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"The Social Brain"

22.12.13

 

 Many thinkers have approached consciousness from a first-person vantage point, the kind of philosophical perspective according to which other people’s minds seem essentially unknowable. And yet, as Kevin shows, we spend a lot of mental energy attributing consciousness to other things. We can’t help it, and the fact that we can't help it ought to tell us something about what consciousness is and what it might be used for. If we evolved to recognise it in others – and to mistakenly attribute it to puppets, characters in stories, and cartoons on a screen — then, despite appearances, it really can’t be sealed up within the privacy of our own heads.

(...)

Attention requires control. In the modern study of robotics there is something called control theory, and it teaches us that, if a machine such as a brain is to control something, it helps to have an internal model of that thing. Think of a military general with his model armies arrayed on a map: they provide a simple but useful representation — not always perfectly accurate, but close enough to help formulate strategy. Likewise, to control its own state of attention, the brain needs a constantly updated simulation or model of that state. Like the general’s toy armies, the model will be schematic and short on detail. The brain will attribute a property to itself and that property will be a simplified proxy for attention. It won’t be precisely accurate, but it will convey useful information. What exactly is that property? When it is paying attention to thing X, we know that the brain usually attributes an experience of X to itself — the property of being conscious, or aware,of something. Why? Because that attribution helps to keep track of the ever-changing focus of attention.

 

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