Zombie Brains

In his Philosophical Zombie thought experiment, David Chalmers (1996) proposed that one could conceive of an individual that is physically identical to you, right down to the molecular level, but does not have any phenomenally conscious state whatsoever. This is one phrasing of his “Hard Problem of Consciousness”, namely, why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life? What is the evolutionary advantage of our consciousness awareness?

A Lieberman et al (2002) article on attributional inference hypotheses on some possible explanations. Attribution describes how people make sense of another’s behaviour. Superior inference can be an advantage in managing social interactions. Theories for attribution suggest behaviour (B) can be modelled as the joint product of an assessment of the individual’s disposition (D) and the context of situation (S) i.e. B = D+S. However, research shows that people tend to incorrectly over attribute behaviour to presumed disposition or personality traits rather than to the specific social situation.

The Lieberman team make use of an X-system (reflexion) and C-system (reflection) social cognitive neuroscience based framework for attributional inference. The X-system is said to give rise to the stream-of-consciousness that we continuously experience. It is an automatic pattern-matching process tied to the lateral temporal cortex, basal ganglia and amygdala. The C-system is associated with reflective awareness, e.g. thought. It is categorised as a control process using higher-level symbolic manipulation for logical reasoning and has neural correlates with the anterior cingulate, prefrontal cortex and hippocampus regions.

The X-system’s spontaneous perception becomes the source of default attribution assessment unless a level of incoherence is detected. In such cases, the C-system is triggered to intervene and reasoning is applied to re-evaluate the inference. Experiments show that under cognitive load, the C-system resources are diminished and attributional decision-making is impaired. Connecting this C-system to higher-level awareness, we begin to find an evolutionary advantage to consciousness.


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