Self Comes to Mind

Antonio Damasio

“But what is mind made of? Does mind come from the air or from the body? Smart people say it comes from the brain, that it is in the brain, but that is not a satisfactory reply. How does the brain do mind?” 

Raymond Tallis disliked Antonio Damasio’s Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain because “we are asked to accept … that it is selves, with their first-person perspective, that are the magic ingredients.”

Tallis retorted that “Surely consciousness is the precondition of the self, rather than the other way round.” In that posting, I objected to Tallis’s use, without any supporting evidence, of the word “surely.”

Now that I’ve read Damasio’s book myself, it’s clear that the word “surely,” with a very large body of physical evidence, more closely applies to Damasio’s position that human consciousness, the self, is a product of the mind, which is itself a product of the brain.

Self Comes to Mind is complex and detailed, and a short posting will not suffice to describe its contents. The book’s first half lays down the foundations of those brain structures and functions which he postulates are central to the development of consciousness. In the second half, Damasio deals with consciousness itself.

In the kind of statement that opponents of cognitive science love to hate, Damasio writes that “of the ideas advanced in the book, none is more central than the notion that the body is a foundation of the conscious mind.” Damasio asserts that “body and brain bond,” that the body uses the brain to achieve the homeostasis necessary to sustained life. And it is that process of homeostatic regulation that has promoted and guided the evolution of the human brain:

All the astonishing feats of brains that we so revere, from the marvels of creativity to the noble heights of spirituality, appear to have come by way of that determined dedication to managing life within the bodies they inhabit.

One key mechanism for regulating body states is the fundamental status of the “primordial feelings,” which are present at the deepest levels of the brain, in the brain stem, and are not dependent on consciousness:

As organisms evolved, the programs underlying homeostasis became more complex, in terms of the conditions that prompted their engagement and the range of results. Those more complex programs gradually became what we now know as drives, motivations, and emotions.

As important as are the primordial feelings and the rewards and punishments they produce as motivators of optimal life states, Damasio believes that the most important consciousness-related function of the brain occurs at the next “higher” level, with our ability to make cognitive “maps” of the body states we experience:

The human brain maps whatever object sits outside it, whatever action occurs outside it, and all the relationships that objects and actions assume in time and space, relative to each other and to the mother ship known as the organism, sole proprietor of our body, brain, and mind. …

The mapped patterns constitute what we, conscious creatures, have come to know as sights, sounds, touches, smells, tastes, pains, pleasures, and the like—in brief, images. The images in our minds are the brain’s momentary maps of everything and of anything, inside our body and around it, concrete as well as abstract, actual or previously recorded in memory.

This mapping goes on constantly, whether we are aware of it or not. Consciousness is not required for these automatic processes.  And while the cerebral cortex is necessary for full mapping, even when there is cortical damage — or, in the case of hydranencephaly, no cortex at all — the brain stem reacts to elements of external environments by provoking the primordial feelings which underlie all minds.

It is these primordial feelings which are the bases of emotions, which Damasio defines as behavioural states, motivations to interact with the external world or to alter the internal states of the body in order to achieve or maintain homeostasis: “Emotions are complex, largely automated programs of actions concocted by evolution.”

Emotion programs incorporate all the components of the life-regulation machinery that came along in the history of evolution, like the sensing and detection of conditions, the measurement of degrees of internal need, the incentive process with its reward and punishment aspects, the prediction devices.

Damasio writes that emotional states are triggered by an “emotionally competent stimulus.” The fact that “emotions are unlearned, automated, and predictably stable action programs betrays their origin in natural selection and in the resulting genomic instructions.” He notes that “emotions and their underlying phenomena are so essential for the maintenance of life and for subsequent maturation of the individual that they are reliably deployed early in development.”

The “universal emotions” (fear, anger, surprise) are everywhere, existing in all cultures, however differentially expressed. Background emotions (satisfaction, dissatisfaction) and social emotions (shame, guilt, admiration, compassion) are more culturally influenced and are more malleable, but they operate in much the same way, as reactions to body states and environmental information.

But we need more than just feelings, feedback, and emotions. We need to be able both to recall past events and to predict likely future outcomes. For this, we need memory — that is, the ability to recall identical or similar circumstances and to hypothesize from them about what is going to happen next:

Beyond perceptual images in varied sensory domains, the brain must have a way of storing the respective patterns, somehow, somewhere, and must retain a path to retrieve the patterns, somehow, somewhere.

Damasio suggests that the sensory mapping he described earlier in the book is the basis of memory:

What we normally refer to as the memory of an object is the composite memory of the sensory and motor activities related to the interaction between the organism and the object during a certain period of time.

His understanding of the relevant research, some of which is the work of his colleagues and himself, leads him to hypothesize that memory is not a point for point reconstruction of the object to be remembered, but rather that the brain stores the map structure of the original sensory perception. When this structure is recalled, an imperfect but useful replica of the experience is reconstructed, along with the feelings associated with it:

What we normally refer to as the memory of an object is the composite memory of the sensory and motor activities related to the interaction between the organism and the object during a certain period of time. …

We humans and our fellow mammals never had to microfilm various and sundry images and store them in hard-copy files; we simply stored a nimble formula for their reconstruction and used the existing perceptual machinery to reassemble them as best we could. We were always postmodern.

