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Carolyn Dicey Jennings is a philosopher and a cognitive scientist at University of California, Merced. In her book The Attending Mind, she lays out an attempt to unify the concept of attention. Carolyn defines attention roughly as the mental prioritization of some stuff over other stuff based on our collective interests. And one of her main claims is that attention is evidence of a real, emergent self or subject, that can’t be reduced to microscopic brain activity. She does connect attention to more macroscopic brain activity, suggesting slow longer-range oscillations in our brains can alter or entrain the activity of more local neural activity, and this is a candidate for mental causation. We unpack that more in our discussion, and how Carolyn situates attention among other cognitive functions, like consciousness, action, and perception.
- Carolyn’s website.
- Aeon article:
- Related papers
0:00 – Intro
12:15 – Reconceptualizing attention
16:07 – Types of attention
19:02 – Predictive processing and attention
23:19 – Consciousness, identity, and self
30:39 – Attention and the brain
35:47 – Integrated information theory
42:05 – Neural attention
52:08 – Decoupling oscillations from spikes
57:16 – Selves in other organisms
1:00:42 – AI and the self
1:04:43 – Attention, consciousness, conscious perception
1:08:36 – Meaning and attention
1:11:12 – Conscious entrainment
1:19:57 – Is attention a switch or knob?
Carolyn 00:00:03 The idea is that you are the collection of all of your interests. Attention is the prioritization of those interests and that prioritization work, that act is what makes the self have some kind of power. It’s a very popular view of philosophy to seek consciousness as a thing and self as non-existence in illusion. And what I’m doing is I’m saying the self as a thing, and then consciousness is just the way that the self is related to its world. I think that one of the reasons that people will be uncomfortable with it, who have been in consciousness research for a long time, is just because it’s become so popular to think about consciousness as a thing so popular that people say things like
Speaker 3 00:00:52 This is brain inspired.
Paul 00:00:54 This is brain inspired, everyone. I’m Paul William James, the super influential psychologist and philosopher famously in 1890, wrote, everyone knows what attention is that turned out not to be true. Uh, instead, like other cognitive functions we give names to, like memory or consciousness, the more that we study attention, the more subdivided the concept becomes leading to a taxonomy to describe the varieties of what we collectively call attention. Like top down versus bottom up attention, feature based versus spatial attention, overt versus covert attention and so on. And some people even argue that the word attention isn’t even useful anymore, and we should abandon it. Carolyn Dicey Ginnings is a philosopher and a cognitive scientist at the University of California Merced. And in her book, the Attending Mind, she lays out an attempt to unify the concept of attention. Carolyn defines attention roughly as the prioritization of some stuff over other stuff based on our collective interests.
Paul 00:02:01 Uh, and one of her main claims is that attention is evidence of a real emergent self or subject that can’t be reduced to microscopic brain activity. She does connect attention to more macroscopic brain activity, suggesting that slow, longer range oscillations in our brains can alter or entrain, um, the more local neural activity. And this is a candidate for mental causation. So we unpack that more in our discussion and how Carolyn situates, uh, attention among other cognitive functions like consciousness, action and perception. I link to, uh, her book and some other relevant articles, and you can learn more about Carolyn, uh, in the show notes at brand inspired.co/podcast/ 1 53 on the website. You can also sign up to support brand inspired via Patreon for various bells and whistles, like full episodes. And, uh, joining our Discord community. Thanks as always, to my Patreon supporters, and thank you for listening or watching. All right, here’s Carolyn. Carolyn, the book is The Attending Mind. And, uh, right before, yeah, we were talking here, I was frantically looking it up because of course it has a subtitle, but it has no subtitle. Why no subtitle?
Carolyn 00:03:15 Yeah, no subtitle. Uh uh, I like things to be Short and Sweet. I
Paul 00:03:23 Guess they didn’t ask you for all books. All science books or philosophy books have subtitles, right? This is important. Hard hitting, uh, interview questions.
Carolyn 00:03:32 <laugh>. Yeah, I guess they do often have long subtitles. I’m really inspired by philosophers like Susan Wolfe, who tried to connect more with the public, or KY who tried to be really clear with their writing. And that’s a goal of mine. And I feel sometimes like the really long subtitles are, um, at odds with that.
Paul 00:04:00 Mm-hmm.
Carolyn 00:04:00 <affirmative>. So,
Paul 00:04:01 Okay. Well, so the, the title is very short, and by the way, I like that it has no subtitle, by the way. It’s not a criticism. Okay. But the, the book and the, and the book is not, uh, long either, but it, it, it is dense and thick and has, uh, lots of goes down, lots of paths, lots of details and stuff. Um, maybe I’ll just start off with a <laugh>, a very easy quote here from the book, and then we can unpack it, right? <laugh> consciousness
Carolyn 00:04:28 Is,
Paul 00:04:29 Consciousness is the interface between a subject and its world action is the subject’s contribution to that interface. And attention is, but one way to get there. So we have a lot to unpack here, perhaps. Um, so <laugh>, like I was saying, the book covers like a lot of ground in philosophy and neuroscience and psychology. Um, and, uh, there’s no way that we’re gonna get to all the topics discussed in the book. And this, this book was two years old now, so it’s probably old hat for you. And it was based on, uh, over a decade of your previous works and thinking.
Carolyn 00:05:05 Yeah.
Paul 00:05:06 Maybe we can start with, um, you know, we’re gonna have to unpack, uh, the ideas in the book, many of them. But, uh, maybe what I wanna start with is just asking you what you feel most sure about, um, in your work. And I don’t know how your mind has, has developed and, and changed, um, since publishing this work. Um, in terms of, of the ideas that, that we’ll get to. But what do you feel most sure about in the book?
Carolyn 00:05:35 I feel the most sure about the existence of the self, which is, I would say the strongest claim of the book as well. So that, um, yeah, that’s probably where I, that there is something responsible for attention, uh, that could be seen as a one possible solution to problem of free will. For example, uhoh problem of agency. I feel confident about that. Um, and in keeping with that, I feel pretty confident about the rejection of a reductionist perspective of the universe, um, that all causation occurs at one level, that all science occurs at one level, and should be that we should think of science as ultimately coming back to one level, whatever that is. Um, I feel confident about that, that it’s, that it’s actually really useful to, to think in terms of multiple levels. And that agency is one of the cases where you can really see that.
Carolyn 00:06:48 So that’s where I feel confident. I would say places where a part of the book that I feel less confident about and I haven’t continued to work on would be the stuff about legal theory all the way at the end, which kind of makes sense because sort of starts with the stuff that I’m the most excited about in the book and kind of ends with the stuff that I feel the least confident about <laugh>, but is, you know, sort of going out into a new direction that I, I may continue later mm-hmm. <affirmative>. But there are also things that I just didn’t complete in the book. And so in a way, I feel less confident about those things too, but I’m hoping to complete them eventually. And those are things like, what is, where is the boundary between self and world? How do you, how would you quantify that? How would you, and, and in a way, without knowing where that boundary is, you don’t really know exactly what the self is. So knowing the limits of the self, um, I’m, that I don’t feel fully confident about that. There is one I feel confident about, but not where exactly it ends. And then also connected with that, um, this, this, the details of the view unconsciousness, I’m still working out. So that’s something that I’m actually working on this, this year, is writing up my view of consciousness, which I didn’t complete in the book.
Paul 00:08:08 Yeah. Well, yeah. Yeah. You, um, I think you even mentioned in the book that this, that it was at the time sort of an incomplete, uh, beginning Yeah. Of your conception. Um, so you see consciousness as the interface between the subject or self and the world. Maybe, I guess we should back up and talk about your conception of the self then. Um, yeah. And you use terms like agency just now. So I have, and um, and I want to ask also about, well, let’s start with the conception of the self that, um, that you, uh, lay out in the book. And you say that attention, uh, or top down attention is evidence for an emergent self mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And of course, I wanna get into the neuroscience of it, of it all as well. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, but, um, maybe you could hash out just a little bit more what you mean by the self, if you’re so confident about it. <laugh>,
Carolyn 00:08:59 <laugh>, you’re taking me to task? Yes, <laugh>. All right. So I see the self as a collection of interests. I see an interest as a tendency to seek out and respond to in a certain way. This is a kind of like psychological definition. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So it’s like psychology directed definition. Um, and then I see the act of attention, as you said, as foundation of the self. So when that collection of interest, so saying that the self is a collection of interest in philosophy, we have this idea that, that things that existence is, is very closely connected with causation. So if you are something that exists, you ought to have some sort of causal power. Okay. Everything in philosophy is controversial, so of course that too <laugh> and some controversy, but most people feel comfortable with that, that if something exists, then it has some form of causal power.
