But AST really is illusionism

Susan Blackmore
Department of Psychology
University of Plymouth
Portland Square
Plymouth PL4 8AA


tel (44) 01752 894413
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Keywords:  Attention, Consciousness, Illusionism, Cartesian materialism, Meditation, Out-of-body experience

Here is a version of mine as submitted. It may have been edited before publication. So please do not quote from this version.


I applaud Graziano and colleagues (2020) for their bold theoretical leap. Attention and consciousness have long been confused and their relationships confusing. A complex brain needs to deploy attention efficiently, and this requires an effective and constantly updated model of what it is attending to and how. This new approach – equating m-consciousness, or subjective experience, with the model of attention – provides a welcome new way to approach the muddle. At its simplest, “awareness is a model of attention” (p 21).

Yet I wish the authors had clearly admitted that AST really is a form of illusionism. Ordinary dictionaries typically define ‘illusion’ not as something that does not exist but as something that is not what it seems to be – precisely what the authors claim when they say ‘m-consciousness … does not exist as such. Or at least, it is not what we think it is’. (p 13).

If they had stuck to m-consciousness as the single process deserving the name ‘consciousness’ its illusory nature would have been obvious. But instead they have two types of consciousness. Their simple and tempting equation is that i-consciousness is the information and m-consciousness is a partial model of that information. In other words, the mysterious, subjective, what-it’s-like kind of consciousness – the kind that worries us so much – is a partial model of mechanistic information processing.

Why then call i-consciousness ‘consciousness’ at all? Perhaps this is because of the connection they make with global workspace theories. M-consciousness, they say, does not model all information, or all attentional processes going on in the brain; it specifically models information in the global workspace. As they put it, ‘GW is an account of i-consciousness’ and information (for example about an apple) ‘has entered the global workspace and thus entered consciousness’ (p6). But we need to ask precisely what this ‘entering’ means and in what sense the ‘contents’ now deserve to be called ‘conscious’.

There is a real problem with the notion of conscious contents, and I have long argued that consciousness is not a kind of container that has ‘contents’ inside it (Blackmore 2002). In modelling ongoing processes of attention, rather than specific items or ‘contents’ such as apples, AST might seem to escape this problem which would be a huge advantage. Yet, by also calling i-consciousness ‘consciousness’ they remain stuck with it. Indeed, it seems perverse to go along with GWT in the belief that the contents of the GW are the contents of consciousness, even if this is only i-consciousness and not the mysterious, subjective, m-consciousness.

GWT has always been ambiguous in an important sense, and even authors such as Baars (1997) and Dehaene (2014) do not clearly distinguish between two possible, fundamentally different, interpretations. One interpretation relies on a magical transformation: something enters the GW “and then it ‘becomes conscious’ or ‘enters consciousness’” with no explanation given for what this means or how it can be (Blackmore and Troscianko 2018 p 116). People who see it this way, and they may be in the majority, are like Dennett’s ‘Cartesian materialists’ who believe in a ‘crucial finish line or boundary somewhere in the brain’ marking a place where what happens ‘is what you are conscious of’ (Dennett 1991 p 107) or those scientists and scholars Graziano and colleagues (2020) criticise for still believing that minds can actively hold information by having subjective experiences. The harder, and less intuitively obvious, interpretation is to say that once something is in the GW it is widely broadcast, providing access to further processing, and to outputs such as action and speech. There is no special magic – such access is all consciousness is. This is what Dennett means by ‘fame in the brain’ or ‘cerebral celebrity’ (Dennett 2001). This move negates any distinction between access and phenomenal consciousness (Block 1995) and, some would say, shows why the hard problem is ill-posed. Fame is not something additional to being widely known; consciousness is not something additional to global availability.

Can Graziano and colleagues (2020) also claim this advantage? I think not because they give the name ‘consciousness’ to two completely different things – ‘the physically incoherent consciousness we think we have and the complex, rich, but mechanistic consciousness we may actually have.’ (p 2). They call the difference an ‘apparent divide’, yet the divide is real: m-consciousness is not an accurate reflection of i-consciousness but a partial model of some of its processes. The danger in calling the contents of the GW a kind of ‘consciousness’ is that some people may still be tempted into the more intuitive first kind of interpretation, imagining that apples, pears and beautiful views were already ‘conscious’ in the GW before being modelled in the attention schema. Clearly this is not what the authors mean, but I fear their approach may lead people into such misunderstandings.

