The cortex needs to control that virtual movement, and therefore like any efficient controller it needs an internal model. Unlike the tectum, which models concrete objects like the eyes and the head, the cortex must model something much more abstract. According to the AST, it does so by constructing an attention schema—a constantly updated set of information that describes what covert attention is doing moment-by-moment and what its consequences are.
Consider an unlikely thought experiment. If you could somehow attach an external speech mechanism to a crocodile, and the speech mechanism had access to the information in that attention schema in the crocodile’s wulst, that technology-assisted crocodile might report, “I’ve got something intangible inside me. It’s not an eyeball or a head or an arm. It exists without substance. It’s my mental possession of things. It moves around from one set of items to another. When that mysterious process in me grasps hold of something, it allows me to understand, to remember, and to respond.”
The crocodile would be wrong, of course. Covert attention isn’t intangible. It has a physical basis, but that physical basis lies in the microscopic details of neurons, synapses, and signals. The brain has no need to know those details. The attention schema is therefore strategically vague. It depicts covert attention in a physically incoherent way, as a non-physical essence. And this, according to the theory, is the origin of consciousness. We say we have consciousness because deep in the brain, something quite primitive is computing that semi-magical self-description. Alas crocodiles can’t really talk. But in this theory, they’re likely to have at least a simple form of an attention schema.
When I think about evolution, I’m reminded of Teddy Roosevelt’s famous quote, “Do what you can with what you have where you are.” Evolution is the master of that kind of opportunism. Fins become feet. Gill arches become jaws. And self-models become models of others. In the AST, the attention schema first evolved as a model of one’s own covert attention. But once the basic mechanism was in place, according to the theory, it was further adapted to model the attentional states of others, to allow for social prediction. Not only could the brain attribute consciousness to itself, it began to attribute consciousness to others.
When psychologists study social cognition, they often focus on something called theory of mind, the ability to understand the possible contents of someone else’s mind. Some of the more complex examples are limited to humans and apes. But experiments show that a dog can look at another dog and figure out, “Is he aware of me?” Crows also show an impressive theory of mind. If they hide food when another bird is watching, they’ll wait for the other bird’s absence and then hide the same piece of food again, as if able to compute that the other bird is aware of one hiding place but unaware of the other. If a basic ability to attribute awareness to others is present in mammals and in birds, then it may have an origin in their common ancestor, the reptiles. In the AST’s evolutionary story, social cognition begins to ramp up shortly after the reptilian wulst evolved. Crocodiles may not be the most socially complex creatures on earth, but they live in large communities, care for their young, and can make loyal if somewhat dangerous pets.