Carolyn 00:09:59 So when I say that self is a collection of interests, if it’s going to be something that you can mark out as existing in a world, then you want that collection of interest to have some sort of causal power to do something. Not just be descriptive. Like, yes, you can draw a circle around any number of things, but if it’s going to really be something we’re gonna talk about and do science about, it should, should do something beyond just that description. So what that is, I think, is attention. So that collection of interest has causal power over its individual interests. So you could think of this, um, instead of in terms of causal power, you could think of it in terms of constraints. So one of the things I do in the book is I, I talk about the difference between, um, what’s, what one philosopher calls mere determination and causal power.
Carolyn 00:10:50 I still think that the self has causal power, but you might think of that relationship of the self over its interests as just in terms of constraint. So it’s basically constraining which interests get to make it up. And that happens in attention. So attention is like the prioritization of those interests. Your pri your interest in, um, podcasts, your interest in a hot cup of tea, that your attention is basically ranking those things. And so right now you may have a hot cup of tea in front of you, and you have my voice as well. And your attention has both of those things available to it, and it’s kind of prioritizing one over the other. And it may shift those priorities over time. But the idea is that you are the collection of all of your interests. Attention is the prioritization of those interests, and that prioritization work, that act is what makes the self have some kind of power. And it begins with that constraining of its own interest. So by ranking them, it’s allowing some to, to gain dominance. But then that prioritization work allows for, I think, causal power of itself over its world. So that’s where the actual causal power, not mirror, kind of constraining power comes in. Um, yeah, I don’t know if that was too much information, <laugh>. No, I mean, there’s, it’s just enough.
Paul 00:12:10 Yeah. We can go down. I mean, there’s just so many roads, different roads that we can go down, but, uh, so, but, but you sort of redefine. Okay. So, so I’m, I’m like preparing a lesson or two in my, the course that I offer, uh, on attention. Okay. And, you know, reading your book already, you know, I was overwhelmed with concepts of attention, different, um, types of attention, top down, bottom up, uh, feature based visual. And then, you know, I come across your book and you define attention at the, at the whole organism level Right. As this set of interests. And I think, oh man, now I, you know, it’s, it’s another way to conceive attention. So, so, you know, how much, how much of, uh, your work, uh, hinges on, um, reconceptualizing attention? And are, are people dissatisfied with the idea that you, you’re trying to sort of reconceptualize attention as this collection of interests?
Carolyn 00:13:08 Hmm. That’s a good question. So as you, as you know, because you’ve looked into attention, even the idea that attention is something is controversial in the sciences. So since the eighties, you know, Alport Allen Alport said like, let’s stop using this nonsense term. There’s so many things that people are calling attention. I think some of that is true. So one of the, a kind of glossy historical view is that one of the results of behaviorism, of course, is that psychology wasn’t allowed to talk about consciousness for a long time. Even, even after the cognitive revolution, it wasn’t popular to talk about consciousness. So then attention starts. Yeah. Or attention. Yeah. So, but attention came back with a cognitive revolution and consciousness didn’t, so I think attention ended up kind of filling in a lot of roles mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Um, and it seemed like attention was kind of behind everything <laugh>.
Carolyn 00:14:02 And now of course people can talk about consciousness again in sciences. And it seems like now people are putting attention a little bit more in its place. But I think that the, um, the reaction against attention has been too strong as well. And that has happened both in the sciences starting with outport and in philosophy. So in philosophy too, there are people who claim that there’s no such thing as attention that, um, there’s no unifying, there’s no unifying thing that is attention. Some people have tried to provide an a unifying account. I’m one of the people who is trying to do that. So what I see myself as doing is trying to provide an account of what attention is in a unified sense. And I still think that there are many different types of attention. There may be some things we don’t get to call attention anymore once we’ve accepted this unifying count, but it’s not supposed to, it’s, it’s not supposed to be redefining it in the sense of, um, adding another form of attention or, uh, or shifting the narrative on attention.
Carolyn 00:15:06 It’s supposed to be taking what we already believe about attention and giving, like a how possible account of that. Hmm. Um, yeah. So instead of, for example, Wayne Woo says that these, his unifying atten account of attention is that it’s necessary for action. So attention is a thing that provides for action. So it’s for action. Whereas for me, it’s by the subject. So I don’t, while Wayne was probably my favorite alternative account mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I think that it’s not necessary to have bodily action, which is the one that I think he’s gonna have to be stuck with in his account. I don’t think that it’s necessary that attention is always for that. So I think that it, a deeper understanding of attention would be that it’s by this subject. And the problem is, of course, Wayne, who doesn’t wanna accept the existence of the subject <laugh>, and most people don’t. So I think that’s one reason why that has to be something that I’m confident in, because it’s the key to my account of attention.
Paul 00:16:04 Yeah. So I, I have in my notes here, you know, one way to think of your account of attention is like attention with a capital A. Uh, and then, you know, because, um, from my background, I’ve studied a lot of like, lower level neural mechanisms that are supposed to account for different types of attention. And I thought, are those all lowercase a types of attention? And this top, the top, your account of attention is like the, the attention related attention related to the self. Uh, is that the grandmother of them all, or grandfather of them all, uh, kinds of attention? Is that the way that you think of it? Or, um, I, I wanna get into the neural mechanisms that you propose, um, under underlying, uh, your account of attention here also.
Carolyn 00:16:48 Yeah. So I think one way of seeing that I, that I’m trying to do a unifying account is that the self is related to attention in some way. That’s true. That that is the core of my account, but I allow for pretty weak version of that. So if the input of the self or the subjects, basically, if feedback makes no difference to the prioritization work, the selection work, then there’s no attention in my view. So if it’s a purely filtering mechanism, then it’s not attention. But if that feedback, prefrontal feedback, the input of a self, whatever, there’s different levels of discussion here, but if that feedback makes a difference to the resulting prioritization, then attention is involved. So I also have a unifying account of bottom up and top down attention. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have different effects. Um, that is, that I see.
Carolyn 00:17:52 Basically, I see the two as input to a common system. So there’s, so bottom up attention famously is this, you know, you have this very salient thing in your environment and that’s, that grabs your attention. And then the question is, is that can, can that be purely passive? If it could be purely passive, then it wouldn’t count as attention on my, in my view mm-hmm. <affirmative>. But my idea is that even bottom up attention is still being weighed against the interest of the subject. And there are, there is some evidence for that. Um, I’m sure you’re thinking of <laugh> thinking of a lot of the different papers out there in your head about this kind of, this controversy. But, but that’s another thing that I’m, that I’m arguing is that that attention can actually go pretty far down where it just can’t go all the way down to, some people wanna say any time there’s any neural preference, it’s attention. And I am disputing that. So the fact that in the phobia that some of the cells in the phobia have a preference for certain wavelengths and others have a preference for other wavelengths, that’s not a tension in my view. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, so mere filtering won’t count. Um, but a lot of other things would count.
Paul 00:19:02 You don’t talk about predictive processing or, um, like a basian brain account in, in the book, but this, like, that, what you just said about bottom up attention being needs to be affected, um, or unified with, you know, a top down attention that somewhat aligns with a predictive processing viewpoint, if that makes sense. I guess that’s a question <laugh>.
Carolyn 00:19:24 Yeah, it’s, that’s a really good question. I think that when I, when I began working on this in graduate school, these ideas, I was aware of the reverse hierarchy stuff, of course mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I was aware that people were starting to think about that predictive processing wasn’t yet a thing. Right. So I wouldn’t say that
Paul 00:19:46 Well was back in the eighties that you were in graduate school.
Carolyn 00:19:48 No, no. So maybe it was a thing, but it wasn’t a thing for me, I guess is what I’m saying. <laugh>, it seems like it’s really blossomed in the last 10 years. Um, so I was in graduate school between 2006 and 2012 mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Um, but I have since learned more about it, and I don’t think that it conflicts with anything that I, it doesn’t conflict with my approach. I’m not, I’m not really drawn to the predictive processing or patient approach. I don’t think that it’s, I don’t think that it’s wrong. I don’t think that it has, it certainly has tools that are valuable and, and of course that kind of top down way of thinking about things is, is valuable. But, um, yeah. I also don’t find it to be fully explanatory. So I just don’t, haven’t done the work of mapping my view onto it because I haven’t been especially drawn to
Paul 00:20:39 It. Yeah. I mean, it’s not conflicting with your account. Yeah. I just, it just just struck me that it’s complimentary potentially. Um, but yeah, it
Carolyn 00:20:47 Could be, I think where one of the things that’s missing from predictive processing approaches is, I mean, they don’t have a subject, but they don’t, like, motivation is famously a problem. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> for those approaches. And for me, that’s key. Like the interests are key, this kind of thing driving you out. Um, we’re not just prediction machines. I think we are organisms with interests, <laugh>. So kinda at the heart of the theory is where we diverge. So I’m just not sure how Yeah. How much we’re going to be able to, how much I’m going to be able to get out of that view, basically.
Paul 00:21:24 But our, our interests are, um, presumably generated via our needs, right. And mm-hmm. <affirmative> motivations and, um, bodily needs in the world. And so that’s, that’s like a bottom up sort of approach. But, but your account of attention is, it’s like, it’s, it is a top down. The interests are having an effect on the bottom up, uh, processing.
