Self Comes to Mind

Antonio Damasio has a remarkable scientific imagination and an admirable literary style. The combination makes for fascinating reading. From the clinical data and the neuropsychological experimental work that has gathered both pace and precision in recent years, he draws compelling insights, forming a map of possibilities about the nature of that ultimate mystery, consciousness. He writes with such flair and confidence that it is almost as if he makes the mystery dissolve into knowledge before our eyes.

 

But there is a large caveat about the brilliant display to be found in his latest work: there is such a meld of speculation, controversial inference, hypothesis, and fiat among his reports of clinical and experimental findings that one quickly feels ("feeling" being a big cognitive enchilada for Damasio) insecure about the value of what one is reading. It is a feeling that should quickly transform into recognition, though, that Damasio is deliberately in the business of imagining an entire psychoneurology, a total explanatory picture of the way consciousness arises as the gift of a knowing, reflexive self. He offers us a grand "think of it this way," comparable perhaps to the picture of the world that Cristofero Colombus had in mind when he set sail. Cristofero had and Antonio has, each of them, one big thing right—the former that the earth is round, the latter that the phenomena of mind and consciousness are operations of the brain and nothing other than that. But neither yet knew what lies in the path of a journey to their Indies.

 

And this, of course, Damasio acknowledges. But he says, "Nonetheless, at one's own peril, it is reasonable to think through the questions and use the current evidence, incomplete and provisional as it is, to build testable conjectures and dream about the future."

 

If his conjectures and dreams are right, Damasio has told us what consciousness is and how it came to be—and even, indeed, which brain structures are principally involved in its generation. He does not, however, as no one yet does, claim to say how the phenomenology and felt quality of consciousness is secreted by the millions of interacting neurons in those structures. That is the Indies of this great scientific voyage, and no amount of ingenious speculation about brain structures and their experimentally established correlations with arousal, emotion, memory, integration of sensory data, reasoning, language capability, and the rest, yet reaches it.

 

Damasio says that his new book, Self Comes to Mind, was written in order to "start over." In previous works for the general public, Descartes' Error and The Feeling of What Happens, he argued that emotion is essential to reason—thus overturning the view, as old as Aristotle, that reason and emotion are at odds—and that emotion is essential also to "homeostatic regulation," the process by which a system maintains itself in a stable condition through continual self-monitoring and adjustment. In those books and in technical papers Damasio advanced his "somatic marker" hypothesis to explain how emotion underpins ratiocination: bodily feelings accompany our thoughts about the outcomes of a range of possible choices, he suggested, thus helping us to select one among them more efficiently. This idea has been influential and widely discussed in psychology and neurology.

 

In The Feeling of What Happens Damasio took further the idea that emotions are biologically-ordained neurochemical responses that exist to maintain homeostasis. "Feelings" are our conscious recognition of these emotions; they are, as he there described them, the "private, mental experience of an emotion," taking the form of images. The importance of this for Damasio is that consciousness requires a sense of self, whose source is the continual internal monitoring of somatic responses to the external world—the adjustment of the lens of the eye, the neck muscles turning the head to look, and much more, all integrating into what he calls the "proto-self," the non-conscious mapping that enables homeostasis.

 

From this emerges the "core self," the moment-to-moment entity present as second-order awareness of every interaction between the individual and the objects it encounters; and this in turn underwrites the "autobiographical self," the self we are ordinarily familiar with. These ideas are couched in an extensive framework of concepts derived partly from clinical and experimental work on brain function, and partly from Damasio's genius for speculation.

 

But in the opening pages of his new book Damasio says, "I have grown dissatisfied with my account of the problem, and reflection on relevant research findings, new and old, has changed my views." His change of views relates to two topics in particular: the nature of feelings, and the "mechanisms behind the construction of the self."