Tying their theory to GWT has another potential advantage, and one that Graziano and colleagues (2020) make much of. That is, helping to ‘reconcile some of the current, rival cognitive neuroscience theories of consciousness’. But this too carries a cost. By tying i-consciousness to the GW, they must accept the constraints of GWTs, and rule out the possibility that the attention schema is modelling processes going on outside the GW. They may turn out to be right, and this has the benefit of being, at least potentially, testable. But it may be that attention schemata model far broader attentional processes, especially in exceptional states of consciousness.

The problem of consciousness that they (and all of us) want to solve is not i-consciousness and the mechanistic, informational processes of the GW, but is ‘the more mysterious and non-materialistic’ m-consciousness. I think the danger here is that in calling i-consciousness ‘consciousness’ at all, they give room to the popular idea that all the contents of the GW are phenomenally conscious, even though this is not what they mean. In this way, I suggest, they have weakened their own position. Had they stuck with m-consciousness and been bolder in calling their theory illusionist from the start, these problems would not arise.

Why didn’t they? Elsewhere, Graziano has plainly said, ‘The attention schema theory is a kind of illusionism’ but saying so ‘is the kiss of death for a theory’ (2019 p 109). I sympathise, having battled with people’s misunderstandings of the word ‘illusion’ for decades. Yet I believe we are best to be clear and honest about what we mean when grappling with the mysteries of subjective experience. Most of us accept that Earth is not the centre of the universe, that living creatures evolved, and that we humans were not created for God’s special purpose. Likewise, I believe a good science of consciousness should help people drop the intuitive idea of an energy-like, ‘fluidic substance’ that ‘can move through space and time’. This will be hard, and we will inevitably face grand battles. Our response should not be to pander to people’s natural intuitions but to claim clearly that consciousness, as they conceive of it, is an illusion.

I have perhaps faced more of these battles than most, having once been a parapsychologist, persuaded by the (lack of) evidence to become a sceptic, and having to face up to people’s convictions about the power of consciousness and its continuation after death (Blackmore 2001). I therefore appreciated the author’s analysis of how the ‘invisible, gentle, mind-force’ emanating from a face (p 33) arises and why the mistake is so powerful.

Their analysis may also help with understanding the out-of-body experience (OBE), another powerful bodily illusion. Stimulation of the TPJ is known to induce OBEs (Blanke et al 2002), and disruption to the body schema at the TPJ may be the main driver for OBEs (Blackmore 2017). As the authors point out, the body schema depends heavily on integration with sensory input, and OBEs tend to occur when sensory input is absent or confused, meaning the body schema can split from the actual location of the body. Adding the role of the attention schema, their ‘network B’ and its connections with the TPJ, may help us better understand why OBEs typically convince people that their consciousness has left their body when in fact only their models of body, attention, and self have changed.

This sense of a conscious self is critical to the OBE, as it is to intuitive ideas about consciousness, for it is ‘I’ who (seems to) leave ‘my body’ and ‘I’ who retains powers of consciousness, attention, and control when apparently outside of it. The authors suggest that two models together ‘provide sufficient information to form the basis of the claim, “I have a subjective, conscious experience of that apple.” (p 43) Although they don’t explicitly say so, I imagine they think this powerful imagined self is also ‘not what it seems to be’, in other words, ‘I’ am another illusion.

Are these interlinked illusions optional? Might we be able to live without falling for them, and is this even a worthy aim? Many spiritual traditions, especially the ‘nondual’ traditions, claim to drop the duality of self and other. Zen meditation, for example, entails long training of attention, both narrowing to focused concentration and broadening out to open or ‘choiceless’ awareness. This training can lead ultimately to ‘non-doing’; the realisation that ‘actions exist, and also their consequences, but the person that acts does not’ (Parfit, 1987 p 21). Living this way, beyond the illusions, is said not only to be possible but preferable.

Such transformations can begin only when people accept that their intuitive senses of self and consciousness are illusions. Arguably, a thorough intellectual understanding of self and consciousness demands the same acceptance. Graziano and colleagues (2020) have made a great contribution to our ideas about attention and consciousness, and have opened up new possibilities to explore, but I wish they had accepted that AST really is a form of illusionism.



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Blackmore,S.J. (2001) Why I have given up. In P. Kurtz (Ed) Skeptical Odysseys. Amherst, New York, Prometheus Books, 85-94

Blackmore, S.J. (2002) There is no stream of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 9(5–6), 17–28

Blackmore, S. (2017) Seeing Myself: The new science of out-of-body experiences, London, Robinson

Blackmore, S. and Troscianko, E.T. (2018) Consciousness: An Introduction, Routledge

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Block, N. (1995) On a confusion about a function of consciousness. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 18, 227–287

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Graziano, M. (2019) Rethinking Consciousness: A scientific theory of subjective experience, New York, Norton

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