Consciousness and the Social Brain

Graziano1Michael Graziano is a Professor of Neuroscience at Princeton University, and he has written an interesting book on Consciousness and the Social Brain.  Whenever I think of Princeton, two of its alumni always come to mind: Sue Barry and Gary Williams.  Sue obtained her PhD in Biology from Princeton, and Gary obtained his undergraduate degree from Princeton, followed by his Doctor of Optometry degree from PCO.  I always enjoy my discussions with either of these insightful colleagues, and it is on the subject of consciousness that Gary usually prods me to explain more.

Earlier in my career I didn’t give much thought to consciousness, other than personally engaging in it.  I became more intrigued about consciousness, and visual consciousness in particular, when Francis Crick began to write about it.  I was intrigued that a scientist whose name was attached to DNA would hang his final hat on being able to identify the neural correlates of consciousness. As Crick was entangled with James Watson in DNA, he became intertwined with Christof Koch in the pursuit of the seat of consciousness.

Sabine Kastner is another neuroscientist who is occupied with consciousness, particularly with the role of attention in synchronizing connectivity in different parts of the brain.  She focuses particularly on the role of the pulvinar.  Have a look and listen:


Kastner was part of a symposium at the Vision Sciences Society last year that underscored the importance of the thalamus as much more than a way station for vision.  In fact, this region in the brain is an integral part of the switching station that must balance top down with bottom up visual information flow.  In the tradition of Crick’s collaboration with Koch, Kastner and Graziano have teamed together at Princeton.  Their joint efforts resulted in a paper on Human Consciousness and Its Relationship to Social Science.  The article generated much discussion in the neuroscience community.


I wouldn’t put Graziano’s book at the top of your end-of-summer reading list, but if you have some extra time on your hands he does take a wide-ranging look at topics of interest such as binocular rivalry, blindsight, neglect, and autism in the context of awareness, attention, and consciousness.  (If you’re not up for reading the book, you can get a taste of it here.)  In that regard he extends concepts that our colleague Graham Peachey introduced at the first ICBO meeting 23 years ago.  Shades of the divided brain

6 thoughts on “Consciousness and the Social Brain

  1. Len, Attention in animals was something I had not considered. It is crucial for predators and prey and certainly appears similar to our processes. I wonder if animals ever do anything comparable to standing in front of the refrigerator and wondering why they are there. While I may be distracted by external stimuli, it is more often the internal wanderings which are a problem. I was reading River by Gary Paulsen last night which I have not read in decades. Brian describes his change in awareness from being in the woods when it is much more important for his survival compared with back in society and taking many trips to a store before he can reacclimate to the stimulation. I suspect that you stimulate the thinking of many others with your Blog. Thank you, again. Gary

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