Carolyn 00:21:46 That’s right. Yeah. So the interests themselves, you could see as, as kind of bottom up. There’s different types of bottom, I guess. Yeah. There’s, um, so, so one of, there’s two ways in which this subject could be differentiated from nons subject, and one is world versus subject. So stimuli versus interests. So some things in the brain are gonna be categorized as interests, some things as stimuli. Um, but there’s also interests that are the subjects and interests that are not the subjects. So you might have like genetic, genetic predispositions that you, that are not aligned closely with you as a subject. So anytime there’s been competition between those genetic predispositions and some other interests of yours, you’ve always prioritized, you know, the non-genetic predisposition then, like, that’s been kind of cast out. And that’s not as nons subject <laugh> as the stimuli, our nons subject. Um, but it’s still, it’s still kind of bottom up in a way. So I guess I’m saying that you could see interest as kind of bottom up, but they’re not, they’re not, not in the same way. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> not in the same fashion. So, but regardless, interests come from somewhere. What do we mean by top down here? It’s the, when the collection, when there’s reference to the set of interests, when the set has some kind of control over the parts of the set. That’s when I’m saying that there’s a subject involved.
Paul 00:23:20 So let’s go ahead and talk about consciousness, um, before we get into like, neural mechanisms of, uh, yeah. Um, of your account. So when we, I guess the commonplace view or my, the way that, you know, I feel like, I feel like, uh, it’s something, there’s something it’s like to be me, right? And presumably that’s the consciousness, but you separate and, and my identity, I equate with that sense of being, I was gonna say self, but, but my subjective experience. Right. Um, but on your account, the self myself is separate from my consciousness. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Um, and so, which, um, I’m becoming more comfortable with as I, you know, you know, read more of your work and think about it more, because there’s all sorts of things that we do unconsciously, of course. But, but, um, help me be more relaxed about my identity, because I think of my identity as my consciousness, my subjective experience. But you’re saying my identity, uh, is something completely separate. So can we talk about the difference between consciousness and, uh, attention and self?
Carolyn 00:24:28 Yeah. Yeah. Um, so one of the, I think one of the key things to see how, how my view is really different from the contemporary thrust about self unconsciousness is my methodology. So many of the people who want to reject the existence of a self, they seem to think that you have to be limited to phenomenological evidence, evidence from experience. So they say things like, you know, when you do L s D, you don’t have an experience of self, so there’s no self, or when you meditate, you don’t have an experience of self, so there’s no self. Um, or it’s possible to trick somebody into thinking that they did something, but they didn’t. Um, so there’s no self <laugh>, but it’s always from within experience. And so if you find, if it’s possible for you to not have a self inexperience, then there must not really be a self, it must be an illusion or, um, a hallucination or whatever.
Carolyn 00:25:30 My methodology is different. I follow this, this idea of Owen Flanigan, for example. He calls it the natural method where you see experience as important evidence. It’s not something that we should be discarding. A scientist experience is a source of evidence about what’s going on with somebody’s mind. But behavior is also important. Evidence, <laugh> and neuroscience is also important. Evidence, like physiological evidence is also important. Evidence and experience does not trump the other two. So when you’re trying to figure out what’s going on with the mind, you have to triangulate between the three because all three can kind of get it wrong in different ways. And so the subject I see as existing, apart from experience, it’s a thing in the world, just like a chair or a tree is a thing in the world. I think subjects something in the world.
Paul 00:26:20 When, when you say subject, you equate that with self, right? That is there.
Carolyn 00:26:23 Yeah. Okay. That’s right. Yeah. I mean, I usually use subject just to try, because like you say, there are many different ideas of what the self is. I see subject as the heart of all of those. And I see attention as at the heart of this subject. So I do think it’s gonna come back to the subject, what the self is, but I’m trying to avoid this, um, conflation with something like identity, right? Which I think is layered on top of the subject. So your history is layered on top of this power you have over your mind. I think you wouldn’t have identity if you didn’t have the power over your mind. But obviously identity is more than that power that’s coming from years of that power being applied to different scenarios. And then also the, just the way you conceptualize that. So I’m not, I’m not dealing with the conceptualization, I’m not dealing with the history.
Carolyn 00:27:15 I’m looking for like what is at the heart of what it means to be someone <laugh>. And at the heart there I think is this, this power of attention and this power you have over your own mind to prioritize your interests. And, um, what, where I see consciousness, and this is what I’m working on right now, this is what I’m writing up right now. Maybe it would be easier. I call the interface view in the book. Um, now, and I also talk about it as a relation. I find relation might be an easier way of thinking about it. So I see consciousness as not a thing. I think it’s been very, it a very popular view and philosophy to see consciousness as a thing and self as non-existence in an illusion. And what I’m doing is I’m saying the self is a thing, and then consciousness is just the way that the self is related to its world. So it’s the relation between the two. It’s not a thing in itself that would invoke this philosophical problem. You don’t want to have relations be things, because then you have to have another thing between that thing and the original. So if you have two things related, and then the relation is a third thing they call a third man problem, then the third thing has its relation to one of the two things that relation would have to be a thing. And then the relation, you know, that you kinda get this infinite
Paul 00:28:32 Add infinite item.
Carolyn 00:28:33 Yeah, yeah, exactly. So relations are not things, relations are just relations. They’re their own, their own metaphysical status. And I think consciousness should be seen as a relation rather than a thing.
Paul 00:28:43 Why am I so uncomfortable with thinking of that? Of my subjective experience as a relation instead of like my own, right? Yeah. I want it to be my own.
Carolyn 00:28:52 It, it is your own. So because it’s a relation between the subject and the world, then then it’s necessarily subjective. It’s related to the subject that doesn’t exist without the subject. So it still has all of the qualities of consciousness that we normally, I, I think actually this is a helpful way, I think bringing back the subject to philosophy is a helpful way of managing those problems of consciousness, because we don’t really have a good way of inserting subjectivity, I think, without the subject. Mm. So you still get that. Um, I think that one of the reasons that people will be uncomfortable with it, who have been in consciousness research for a long time is just because it’s become so popular to think about consciousness as a thing so popular that people say things like that, that your experience is a hallucination that’s like a Neil Seth’s view.
Carolyn 00:29:46 That’s an informed hallucination. I think that there’s something in your brain that is consciousness that you are related to that’s totally separate from the outside world is so popular that I think it’s hard to think of it a different way, but I’m basically like trying to remove that weird veil that we’ve, that we’ve created. I don’t think that’s a popular view outside of academia. I don’t think that most people think that they’re like, um, in contact with some kind of stuff, uh, that’s in between them and the world that is consciousness. I don’t think that’s a, a typical view. I think it’s something that we’ve come to after hundreds of years of philosophy and science. Um, for some reason I think we’ve ratified that relation into being a thing.
Paul 00:30:37 Hmm.
Carolyn 00:30:38 Yeah.
Paul 00:30:39 So you, you mentioned the brain. So, um, let’s, let’s go ahead and talk about the brain. And I mean, I know I’m jumping around here, but this is all related of course. Uh, first of all, did you have this conception of attention and then go searching for a potential neural account of it? Or were you doing all of these things in parallel and then, you know, maybe just describe what, what you see as the neural, uh, basis or mechanism underlying your account of attention?
Carolyn 00:31:07 Yeah. So the process question is a good one. I would say,
Paul 00:31:11 Wait, I have a guess at this. Can I guess first? Cause I know that
Carolyn 00:31:13 You’re a Yeah, please.
Paul 00:31:14 Certified yoga instructor. I <laugh> my, my wife is also, my, my guess is that this all began as you were, uh, either meditating or, or in your yoga practice. Is that, is that a
Carolyn 00:31:27 Not a good guess? <laugh>? Ah, it’s not a good guess.
Paul 00:31:30 Let’s do stereotypical cliche cliche like
Carolyn 00:31:32 That. I really, no, I, I mean I love that. I love the idea that, that I would be like so in touch with my mind, <laugh>, well somehow get there that way.
Paul 00:31:42 Yeah. But that meditative kind practice that, you know, contemplative sort of practice, these thoughts can arise, right? And paying attention to one’s own mind, for
Carolyn 00:31:52 Instance. Well, I do think that if you look at the history of, um, Indian philosophy, which is closely connected to yoga, that you find some of the most interesting work on attention. So, um, it’s been, attention has been largely absent from Western philosophy for the last hundred years or so, and that is not true in Indian philosophy. So it’s, it’s had a better run there and there’s a lot more work there. And some of the ideas that I have, there are at least debates within Indian philosophy about the same issues. So yeah. So it’s not, it’s not a bad guess, but for me it was more that I, um, I think that, uh, an especially personal and historical account is not really what would be the most entertaining to your listeners. But I, I guess I came to the view that there must be a self by looking at a lot of research on attention, basically.