 

The latter is the central point, because his earlier account of the proto-, core, and autobiographical selves received much detailed criticism, no doubt prompting the new version here. In "approaching the conscious mind, I privilege the self," Damasio writes. "I believe conscious minds arise when a self process is added onto a basic mind process. When selves do not occur within minds, those minds are not conscious in the proper sense." His talk of "process" is key. Self is a process, not a thing, and it is best considered from two standpoints. One is that of "an observer appreciating a dynamic object," this object being the mental workings, behaviour traits, and an autobiographical past. The other standpoint is "that of the self as knower, that process that gives a focus to our experiences and eventually lets us reflect on those experiences." The combination of the two perspectives "produces the dual notion of self used throughout this book," between them telling an evolutionary story about the development of selfhood, the self-as-knower arising from the self-as-object.

 

Damasio's work has always been richly influenced by his reading of philosophy, either in the negative sense of rejecting mind-body dualism—of Descartes's "great error"—or in profiting from the insights of Spinoza and, in this present book particularly, William James. Before a turf war arises over whether James (brother of the more famous Henry) was a philosopher or psychologist, one has to remember that in his day there was no difference. What Damasio especially appreciates in James is his view of the role of feelings in the reflexive awareness that constitutes selfhood. This is music to Damasio's ears, and marks a line of continuity with his earlier work. There can be no sense of self without a sense of separation from what is other; feelings—which Damasio now calls "feelings of knowing"—operate as markers distinguishing the self from what is nonself. "We shall see that the construction of mind depends, at several stages, on the generation of such feelings."

 

And then the crucial step takes place, from the idea of self-as-knower to Damasio's account of consciousness itself, which he defines as consisting of "an organization of mind contents centered on the organism that produces and motivates those contents," together with the self's knowing that it exists as such a thing. That makes consciousness the self-aware existence of the organization of "mind contents"; which is surely uncontroversial, though the novelty lies in the way Damsio puts the machine together.

 

Thus the case Damasio sets out at length and in detail. It advances beyond his earlier views by adapting and making more detailed use of the notions of feeling and selfhood than occurred there. It offers a picture of consciousness that is intuitively both plausible and appealing, but which—as the book proceeds—becomes increasingly suppositious on the technical question of the brain mechanisms involved and their psychological correlates. The experts will have plenty to wrestle with there.

 

But there should be consensus over Part IV of the book, "Long After Consciousness," where Damasio discusses the question of why consciousness evolved. That consensus should be that it is an imaginative and suggestive excursus in Damasio's best signature manner. In the course of it he introduces several striking notions, such as that of the "genomic unconscious," which is "the colossal number of instructions that are contained in our genome and that guide the construction of the organism with the distinctive features of our phenotype…and that further assist with the operation of the organism." Here is part of a story once told in terms of instinct, drives, and other unconscious forces. He speaks also of there being, at another level of the unconscious, "well-rehearsed" cognitive activities "trained under the supervision of conscious reflection to observe consciously conceived ideals, wants and plans." That is a good way of putting the point.

 

Culture, and with it such key notions as the idea of justice, are the outcomes of consciousness. Damasio makes interesting play with this. In asking why consciousness evolved, and answering that it contributes massively to many aspects of the management of life—the larger homeostasis, one might say—one thereby begins to give an account of the role of culture and the building of institutions. This follows the emergence of language, not possible without consciousness, and the capacity to retain and canvass memories, and to look into the future and plan.

 

Damasio sees this as the ultimate gift of consciousness to humanity: "the ability to navigate the future in the seas of our imagination, guiding the self craft into a safe and productive harbour." The interaction of self and feeling-shaped memory "is what allows humans to imagine both individual well-being and the compounded well-being of a whole society, and to invent ways and means of achieving and magnifying that well-being."

 

That is a compelling picture, once one sets aside the power of the unconscious, and of grasping, other-hating, defensive, anxious, ideologically-motivated consciousness, to go to war, and create weapons that destroy in seconds what was built over centuries: consciousness and selfhood are not automatically benign entities. But either way they might well have the roots Damasio traces them to, and perhaps even the physiological architecture he says underlies them. Taking his own strictures to heart, namely to remember that psychoneurology is at a very early stage of an immensely complicated investigation, what one has to applaud is the imaginative vision Damasio brings to the task.

About the Columnist
A. C. Grayling is an author, playwright, reviewer, cultural journalist, and professor of philosophy at London University. The most recent of his many books are Towards the Light of Liberty and The Choice of Hercules. His play Grace was recently performed in New York City.

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