Self Comes to Mind

Antonio Damasio has a remarkablescientific imagination and an admirable literary style. The combination makesfor fascinating reading. From the clinical data and the neuropsychologicalexperimental work that has gathered both pace and precision in recent years, hedraws compelling insights, forming a map of possibilities about the nature ofthat ultimate mystery, consciousness. He writes with such flair and confidencethat it is almost as if he makes the mystery dissolve into knowledge before oureyes.

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

And this,of course, Damasio acknowledges. But he says, “Nonetheless, at one’s ownperil, it is reasonable to think through the questions and use the currentevidence, incomplete and provisional as it is, to build testable conjecturesand dream about the future.”

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

Damasiosays that his new book, Self Comes toMind, was written in order to “startover.” In previous works for the general public, Descartes’ Error and The Feeling of What Happens, heargued that emotion is essential to reason—thus overturning the view, as old asAristotle, that reason and emotion are at odds—and that emotion is essentialalso to “homeostatic regulation,” the process by which a systemmaintains itself in a stable condition through continual self-monitoring andadjustment. In those books and in technical papers Damasio advanced his “somaticmarker” hypothesis to explain how emotion underpins ratiocination: bodilyfeelings accompany our thoughts about the outcomes of a range of possiblechoices, he suggested, thus helping us to select one among them moreefficiently. This idea has been influential and widely discussed in psychology andneurology.

In The Feeling of What Happens Damasio tookfurther the idea that emotions are biologically-ordained neurochemicalresponses that exist to maintain homeostasis. “Feelings” are ourconscious recognition of these emotions; they are, as he there described them,the “private, mental experience of an emotion,” taking the form ofimages. The importance of this for Damasio is that consciousness requires asense of self, whose source is the continual internal monitoring of somaticresponses to the external world—the adjustment of the lens of the eye, the neckmuscles turning the head to look, and much more, all integrating into what hecalls the “proto-self,” the non-conscious mapping that enableshomeostasis.

Fromthis emerges the “core self,” the moment-to-moment entity present assecond-order awareness of every interaction between the individual and theobjects it encounters; and this in turn underwrites the “autobiographicalself,” the self we are ordinarily familiar with. These ideas are couchedin an extensive framework of concepts derived partly from clinical andexperimental work on brain function, and partly from Damasio’s genius forspeculation.

But inthe opening pages of his new book Damasio says, “I have grown dissatisfiedwith my account of the problem, and reflection on relevant research findings,new and old, has changed my views.” His change of views relates to twotopics in particular: the nature of feelings, and the “mechanisms behindthe construction of the self.”

Thelatter is the central point, because his earlier account of the proto-, core,and autobiographical selves received much detailed criticism, no doubtprompting the new version here. In “approaching the conscious mind, Iprivilege the self,” Damasio writes. “I believe conscious minds arisewhen a self process is added onto a basic mind process. When selves do notoccur 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 itis best considered from two standpoints. One is that of “an observerappreciating a dynamic object,” this object being the mental workings,behaviour traits, and an autobiographical past. The other standpoint is “thatof the self as knower, that process that gives a focus to our experiences andeventually lets us reflect on those experiences.” The combination of thetwo perspectives “produces the dual notion of self used throughout thisbook,” between them telling an evolutionary story about the development ofselfhood, the self-as-knower arising from the self-as-object.

Damasio’swork has always been richly influenced by his reading of philosophy, either inthe negative sense of rejecting mind-body dualism—of Descartes’s “greaterror”—or in profiting from the insights of Spinoza and, in this presentbook particularly, William James. Before a turf war arises over whether James(brother of the more famous Henry) was a philosopher or psychologist, one hasto remember that in his day there was no difference. What Damasio especiallyappreciates in James is his view of the role of feelings in the reflexiveawareness that constitutes selfhood. This is music to Damasio’s ears, and marksa line of continuity with his earlier work. There can be no sense of selfwithout a sense of separation from what is other; feelings—which Damasio nowcalls “feelings of knowing”—operate as markers distinguishing theself from what is nonself. “We shall see that the construction of minddepends, at several stages, on the generation of such feelings.”

And thenthe crucial step takes place, from the idea of self-as-knower to Damasio’saccount of consciousness itself, which he defines as consisting of “anorganization of mind contents centered on the organism that produces andmotivates those contents,” together with the self’s knowing that it existsas such a thing. That makes consciousness the self-aware existence of theorganization 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 atlength and in detail. It advances beyond his earlier views by adapting andmaking more detailed use of the notions of feeling and selfhood than occurredthere. It offers a picture of consciousness that is intuitively both plausibleand appealing, but which—as the book proceeds—becomes increasingly suppositiouson the technical question of the brain mechanisms involved and theirpsychological correlates. The experts will have plenty to wrestle with there.

Butthere should be consensus over Part IV of the book, “Long AfterConsciousness,” where Damasio discusses the question of why consciousnessevolved. That consensus should be that it is an imaginative and suggestiveexcursus in Damasio’s best signature manner. In the course of it he introducesseveral striking notions, such as that of the “genomic unconscious,”which is “the colossal number of instructions that are contained in ourgenome and that guide the construction of the organism with the distinctivefeatures of our phenotype…and that further assist with the operation of theorganism.” 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 levelof the unconscious, “well-rehearsed” cognitive activities “trainedunder the supervision of conscious reflection to observe consciously conceivedideals, 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 ofconsciousness. Damasio makes interesting play with this. In asking whyconsciousness evolved, and answering that it contributes massively to manyaspects of the management of life—the larger homeostasis, one might say—onethereby begins to give an account of the role of culture and the building ofinstitutions. This follows the emergence of language, not possible withoutconsciousness, and the capacity to retain and canvass memories, and to lookinto the future and plan.

Damasio seesthis as the ultimate gift of consciousness to humanity: “the ability tonavigate the future in the seas of our imagination, guiding the self craft intoa safe and productive harbour.” The interaction of self and feeling-shapedmemory “is what allows humans to imagine both individual well-being andthe compounded well-being of a whole society, and to invent ways and means ofachieving and magnifying that well-being.”

That isa compelling picture, once one sets aside the power of the unconscious, and ofgrasping, other-hating, defensive, anxious, ideologically-motivatedconsciousness, to go to war, and create weapons that destroy in seconds whatwas built over centuries: consciousness and selfhood are not automaticallybenign entities. But either way they might well have the roots Damasio tracesthem to, and perhaps even the physiological architecture he says underliesthem. Taking his own strictures to heart, namely to remember thatpsychoneurology is at a very early stage of an immensely complicatedinvestigation, what one has to applaud is the imaginative vision Damasio bringsto the task.