Carolyn 00:32:55 Okay. And I had meetings with some of my advisors. I remember in particular a meeting with Christoff Koch. So Christoff Koch is like this, um, pretty prominent neuroscientist who’s worked on consciousness. And I remember I was going on a different path with my dissertation. I had a meeting with him. I don’t even remember what his critique was exactly, but he just asked a question about a move I was making in my dissertation at that time. And then it suddenly came to me that, that I was on the wrong path. And that wasn’t that I couldn’t, that the arguments that I was trying to make about perception weren’t going to work because I needed this commitment to the self, basically, I needed there to be a subject. And then I was like, oh, I think that, and I think that there is one, I just had been, I think, trying to work without it, without even thinking about it. And then I suddenly realized that I needed one. And so then I kind of went back to the attention research and, and then that made sense to me that that would unite a lot of that research together. So it was
Carolyn 00:33:53 Not really answering that. So you have very clearly <laugh> well,
Paul 00:33:55 There’s like before and after. So, so you were a convert to the idea of a real subject or self and, and before you could sort of agree with the contemporary philosophy that there is no self?
Carolyn 00:34:07 I did not, I didn’t, it’s not that I just didn’t have a position on it. Okay. Yep. Um, yeah, I didn’t have a position on it. I, I would say that on most of my views, I’m a comfort. Uh, yeah. And I did, I started out as a philosopher of physics before I turned to philosophy of neuroscience, philosophy, psychology. And I was the kind of person who hated dualism, hated free, will, loved danen, <laugh>. That’s my backstory. Okay. So, but you know, Dan, then it has a kind of compatible list picture mm-hmm. <affirmative>, um, many of the people who have thought a lot about the issues tend to have a kind of in between view rather than extreme view. So from undergraduate to graduate, I went from a kind of more extreme physics like view where everything’s reductive, everything’s deterministic at the micro level to starting to realize it. It was a little bit more complicated than that. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and, um, kind of adding in things as I thought I had to. And that’s kind of, I guess that’s another way of putting how I got here.
Paul 00:35:14 Yeah. Okay. So I, I know this is just a diversion and we’re gonna get back to it, but back to the, uh, back on track, but so did, so you, um, corrected your dissertation and did you bring it back to Christoff and, and he said, oh, this is now all correct. Is was that his
Carolyn 00:35:31 Well, Kris Kristoff wasn’t on my committee. Okay. But he was, he was just like an informal advisor. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. But I did continue, I did continue to talk to him, and I think he knows what my full view is. And, and, um, we’ve had lots of conversations about it. I think, you know, we don’t share the exact same views, but we have a lot of, we have a lot of commonalities and a lot of shared perspectives on the brain. Yeah. I think where we, the biggest divergence right now is that he is really into i, I and mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Um, while I think that I, I gets many things right about consciousness, I obviously don’t fully agree from what I just said, but I, but I’m actually still exploring exactly, exactly where we diverge because, um, i’s hard to understand and all of its, all of its implications are hard to understand.
Paul 00:36:19 Yeah. But don’t, don’t you think that IIT is, um, measuring selfness more than consciousness?
Carolyn 00:36:25 Right. That is what I think. And I’m surprised that, you know, that <laugh>,
Paul 00:36:28 I dunno why
Carolyn 00:36:29 I know that. Yeah.
Paul 00:36:30 I do a lot of research for these things.
Carolyn 00:36:31 Yeah. Apparently. Yeah. So that’s right. So I think that, I think that the integrated information complex, that that would be better understood as the subject mm-hmm. <affirmative> rather than consciousness. Now, one of the graduate students that, that I’m working with, I’m not his main advisor, but I’m on his committee here at uc, Merced Sergio de Leon, he recently pointed out to me that in a footnote of ten’s 2004 paper, I think that he says that the complex is the subject. And so that’s thrown me for a loop a little bit.
Paul 00:37:03 <laugh>. Yeah. I mean, it’s tough. Wait,
Carolyn 00:37:05 What <laugh>? Yeah, but I kind, I kinda get it. I mean, I, I think I, I think I can still see his picture and how it’s different from my picture, but I really need to go back and revisit that early work and think about what he meant by that. Cause I was just at a conference in September. We were both, tenon and I were both at Julio, I should say. I guess Julio and I were both at this conference in September. And I talked with him a little bit and I told him, you know, I’m going to be criticizing your work here. I’m going to be saying that, um, that he’s
Paul 00:37:36 Used to that.
Carolyn 00:37:36 Yeah, yeah, of course. And he, and I said, I’m going to say that consciousness does not emerge. And he was like, I agree. I was like, well, this is awkward <laugh>. Oh. Cause I could’ve sworn you had a bunch of papers, so you consciousness emerged. But he definitely says that, that there is this emergent causal power related to i t but you does not think that it’s consciousness that emerges. So yeah, it’s a complicated view. That’s my point is it’s like kind of hard to put all the pieces together, but I think he thinks that consciousness is very closely related to the complex. You’ve got the quality of space or whatever mm-hmm. <affirmative>, um, and that’s where the panpsychism comes in, is it’s, it’s kind of like the flip side or something of it. Um, I think what he thinks is that the, I’m now, I’m really, I really don’t know, but I, I wouldn’t be surprised if he still wants to say that that complex is a subject and consciousness. It’s kind of both.
Paul 00:38:27 Right. The conflating the two. Right. Which, um, a lot of your work has been done to keep them separate.
Carolyn 00:38:33 Yeah. So I think there is still sunlight between our views, but I have to work a little harder on, on figuring out exactly how, how that all comes together. So that’s where, if I were to have a conversation with Christoff today, and I haven’t for years, I’m guessing that’s where he would disagree. But yeah, I believe that he, um, I’ve been able to convince him of at least one thing <laugh> in the past. So I feel good about that. Yeah. Um, I’m not sure how, how much he’s been, but for the most part, you know, I learned from my advisors rather than vice versa. I
Paul 00:39:03 Say. Sure. <laugh>. Well, okay, before we move on, I, so I just had, uh, Michael Anderson on, um, talking about his book after Phenology. And toward the end of the episode, he was relating, cuz I was asking him how he, you know, came to these ideas and he, which I think is rare, had like a eureka sort of, uh, moment that led to him. And so are you saying that yours came about, like from this meeting that you had it, it was, was it kind of a eureka moment or was it a more normal gradual realization?
Carolyn 00:39:34 I’d say it’s both. So I definitely had a eureka like moment then it’s not like I knew what the full view would be. Right, right. I had an insight, but it took more time. And I remember having a, a similar meeting with my main advisor, Dan Dahlstrom, where I, I also realized, okay, this is, um, yeah, I’m gonna have to do something here.
Paul 00:39:55 It’s, so it’s kinda a feeling in the back of your head. Yeah. Something wasn’t right and you knew. Yes.
Carolyn 00:39:59 Okay. Yeah. That’s what I would say. Yeah. The Christoff meeting was like, okay, this doesn’t work. And then <laugh> like, I’m gonna, I need something to fix this. Um, there’s a conflict here in the dissertation or a gap or something. And then later realizing, uh, this is what, this is what makes sense of it all. This is, I need to turn a little bit on this. It didn’t end up changing a lot of the language. It just, in my assumptions, in my mind, it, it changed a lot. Yeah.
Paul 00:40:28 But did it make everything else kind of come into alignment? Like how all of the different pieces Yes. But it seems like that that would’ve occurred. Right. So that’s, so then you just
Carolyn 00:40:37 Had to like,
Paul 00:40:38 Go figure out, just essentially describe in words how they’re aligned. Right? Yeah.
Carolyn 00:40:44 So, okay. And I, and I’m still kind of doing that. I kind of have a master view of the mind <laugh>. Yeah. But it’s not like every single piece is worked out. Like I was saying that the line between the subject and the world, I don’t know exactly where that is that boundary. So it’s not like I’ve worked everything out, but it, that piece was really helpful for seeing more of how the view would work out. Yeah.
Paul 00:41:06 Okay. So the, the neural mechanism of your account of attention depends on, or, um, yeah. Leans on oscillations and, uh, the scale free dynamics of brain activity. Yeah. So maybe you can descr can you just describe what, what the, those oscillations are and why they’re important? And then I’ll ask you Well, go ahead, go ahead first and then I’ll ask you follows
Carolyn 00:41:27 <laugh>. Ok.
Paul 00:41:28 I don’t wanna throw like seven questions at you at once, which is I from you. So, yeah.
Carolyn 00:41:32 Yeah. I’m not good at answering seven questions. I have to write them down when they come in, in parts like that, so I don’t lose track of them <laugh>. But, um, the simple view of what, like an oscillation is, is that it’s just brain firing at a longer temporal duration or a larger spatial scale mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So, you know, um, neurons passing an action potential from one to another that if you zoom in, then you just call that like neural firing. If you zoom out, you add up that neural firing over time and over space, then it might look like an oscillation. It might look like that sometimes there’s more of that neural firing at one moment, and the next moment there’s less of the neural firing, and then you get a wave. So you get a peak and a trough. So the oscillations are just neural firing over time.
