Astronomy helps us to understand where we are in relation to the vastness of the universe. Science shows us how we have evolved in relation to the natural world. There is far less known, however, about the relationship between consciousness and the physical world.
We know a lot about the workings of the body and the brain, but the conscious mind remains something of a mystery. A computer can process information, but unlike the human mind, a machine has no awareness of what it is processing.
When trying to understand awareness we can only learn more about consciousness by detaching ourselves from our own point of view. An alternative view of how the mind works has to start with the idea that most of us are wrong in what we think we know.
Reality is often quite different from the way that we perceive it. Until Sir Isaac Newton discovered that white light actually contains all the colors of the spectrum, the work of scholars was based on the idea that white light is entirely free from color. This false assumption came about because of the way the human mind processes the information that enters the brain through the visual system.
Philosophers Daniel C. Dennett and Patricia S. Churchland have taken a different direction in their studies of the mind. They consider that the brain builds information in a complex process, which usually leads to an incorrect conclusion. The brain is not capable of ascertaining whether or not it has come to the right conclusion. It can only access models formed from processed information.
Their theory is that inaccuracies in our thinking arise because of the way the brain builds models around the information it processes. Introspection relies on these models, because they are all we have to access in our own thoughts.
When you look at an apple, for example, the brain reaches various conclusions from interlinked information it has already stored. Because you have knowledge of consciousness, your brain processes the sight of an apple as being a subjectively aware experience. Your brain does not base its conclusion only on stored information about colors, shapes and knowledge of apples.
This might appear illogical, and it does raise the question of why the brain should be using up energy on its inaccurate conclusions about consciousness, by inducing a subjective awareness that does not actually exist?
Neuroscientists at Princeton have been working on a theory about “attention schema” which could explain why the brain has evolved to work this way. Attention schema theory recognizes the brain’s ability to form an approximate model, which is actually a slightly inaccurate version of what is being processed.
Attention schema theory suggests that awareness is actually a slightly distorted account of reality, which is quite different from being an illusion.
Some signals are enhanced by the brain, while others are reduced. This is a process known to neuroscience as “attention”. It is a process that any computer chip can be made to perform. Our perception of a particular color is an approximate version created when our brain first processed information about a physical wavelength. Conscious awareness is also an approximate reconstruction.
An explanation for why the brain should only give an approximation of attention is that it has to create a model in order to gaincontrol of the information. A model does not need to be entirely accurate.
Unlike other theories about consciousness, which claim that awareness involves intuition, the attention schema theory shows us that intuition is largely based around approximations and inaccuracies. This is why common misconceptions arise about the physical world, as in the example of how we misinterpret white light.
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