neural networks compute are representations that enable us to behave adaptively. They are not exact copies of the external world. These representations entail subjective conscious experiences that philosophers call qualia. Let me explain using examples from audition and vision.

Does a tree that falls in the woods make a sound if no one is around to hear it? Contrary to popular belief, the answer is definitely no. The falling tree certainly creates atmospheric vibrations but they constitute a purely physical event. The qualia of “sound” is the subjective conscious experience that our neural networks enable us to have. Totally deaf people do not experience sound. A creature with a suitable neural network must be present when the tree falls in order for the qualia of sound to be associated with the falling tree. Qualia are part of the psychological models that our neural networks create in response to physical stimuli in order to better guide our behavior.

Find and look at a colored object in your environment. Let’s say that you have located a red object. Is “red” a property of that object? Does “red” exist on its own in the environment external to the observer? Again, the answer is certainly no. Electromagnetic (light) waves are reflected from that object. They enter the eye and activate photoreceptors that generate neural impulses. The brain models these impulses in ways that enable us to behave adaptively. For example, we can tell when fruit is ripe because of its red color. Our color qualia is part of the psychological model that the neural networks in our visual system compute in response to physical stimuli to better guide our behavior.

Weather maps contain false colors to facilitate viewer attention to where different amounts of rain or snow have fallen across a region. Likewise, our neural network models generate false colors to facilitate our attention to relevant environmental cues that help us behave appropriately such as picking only ripe fruit. We mistake the nature of our neural network models, including their qualia, as real properties of external objects because our neural network models are so compelling to us. But they are just perceptual models that our neural networks fabricate/compute; they are not exact veridical copies of external events.

We do not question that our visual neural network system enables us to see. People who suffer a stroke in their occipital cortex loose vision in some part of their visual field. This can change their presence/absence qualia. For example, damage to the right occipital cortex will impair the left visual field such that a person walking with them on their left side will repeatedly disappear and reappear as they move into and out of the damaged portion of the visual field despite the fact that they are constantly present on the person’s left side. This example demonstrates that perceived presence and absence are the computed result of our visual neural networks. The qualia of existence is at least as compelling as are the qualia of sound and color. If we accept the qualia of existence as computed by our neural networks then we should be very willing to accept that the qualia of sound and color are also computed by our neural networks.

Our neural networks also compute higher order psychological models. Cognitive psychologists call these models schemas. Psychodynamic clinicians, especially those interested in Attachment Theory, refer to such organized cognitions as Internal Working Models. The commonality here is that the person, actually the network of neural networks that constitute their brains, model the external social world in an effort to enhance their adaptation to it. We model the possible and potential psychological states of other people in order to get along better with them. This is called social cognition. Graziano claims that we use the same neural networks that mediate social cognition to understand ourselves. For example, the mirror neuron system that enables us to have effective and rewarding social relationships with other people also enables us to understand our own feelings. This is evident from the deficits that people with Asperger’s syndrome have. Not only are their social relationships impaired, but they have feelings that they cannot describe or understand. This condition is called alexithymia.

I now place Graziano’s approach in a larger context by briefly mentioning two related approaches to understanding consciousness. The Integrated Information Theory proposed by Giulio Tononi maintains that consciousness is composed of information in the form of a network of interconnected nodes. The “shape” of this network is said to give rise to qualia. Graziano’s approach has the advantage of linking to connectionist models of cognition. The Global Workspace Theory proposed by Bernard Baars is similar to Graziano’s approach in that it emphasizes the role of attention and working memory. Working memory refers to the active information integrating feature of short-term memory. Consciousness is said to arise from the information sharing that occurs when working memory is active. Supporting artificial neural network models can be found here.

I have repeatedly supported the construction and use of connectionist neural network models to simulate psychology and behavior as new tools in the rapidly developing field of computational neuropsychology that is now more than a quarter of a century old. Notice my use of the term models. It may well be that a side benefit of building parallel-distributed-processing connectionist-neural-network (PDP-CNN) models of memory, learning, and derivative psychological functions is that these models will enable us to better understand how brain neural networks model our physical and social environments including how they compute qualia. The main reason for this optimism is that PDP-CNN models are constructed using simulated brain components that function like real brain components. This is an exciting possibility and major reason to advocate simulation as a computational neuropsychological tool. I address this possibility in my next blog.

Read more from Warren Tryon on SciTech Connect


Warren’s book, Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy: Network Principles for a Unified Theory is available for purchase on the Elsevier Store.

Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy cover

Use discount code “STC215” at checkout and save up to 30% on your very own copy.

About the Author

Warren ComputerWarren W. Tryon received his undergraduate degree from Ohio Northern University in 1966. He was enrolled in the APA approved Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology at Kent State University from 1966 – 1970. Upon graduation from Kent State, Dr. Tryon joined the Psychology Department faculty at Fordham University in 1970 as an Assistant Professor. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 1977 and to Full Professor in 1983. Licensed as a psychologist in New York State in 1973, he joined the National Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology in 1976, became a Diplomate in Clinical Psychology from the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) in 1984, was promoted to Fellow of Division 12 (Clinical) of the American Psychological Association in 1994 and a fellow of the American Association of Applied and Preventive Psychology in 1996. Also in 1996 he became a Founder of the Assembly of Behavior Analysis and Therapy.

In 2003 he joined The Academy of Clinical Psychology. He was Director of Clinical Psychology Training from 1997 to 2003, and presently is in the third and final year of phased retirement. He will become Emeritus Professor of Psychology in May 2015 after 45 years of service to Fordham University. Dr. Tryon has published 179 titles, including 3 books, 22 chapters, and 140 articles in peer reviewed journals covering statistics, neuropsychology, and clinical psychology. He has reviewed manuscripts for 45 journals and book publishers and has authored 145 papers/posters that were presented at major scientific meetings. Dr. Tryon has mentored 87 doctoral dissertations to completion. This is a record number of completed dissertations at the Fordham University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and likely elsewhere.

His academic lineage is as follows. His mentor was V. Edwin Bixenstein who studied with O. Hobart Mowrer at the University of Illinois who studied with Knight Dunlap at Johns Hopkins University who studied with Hugo Munsterberg at Harvard University who studied with Wilhelm Wundt at the University of Leipzig.

Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy: Network Principles for a Unified Theory is Dr. Tryon’s capstone publication. It is the product of more than a quarter of a century of scholarship. Additional material added after this book was printed is available at www.fordham.edu/psychology/tryon. This includes chapter supplements, a color version of Figure 5.6, and a thirteenth “Final Evaluation” chapter. He is on LinkedIn and Facebook. His email address is wtryon@fordham.edu.

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