Carolyn 00:42:27 That’s not all that they are in my view, because if that’s all that they were, then we would be at a descriptive account of, of, um, neuro firing at a different scale. And I don’t think that I, this is another place where I’m not, I can’t remember if I said this is one of the places that I have less confidence about, but what I, one of the places I have less confidence about is what exact physiological mechanism would account for these like, oscillation, like the fact that there’s some modulatory effects from the oscillations over the firing mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So that’s something that a number of neuroscientists have started to assert. Earl Miller, there’s a lot of back and forth forth on Twitter when I used to be on Twitter, uh, between Earl Miller and other neuroscientists about this. So it’s becoming, um, it’s, it’s a new view that’s out there in neuroscience that the oscillations have modulatory power over neuro firing mm-hmm. <affirmative>,
Carolyn 00:43:25 But they’re responsible for local field potentials. They’re responsible for a haptic coupling. That’s something that I see and I see as helping my view of attention, but what the exact physiological basis of that could be. I’m not sure. And I think a helpful way of seeing this point is, I love this example that you can find these videos online of, um, oh, what are those called? Uh, the things that help keep time anyhow. Well, yeah. An oscillator. But um, in music they use these things like metronomes metronome, thank you, <laugh>. Oh yeah, the thing, there’s these great videos online. Yes. Yeah. So they’ll have all these metronomes that are like out of time on a table and if you watch the me the video over time, then they sync up and they’re all going together. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So the idea that a lot of people have about the brain is that there’s something similar going on with this where the control of the oscillatory activity over the more local neural firing activities like that, that there’s a kind of forcing in line of the local activity into the, the global activity. But that only works with metronomes because they’re sitting on a table. Right.
Carolyn 00:44:40 So the table, the vibrations of the metronomes is being gathered <laugh> in the table and then kind of communicated to the other metronomes
Paul 00:44:51 How little nudges over and over that eventually get
Carolyn 00:44:53 The in sync. Yeah, exactly. And but if there was no table that that was shared, there would be no sinking up. And so similarly in the brain, if there’s no, if there’s nothing that can kind of hold the firing apart from the individual firing, then you wouldn’t expect there to be anything like that kind of nudging or pushing. And I don’t know that there’s really been a conversation in neuroscience about that. If we really think that it has this kind of modulatory capacity. Do we think that it’s like that? Do we think that it’s like the table? Do we think there’s something else in the brain that we’ve missed? Um, something that can kind of hold that signal. People say, oh, it’s the electric field, but we don’t normally think of electric fields. There is some weird stuff in quantum, but we don’t normally think of electric fields as like tables like that, like as holding this extra stuff.
Carolyn 00:45:46 Um, except for at the quantum level. So at the brain level, is that what we wanna say? That there’s something special about an electric field? Or are we saying that there’s some other something besides like the neural connect And of course there’s been some great work on all the things besides neural firing that influence, uh, brain activity. So maybe the astrocytes are doing it, maybe it’s still love layers. Maybe like one layer is do is, you know, holding the kind of like <laugh>, I dunno, o story activity information. Yeah. And another layer is, and maybe it’s something like that. But, but that’s where I, I think that if that view is gonna get off the ground, there’s gonna have to be something like that. There’s gonna have to be a table basically in the brain.
Paul 00:46:27 But, so, okay. J just to lay it out explicitly, the view of, um, of what attention is in terms of brain activity is the slow wave oscillations, um, that you put in the funnel cortex. Not that that, you know, it’s Yeah. Doesn’t hinge on that. Um, but that is modulating the, um, more local faster oscillatory dynamics Yeah. And neural fir ring. And it’s these slow long range oscillations that you put as the seat of an intentional mechanism in the brain.
Carolyn 00:46:58 Yeah.
Paul 00:47:00 So if, so, how much of your account depends on that, right? If, if that is not, if it turns out that, uh, slow wave oscillations don’t have the necessary modulatory properties Yeah. Then do you just go searching for a different mechanism or, um, you know, where is this on your confidence scale, for instance? And how important is it to your account?
Carolyn 00:47:21 I guess I would say I’m not sure about it. Um, so I think it’s possible to work out, I think that’s like an easy way of seeing causal power. Is this kind of tabled parts <laugh>, you know, kind of approach. I think a harder way is, is one in which there’s, there’s no such thing at that level. It’s descriptive. I think that there would still be room for a causal power account. It’s just, it’s, it’s a little bit less interesting. So it’s, it’s not like it, um, it’s not like it defeats the view. It just, it makes it a little harder, I think. Yeah.
Paul 00:48:03 Yeah. Okay. So, um, I mean, yeah, you talk about the scale free, um, properties of like oscillations in the brain. One of the things that, uh, I just thought of right before we started recording actually was, you know, what about so, so putting it, putting, uh, attention at that alpha band or beta, whatever it is, like slower, uh, longer range Yeah. Oscillations, why not put it at, uh, circadian rhythm, right. Or like what a special about that band of oscillatory brain activity. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, there are other oscillations that are even slower and you know, like circadian rhythm right. Affects our entire bodies. And why not, uh, put the seat of a, of attention there. I know that’s a Yeah. Ridiculous question,
Carolyn 00:48:44 But No, it’s not. I mean, I guess there are different ways of answering that, but one way is just that there’s this, there’s evidence out of Earl Miller’s lab actually, right. Um, that, that, that is a signature of top down attention in monkeys. But, but there’s no reason to think that that does not apply to humans. So looking at the relationship between, um, L I P and E F, for example, in a, a visual attention paradigm where they contrasted bottom up and top down attention, f e being the a frontal area and l lap being a protal area. So they’re kind of standing in for bottom up and top down attention, even though they’re both relatively high level areas mm-hmm. <affirmative>, um, that f e had this signature of a slower way than then l i p had the signature of a faster way. And then I just kind of add that in with all this other evidence on what that means given scale free dynamics in the brain.
Carolyn 00:49:38 Okay. So, so part of the reason is just that there’s evidence that that’s, that is a signature of attention. And then, and also that, that makes sense given that there’s a lot of evidence that top sign attention is very highly co, highly corresponds with lateral prefrontal. That top down attention corresponds with that. And that that’s kind of far along the trajectory. <laugh>, at least for visual. If you think in terms of visual the, um, visual pathways that things take a long time to get, that’s like about as far as you can get <laugh> in the brain, lateral prefrontal. And so that, that would be on a delay, it makes sense that that would be on a longer time scale. So it, it kind of fits with the anatomy as well. But, um, I think that that lateral prefrontal top down attention is that that has to be involved for attention to be happening, in my view, for the subject to be involved in my view. But the subject is not lateral prefrontal cortex. The subject is supposed to be the collection of interests. And so that’s, you can understand that more like whole brain activity
Paul 00:50:48 That’s so abstract a collection. I just, it’s very abstract. Yeah.
Carolyn 00:50:52 Yeah. Right. And so I don’t know exactly how to think of an interest in neural terms. Yeah. That’s another thing that would be helpful, I think <laugh>, but I, yeah, I just don’t know how to, to translate that. So I’m thinking I’m at a different Mars level right now. RN level. Yeah. <laugh>. I’m not at the implementation level, but, um, but yeah, so you could think of it in terms of like the whole brain activity. So the bottom of signal and the top down signal are both part of that collection. So subject is not just a top down part. The subject would be both mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So subject I sometimes talk about in terms of the pattern, you could think of it as like a interference pattern. So in, I’m saying it, I’m drawing it out like this, that you can see that all of the, all of the frequencies would matter to the subject if we’re talking about their interests. So if, if there’s circadian rhythm, if it’s like a, I don’t know, a mm-hmm. <affirmative>, fluttering eyelash rhythm, I dunno what’s like the fastest rhythm <laugh>, but like there’s, you know, lots of different scales that are gonna matter to the subject. They all make up the subject, they all make up its set of interests. It’s just that that power is coming from the slower ones over the faster ones.
Paul 00:52:09 So, uh, you’re starting a neuroscience lab and you want to decouple oscillations from spiking activity, um, because you don’t have, uh, oscillations, at least the kind that we’re interested in, uh, without, you know, patterns of spiking activity. And then the oscillations themselves are presumably affecting the spiking activity. And so these, these mutual, like the table affects the oscillator, the metronomes, the metronomes actually affect the table as well. Um, how, how do we pull those apart?
Carolyn 00:52:39 <laugh>? Yeah, that’s a really good question. So there was a great, um, Louis Passilla who’s at Maryland, just had a salon, he calls it neuroscience and Philosophy salon. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, where he hosted Earl Miller, Leslie Kay. Some other neuroscientists. And this is exactly what they were disputing, whether it was possible to have a neuro scientific experiment that could tease these things apart. So people are working on it, they’re thinking about it. It’s clearly going to be a really important part of neuroscience going forward. We know that local field potentials are the source of the FMRI signal. They are likely very closely related to eeg. So the ways that we’ve been measuring the brain seem like they have to do with local field potentials. What are they? So a long time ago people would just say, oh, they’re just a summative, you know, activity near the neuron or whatever.
Carolyn 00:53:34 But it doesn’t, it doesn’t look like that’s the whole story. And, and I think that we want to know what they are <laugh>. Cause they, it’s important for understanding the mind and the brain. And, um, it’s, it would not be surprising if, if there were these kind of like oscillatory effects, given what we know the aap, um, the fact that two neurons that are severed can, that you can get a signal across that severed mm-hmm. <affirmative>, the severed neurons, the aap, uh, coupling that I think is good evidence for field effects. That’s one of the, the points that I think the people who are interested in oscillations have, have kind of been pushing. The response that I’ve seen is, well, it’s a small effect, but even a small effect <laugh> mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I mean, we know attention. There’s not, we don’t have a lot of power over our minds. We have a little bit of more
Paul 00:54:34 Over our minds, <laugh>, is that right? Yeah.
Carolyn 00:54:36 Yeah. And then we leverage that with lots of other things. But, um, so even a small effect would be, you know, would be a big deal. So I think that we should all be really interested in why, why that’s the case, why there is AAP to coupling what is the L F P and hopefully the community when, you know, as it becomes obsessed with these things, will find an answer as it has to other neuro scientific mysteries in the past.
Paul 00:55:04 But if I, if I don’t have oscillations, so I was gonna say, if I don’t have oscillations, that means I don’t have a self. But you’ll correct me and say that the self is not the oscillations, the self is the collection of interests. But if I don’t have oscillations, am I not able to, uh, how does that, how does that relate if my oscillations go away, but my spiking activity is still there. Yeah. Am I missing a self?
Carolyn 00:55:30 That’s a good question. So like I said before, my methodology is I take this like experiential information, the neuro scientific information, the behavioral information. And so what we’ve been talking about is like the neuroscience, you know, the implementation level, which is important,
Paul 00:55:44 Which no one cares about these days. So you’re in good footing, <laugh> Yeah. Defining things in abstract ways no one cares about from in. Yeah.
Carolyn 00:55:53 But I mean, experience also matters. So I’ve been, I’ve been trying to put forward like what you could take to be a, how possible account of the subject. But I do think that evidence of the subject is not limited to evidence from neuroscience. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So this is what I take to be the most promising place for the subject in the brain. It’s going to be if, if there is nothing like that, if it really is just a mere description, oscillations are mere descriptions of her
Paul 00:56:20 That be phenomena or
Carolyn 00:56:21 Something. Yeah, exactly. Then I think it’s gonna be harder to find something like a subject. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t be able to do it, but it would look a little bit more like, um, upcycling, <laugh>. Like I was kinda making things up. Whereas what I take myself to have been doing is kind of gathering evidence from different domains and trying to make sense of that different evidence. And I think our experiential evidence points to a subject. I think that when we look at other beings, we see subjects. So we see, we see when someone did something accidentally or intentionally, we can kind of see that in their behavior. Um, we see it in ourselves experientially. And I think there looks like there’s brain signature as well that might make sense of that. So if I lose one, that doesn’t mean that it’s, that it doesn’t make sense anymore, but it, it doesn’t help either. <laugh>. Yeah.
Paul 00:57:16 I was also thinking about how far down or back the evolutionary tree to ascribe selves, um, do, do organisms without brains, not have selves. Is is a brain necessary for self <laugh> easy questions,
Carolyn 00:57:33 Right? Yeah. Yeah. It, um, so I’ve been giving a brain based account of self mm-hmm.
Paul 00:57:41 <affirmative>.
Carolyn 00:57:41 That is certainly where I have been leaning. But I, I need to work a little bit more on, on the, on the, those me the mechanisms. Like what exactly a self is like a kind of mechanistic account of what the subject is. I’ve worked on that a little bit, but it’s not a, I don’t wouldn’t, it still doesn’t feel like a complete account as you’ve kind of like, what is an interest, how exactly does an interest
Paul 00:58:05 Work? Yeah. Do plants have a set of interests, for instance, and Yeah.
Carolyn 00:58:09 Right. So I think that if I could get to something like, and I’ve worked on this a little bit and I haven’t found satisfactory tools for what I want to do, but what I would like to see is something like a network science version of the subject uhhuh, and then, then it would be testable. Like can social groups be subjects? Ooh, can ant colonies be subjects? Right now I don’t feel confident enough to say that that’s not possible. Um, certainly you see special kinds of activity in the brain that lend themselves seeing, okay, there’s a possibility here, or the kinds of things I would want the subject to do, but I have to be a lot more specific about what exactly that is in order to say whether or not that same thing is happening in the ant colony or in the social group. And I think that would be really valuable. Um, my suspicion is that there’s minimally some kind of like unity in those things. I don’t know if it’s the same kind of unity, but, um, yeah.
Paul 00:59:18 So, so subject hood would potentially be multiply realizable,
Carolyn 00:59:24 Possibly. Um, what I think it’s one of the things that I’m also not really sure about is whether, so consciousness and the subject are closely related. Consciousness is the way that the subject is related to its world. My suspicion is that whatev, even if these other things come along with signatures of a subject in certain respects that they’re not going to have, they’re not going to have that self world boundary. So that’s another thing where I wanna get like down to like a mechanistic picture to see why, why that wouldn’t be the case. And I, I don’t have a full account of that, but I’m, I’m really drawn to like Evan Thompson’s work on auto psis that there is this self, that one of the things that is interesting in biology is this self-defining nature of the cell all the way up to the organism. And so I suspect that that is playing a key role in what is generating the self world boundary and generating then that relation with the world. And I suspect that wouldn’t be there in the ant colony, um, or in the social group, but I’m not sure. So
Paul 01:00:42 Yeah, you have one line in your book that, um, mentions artificial intelligence, um, and the, I
Carolyn 01:00:50 Don’t remember <laugh>,
Paul 01:00:51 Well, I’ll, I don’t have it up, but it was ba basically you just said that, um, that, that your account of attention as a collection of interests, um, would be feasible, um, to implement in artificial systems. And, and therefore the, the implication would be that artificial sy systems, we could design them such that they have cells. Have you thought more about this? And, and I’m just kind of wondering what the wider implication is for artificial intelligence or systems and subjectiveness selfhood.
Carolyn 01:01:23 So I think that kind of follows the same trajectory of what I was saying earlier, that if I had this mechanistic, a deeper mechanistic account of subject, I would be able to mm-hmm. <affirmative> say that with more competence that it could, that it could be done artificially as well. I do think, from what I’ve seen in the AI community so far, I don’t think they have anything like what I call attention. Right.
Paul 01:01:46 They have the attention mechanisms are very loosely. Yeah.
Carolyn 01:01:50 Yeah. So they would be more like pre-established filtering or something like that. Maybe like a winner take all mechanism mm-hmm. <affirmative>, but nothing like this feedback at the level of the set. I had a conversation about that with two people who, one’s ahead of AI research at a major company and the other person is the CEO of his own AI company.
Paul 01:02:16 You can’t drop names.
Carolyn 01:02:18 No, I don’t. That seems disrespectful. Ok. Okay. Because it was a casual lunch. We were just chatting, but I was talking with them and, um, I didn’t know who they were. And so I was like, I think AI needs <laugh> attention like this uhhuh. And they were like, well, we’re working on that, actually. So that makes me think that it, maybe it’s possible at least people are aware that that is, that’s going to be an important part of artificial intelligence. That would be, my guess is that that would be, that would push it forward is to have a mechanism like that. And some people are trying to introduce a mechanism like that from my understanding of this casual lunch <laugh>.
Paul 01:03:06 I mean, just to make it Well, I mean, the other question is, do we want to build in, uh, something like that in artificial systems? Yeah. Um, or if, if we don’t build it in, um, would those systems not be intelligent in the way that we think of intelligence? Sorry, I’m getting us down a road that we
Carolyn 01:03:24 No, yeah. I mean we’re just, we’re just shooting the shit. We’re just saying what we want. Right. But like, um, but my, what I was saying earlier about my, if I were to force to kind of go down one path or another, like choose, choose a road, then I would say that the biology is important for consciousness and that intelligence and consciousness are not the same thing that you can get. I think you can get general intelligence without consciousness. And I think that for that you’re going to need something like attention. That’s my, again, my kind of guess view mm-hmm. <affirmative>, but that consciousness depends on this kind of auto, auto stuff. This, something special about what cells do in organizing themselves, that even if you have attention, don’t know that you’re gonna get consciousness out of it. Which is, I mean, that’s, for me, that’s hopeful because <laugh>, I don’t really want us to be creating a bunch of artificial consciousnesses. But I mean, there are ethical questions and legal questions, all kinds of questions even about general intelligence. If we’re able to create artificial general intelligence that’s, there are risks associated with that, but there are extra risks if they’re conscious
Paul 01:04:36 Or if they have selves, which is a separate issue. Right?
Carolyn 01:04:39 Right. Yeah. Yeah. Right. Yeah.
Paul 01:04:42 But so since you, something you just said queued me to this, that, um, so in the book, in in your works, you claim that attention is not necessary for consciousness, and consciousness is not necessary for attention. Right. But that attention is necessary for conscious perception, which Yeah. Can be a little confusing, right? Um, yeah. Can you tease those apart? It’s the, the thing that’s one of the things that is interesting about how, um, you bring all this together is that yeah, you have like these, you know, attention, right? Which has different tentacles, and these tentacles touch on different, um, phenomena like consciousness in different ways, right? Yeah. So it’s necessary for one part but not the other. Can you tease those apart? Yeah,
Carolyn 01:05:23 Yeah, yeah. One of the things that’s, that I do in the book is I try to say, look, this is what attention does do for the mind. This is what it doesn’t do for the mind. So attention is really important to us, but it, it’s not, it’s not important for every single thing that we do. Um, I think that’s key. You have to have that contrast. If you’re, if you’re not just being like a Freudian saying everything <laugh>, everything is my thing, everything is water, whatever. Um, so in this case, uh, I see consciousness as a relation between the subject of this world. I see perception as a case in which the subject is gathering information from its world. So it’s a specific version of that relation sensation I see as the sensory mediated relation with the world. So it’s your, you have this relation with your world through your senses, and you’ve got then that sensation that is the kind of psychologist’s view of sensation. The philosopher has a completely def different definition of sensation. Um, but the psychologist is long seen as like the raw input. And then perception is kind of the structural, structural version of that raw input. So when you take that raw input and you add structure, you get perception as a psychologist perspective, the philosopher seems to think like sensation is very closely related to consciousness. That it’s like the redness of red, like follia basically and sensation are closely related together. It’s different, right? Different way of seeing the
Paul 01:06:51 Feelings.
Carolyn 01:06:51 Yeah. The feelings, yeah, exactly. And so then you, then it kind of messes things up because you’re like, okay, well if it’s raw, then is it <laugh>? Like, I mean, the, I think it’s possible to, to find common ground between them. But I’m, I’m just noting that I’m talking in terms of the psychologist here. I’m talking in terms of the sort of raw input, um, which I think most of our experiences are a mixture of those things. So most of our experiences I think have some of that like unmediated, relat and some structured relationship. But whenever you have an instance of conscious perception, that means that there’s structure in that relationship somewhere that means attention. Is there somewhere also <laugh>?
Paul 01:07:35 But so, but just to clarify to you, conscious perception and perception are the same thing. Like perception is necessarily Yeah. Okay.
Carolyn 01:07:42 And I know that that’s like, it’s probably a little confusing. Why is she specifying that it’s conscious here? And that’s just because of the limitations of the evidence that I use, that I rely on phenomenological evidence for that argument. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So one of the key pieces of that argument is that if you look at our perceptual experiences, that they always have this foreground background structure that the most, we know that the thing that’s special about perception is that it’s structured in some way. And so I kind of go through what are the possible structures that could be the most foundational structures. And I think that foreground background structure is the thing that is never absent, even in balance, even in these really extreme perceptual experiences, you always have that. And so the idea is that that’s, that, that, that’s the thing that’s, um, that attention provides. And that’s the thing that’s at the heart of perception.
Paul 01:08:37 So
Carolyn 01:08:37 A i the questionnaire somewhere.
Paul 01:08:38 No, that’s ok. But so, so attention, I mean, so we get to meaning also through this, right? So attention is the, is necessary for our conscious perception, but that is organizing the world and the foreground and background. And that is what provides or creates meaning to us. Is that, do I have, did I say that right?
Carolyn 01:08:57 That’s right. Yeah. So the diff the fact that there’s a difference making foreground versus background, any difference making is where you get like Shannon information. So now you’ve created like a zero and a one or whatever. You need a difference to get Shannon information. But a big, big idea in information theory within philosophy, philosophy of information is that information, as we normally mean it, is not mirror Shannon information. It’s Shannon information difference making plus meaning. And the idea is that what attention’s doing is it’s making that difference. It’s like establishing a difference between foreground and background, but according to the interest of the subject. So the meaning is coming from the fact that the subject has those interests, and so it’s differentiating them according to what’s valuable to the subject. So you get both, you get the difference and the meaning, and so you get full information from that move, I think. Oh, that’s right. So you were asking like, so why do I say conscious perception? I forgot to bring it back around <laugh>. It’s because my evidence is limited to this evidence from, uh, experience. Hmm. So, I don’t know, maybe unconscious perception doesn’t have foreground background instructor, who knows? I don’t know what to say about that. Um, my suspic is that this holds for perception in general, but I can’t really say that because I’m working from conscious experience. That’s my evidence base. Yeah.
Paul 01:10:22 I, I don’t really know how to phrase this question, but, um, thinking about the account of meaning in that sense. So the interests, um, create the conditions by which we gather meaning from the world. Does, don’t we have to have the meaning already if we’re searching for that? Meaning? Is this a chicken and egg problem?
Carolyn 01:10:44 I don’t think so. I think it’s, we are, I think what we’re doing is we’re applying, you’re right, we already have the meaning, but we’re just applying it to the world. So we’re like, okay, what is the meaning of that tree to me? By, by applying your meaning, your interests to the tree, that’s where you’re giving it. I mean, it does, you’re not like giving it meaning, but you’re, you’re connecting it to your meaning. Okay. If that makes sense. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>.
Paul 01:11:12 So we, we talked about attention being necessary for conscious perception. Uh, but you use, uh, the example of what you call conscious entrainment, I think is the phrase. Yeah. Um, as evidence that attention is not necessary for consciousness in general. Right. Um, so what is conscious entrainment? And I’m wondering if you have, um, continued to think about that or other examples.
Carolyn 01:11:34 So conscious entrainment is probably the easiest way to understand it would be to connect it with, uh, Mihai chick sent me’s a concept of flow experience. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So in flow, as chicks sent, Mehi has wrote, you know, for many years about flow. Flow is a case where you’re an expert in something. You, you’ve become very skilled in some kind of activity. For me, this case was drawing. Um, that’s the example I think I give in the book. But just think of a skill that you have. And the idea is that when you get to a certain level with that skill, a kind of peak version of a skill you may have experiences where you, it comes very easily to you, very naturally to you. And it feels really great. Um, so for a cheek sent me high, this was, um, connected to positive psychology. Like what kinds of things make your life go well and being focused on that. For me, I’m obviously just interested in how the mind works. I don’t really care. <laugh>, I mean, I do care what makes for life go well, you don’t care how people feel. That’s <laugh> I don’t care about. I do, but not, that’s not my focus. Um, one of the things that really distinguishes the reason I don’t use flow psychology language, one of the reasons is for cheek sent me high, he says that flow requires attention and
Paul 01:12:55 Effort, right? So it has to be effortful,
Carolyn 01:12:57 Right? Yeah. So that’s awkward because I’m arguing that these are experiences that are effortless and that don’t require attention. And so I think that would throw people off if I started out by, by describing in flow psychology terms. Cause I’m not trying to make it about his work. I’m not trying to make it about flow psychology, but just so happens that what I’m describing is very closely related. I think where the discrepancy comes about is that Chick sent me high and many other people I think conflate focus with attention. So they think anytime you’re focused, that you’re necessarily attending. And I think that that’s not, that’s not necessarily the case. So I think it’s possible to be focused on something as a result of automatic filtering without having to have done any of that prioritization work of attention. So you don’t have to apply your interest to the stimuli, I think to be focused on something.
Carolyn 01:13:51 So focus is a kind of like a result. It’s doesn’t tell you with a process that led to that result. And I think most of the time, yeah, we’re focused on things because of our attention process, but in some cases, I think it’s possible for us to be focused on things because of automatic processes that don’t have anything to do with attention that are the result of automatic filtering kind of stuff. And that’s what I think is going on in these highly skilled cases is that we have these very, very highly trained automatic processes. And we sometimes, I think even strategically, we enter into that automatic state on purpose mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Um, and we allow ourselves to, to be engaged with our world in this very fluid way that doesn’t require that work of attention, that kind of processing and prioritizing work of attention,
Paul 01:14:38 But your phenomenological experience. Right. So let’s go back to your example, your drawing. You’re not caring about how anyone else feels, um, in the world and, but, but, uh, whether you strategically automated that, um, experience of drawing and you, and you kind of realize right, that you’ve, um, been drawing effortlessly and somewhat automatically, right? Yeah. Um, how do you know, and, and, and the argument is that, um, attention was not required or Yeah. Or being implemented during that. Yeah. How do you, maybe what if you were just not consciously aware of the effort and attention during that process, how, how do you know that attention is not working in the background outside of your awareness of it? That’s an unfair question.
Carolyn 01:15:24 I know. Mm, mm-hmm. <affirmative>. No, no, no. It is a fair question. So this goes back to that, that methodology that it, the phenomenology is a key mm-hmm. <affirmative> key component. But one of the, one of the pieces of evidence from behavioral science that I felt is really helpful is the work on choking. Um, so
Paul 01:15:44 I’m very familiar with choking, by the way. Yeah. Oh, I have, I still like remember shooting free throws in a, in a basketball game and just the awfulness of it. I miss them both. Yeah. Anyway,
Carolyn 01:15:54 I have had an experience of choking while giving a talk before where I, I like was mid-sentence and I was like, how does my mouth form words? And I was like, oh my God, what have I done?
Paul 01:16:07 <laugh> not good. Not good.
Carolyn 01:16:08 You wanna be. So, um, I mean I think I recovered, but I think I just like, I remember just my mouth just was moving and saying nonsense for like a couple minutes cuz I was like trying to recover <laugh> like control over that. Yeah. But yeah, so choking, there are lots of accounts of joking. Um, you know, there’s good evidence for all of the different accounts. So it’s actually like a really tricky, it’s a really tricky case, but, um, at least one of the things that I think that points to is that it’s possible for prefrontal cortical activity for attention to yourself to disrupt, um, certain kinds of behaviors. And I think that makes a lot of sense of these reports that you hear from highly skilled people that, um, I mean, it’s a really common trope in, in athletic, uh, studies of, of athletes that, that they shouldn’t pay too much attention to what they’re doing
Paul 01:17:12 If they’re highly skilled.
Carolyn 01:17:14 If they’re highly skilled. Yes, that’s right. So while they’re learning, it’s a different story, but once they’ve gotten to a certain level of, of expertise, they’re, they’re told, don’t think about it. Just do it. You know? Um, and I think that this is, it’s, it’s a fairly common phenomenon. A lot of people have felt this that you, that you can disrupt what you’re doing by paying attention to it. You see that in the behavioral evidence, at least according to one story of choking. And I think if you combine those together, it seems like it’s not just that there’s automat toity processes and there’s attention processes. It seems like there’s competition between them. And to me that that makes sense of why people say things like, some musicians say that they play with automaticity. I think what that, what that means to me is that they recognize that they need to use their this one type of process some of the time.
Carolyn 01:18:14 Um, and so they’re going, that’s to what I mean by strategic automaticity, they’re going to to have like these like chunks of automaticity that they’re gonna rely on, but they don’t wanna be automatic the whole time. They want to like insert some kind of like creative flourish or whatever. So they’re kind of playing with it mm-hmm. <affirmative>, um, they’re, they’re incorporating it. Um, but they’re, but they’re using that and they’re seeing that as like a different mode. So I see that as, as supportive evidence as well, the behavioral evidence, um, as well as these kind of phenomenological ports. So it’s possible that attention is there maybe just like a little bit of attention, maybe a different form of attention. Some philosophers have said, well, maybe there’s automatic attention. Maybe that’s the best explanation.
Paul 01:18:53 What the hell does that mean? I don’t even, yeah. I mean, so many, so much of this, you know, just depends on how you define things. Of course. Which is That’s right. Just authority issue. But
Carolyn 01:19:02 That’s right. I think it’s possible for you to say it’s automatic attention. I just, if if that’s what you’re going to do, I think you’re going to want to be able to account for what appears to be competition between automatic attention and non-automatic attention. So if you’ve done that and you’re like, okay, there’s these two different kinds of attention, then maybe we are in a similar place. But I find it more helpful to have one thing be attention and one thing be authenticity as is consistent with like, the history of psychology on this topic. Just like buy into that way the words have always been used. Um, and just make sense of these, um, these things. Like the fact that focus can come apart from attention. You know, you still, there’s still things you have to explain if you’re going to Cleve onto that historical distinction between attention and automaticity. But I think it, it’s easier to explain that than it is to, to say that you have these two forms of attention. Ones automatic and ones
Paul 01:19:58 Yeah. I was gonna ask you if attention is a switch, you know, so, um, this age old debate in consciousness, right? Is it a switch or a knob like, um, gradients or on or off? And one could ask the same thing about attention and I’ll just throw in there, you know, regarding what you were just talking about, you know, the difference between automated attention, uh, and full blown attention or whatever, uh, that at least in the brain, right, the oscillations are always going. Yeah. So they, they don’t just like turn off, but when you’re not attending to something, so you still have the oscillations. So anyway, I’ll just throw that in there, uh, with the question of whether attention is a knob or a switch.
Carolyn 01:20:40 Yeah. So I guess both unfortunately, so, oh
Paul 01:20:43 No,
Carolyn 01:20:44 Whether or not there is attention is gonna be like a switch thing. So like, okay, is it filtering or is there some amount of screen front feedback? Then you’re gonna have like, that’s like a kind difference. So there’s just filtering or there’s attention, you know, like those are two different things, but then there’s going to be degrees of attention within that range, or degrees of, I mean, it’s not right to call it degrees of attention, but degrees of control or something like that. So there’s gonna be a wide range of, there’s like a sudden onset stimulus. Like right now a basketball, like why is at your head <laugh> or something? Yeah. You don’t like, have a lot of control over whether you attend <laugh> basketball. That’s like, that’s a lot of power there. And so it, you just got like a little, like <laugh> maybe like a little bit, were like, I think I’m just gonna direct my attention away from the podcast into the basketball. Maybe there was a little bit of something there. Um, versus like, someone’s having a conversation about the Kardashians nearby and you <laugh> you,
Paul 01:21:44 You had to bring up the Kardashians <laugh>,
Carolyn 01:21:46 You’re very focused on the podcast for some reason. That’s my favorite, my favorite topic. I don’t know why. Okay. Right. It’s, it just shows that I’m old, um, <laugh>, you know, my pop cultural references are old.
Paul 01:21:58 Oh, maybe that is old. I don’t know, maybe that Yeah, it
Carolyn 01:22:01 Is
Paul 01:22:01 Now, yeah. Was my age. Yeah.
Carolyn 01:22:02 Yeah. But, uh, yeah, so you’re, you know, you’re, you effort fully blocking that out, whether you care about them or not, they’re, it’s something that matters to you, but it’s not like the basketball flying at your head. You can, you can use effort to overcome it and like stay with the podcast or stay with the conversation in the cafe or whatever. You don’t have to listen to the conversation about the
Paul 01:22:23 Why would you ever, why would you ever block out the Kardashians? Shouldn’t we be I understand <laugh>, yeah,
Carolyn 01:22:29 Yeah. <laugh>. But yeah. So, but if you do, you know, then you’ve asserted a little more control than over the basketball. So yeah, I think it comes in degrees once you’re in attention land. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. But, um, but whether or not it’s attention, I think you can, you can see that as a switch.
Paul 01:22:47 All right. Well, Carolyn, I know that, um, you need to get to work soon, and I’ve kept you long enough. Sorry that I was all over the place. This happens all the time, but I really appreciate it was a conversation. Oh, great. Yeah. Thanks for coming on and spending your time with me. So, no, no new book coming out. I I thought you were working on like mental control book or
Carolyn 01:23:03 Something. I did just publish a book called Attention to Mental Control. It’s a shorter book, so it’s, it’s a different kind of book. It’s not, it’s not me getting really, really deep with a new topic. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, many of the themes are the same. I’m basically explaining what mental control is. I’m offering an account of mental control, which would be familiar with readers of
Paul 01:23:24 This. Did you write it? Did you write it in a state of conscious entrainment? If it everything was old hat
Carolyn 01:23:28 To you? I don’t remember anything. <laugh>. I’m just kidding. Yeah, I did not write it in a state of con I wrote it like a regular person, but, um, but it didn’t take quite as long. It didn’t take quite as much. It was definitely using some of the resources I’d already gained from my previous study.
Paul 01:23:45 But by the way, I suggest, uh, I’ll link to this also in the show notes that, um, you recently published or edited. Um, yeah, with, with a co-editor, a book on all the topics of, um, lots of different philosophical topics. Yeah. And, uh, I’ve started reading it and, um, I’m really enjoying that as well. So Cool.
Carolyn 01:24:02 I’m so glad you like it. Yeah, it’s, it is a, a collaboration really of all those 30, you know, more than 30 philosophers and neuroscientists, so yeah. Cool. I’m glad
Paul 01:24:13 You like that. Thanks so much Carolyn, and, um, keep up the good work. Thanks for
Carolyn 01:24:17 Yeah, thanks so much. Thanks for having me on. It’s great talking to you.
Paul 01:24:36 I alone produce brain inspired. If you value this podcast, consider supporting it through Patreon to access full versions of all the episodes and to join our Discord community. Or if you wanna learn more about the intersection of neuroscience and ai, consider signing up for my online course, neuro ai, the quest to explain intelligence. Go to brand inspired.co. To learn more, to get in touch with me, email Paul brand inspired.co. You’re hearing music by the new year. Find firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you. Thank you for your support. See you next time.