With that assertion, and with that dastardly last word, we leave the introduction behind and move on to the main topic: How does consciousness emerge from this brainy matrix?

Consciousness, like mind, is an outcome of selective evolution, and like mind, “self… is not a thing; it is a dynamic process.” Damasio distinguishes among three mind states, which he calls the “protoself,” the “core self,” and the “autobiographical self.” Describing these layers and their interaction occupies Part III of Self Comes to Mind.

The protoself is the largely unconscious operation of innate body regulators (like hormone levels and temperature maintenance). These regulators are accompanied by “primordial feelings,” a general state of pleasure or pain, satisfaction or dissatisfaction.

The fundamental “skill” of mind involved is the brain’s image-making ability:

Given that the making of images was naturally selected in evolution because images permit a more precise evaluation of the environment and a better response to it, the strategic management of images likely evolved bottom up, early on, well before consciousness did.

The core self involves a more conscious awareness of external and internal environments, but it does not yet contain a fully present, reflecting consciousness. The core self operates, for example, when we walk to the car from the office while thinking about the conversation we’ve just had with a colleague. Our attention is directed to our physical circumstances, but there’s still a substantial autopilot operating. We’re in this state when we describe ourselves as being “absent-minded.” We are fully minded, but we’re “absent-self.”

The autobiographical self is what we mean most of the time when we talk about ourselves, the “I.” It is the fully aware and reflective level of attention in which we interpret and plan, reflect on the past and present, project and predict into the future.

Damasio argues that these levels of consciousness evolved one after another, in response to selection pressures. The protoself is a product of basic homeostasis.

Prior to the appearance of self and standard consciousness, organisms had been perfecting a machine of life regulation, on whose shoulders consciousness came to be built. Before some of the premises of the concern could be known in the conscious mind, those premises were already present, and the machine of life regulation had evolved around them. The difference between life regulation before consciousness and after consciousness simply has to do with automation versus deliberation. Before consciousness, life regulation was entirely automated; after consciousness begins, life regulation retains its automation but gradually comes under the influence of self-oriented deliberations.

Core consciousness eventually was added to the protoself, for the same evolutionary reason: it was slowly selected for because it improved survival. Full, autobiographical consciousness developed more recently, but it changed everything: “Consciousness is just a latecomer to life management, but it moves the whole game up a notch.”

There are long sections detailing the brain research and neurological anatomy which Damasio suggests are the most likely players in the brain-mind-self progression. Just as he gives the brain stem a central role in the creation of mind, he give the posteromedial cortices a key function in the creation of full consciousness. These semi-technical sections of the book are interesting, but their details are well beyond the scope of this posting. Suffice it to say here that whenever Damasio makes a physical claim, he backs it up with considerable documentation. He also includes supporting material in short discussions of research into sleep, the effects of anesthesia, coma, vegetative states, “locked in” syndrome, and — more extensively — Alzheimer’s. All of this detail quickly beggars Raymond Tallis’s objection that Damasio doesn’t prove his case!

Helpfully, Damasio frequently summarizes his findings. The short version of the construction of a self goes like this:

The brain constructs consciousness by generating a self process within an awake mind. The essence of the self is a focusing of the mind on the material organism that it inhabits. Wakefulness and mind are indispensable components of consciousness, but the self is the distinctive element.

The self is built in stages. The simplest stage emerges from the part of the brain that stands for the organism (the protoself) and consists of a gathering of images that describe relatively stable aspects of the body and generate spontaneous feelings of the living body (primordial feelings). The second stage results from establishing a relationship between the organism (as represented by the protoself) and any part of the brain that represents an object-to-be-known. The result is the core self.

The third stage allows multiple objects, previously recorded as lived experience or as anticipated future, to interact with the protoself and produce an abundance of core self pulses. The result is the autobiographical self. All three stages are constructed in separate but coordinated brain workspaces.

Thus, “distinct levels of processing—mind, conscious mind, and conscious mind capable of producing culture—emerged in sequence.”

In Part IV, Damasio moves into more speculative territory, suggesting why consciousness was a successful evolutionary survivor and how social interactions, including culture and all of its components, can be seen as extensions of the interior selves of the individual members of human groups.

What did consciousness actually contribute? The answer is a large variety of apparent and not-so-apparent advantages in the management of life. Even at the simplest levels, consciousness helps the optimization of responses to environmental conditions. As processed in the conscious mind, images provide details about the environment, and those details can be used to increase the precision of a much-needed response, for example, the exact movement that will neutralize a threat or guarantee the capture of a prey. … As the process of consciousness became more complex, and as coevolved functions of memory, reasoning, and language were brought into play, further benefits of consciousness were introduced. Those benefits relate largely to planning and deliberation.

Once the reflective individual emerged, the social environment in which early humans lived made cooperation and group cohesion highly desirable. Homeostasis developed a social equivalent, as separate individuals manufactured culture in order to achieve more optimal states of existence. Damasio calls this overall process “sociocultural homeostasis”:

In one form or another, the cultural developments manifest the same goal as the form of automated homeostasis to which I have alluded throughout this book. They respond to a detection of imbalance in the life process, and they seek to correct it within the constraints of human biology and of the physical and social environment. The elaboration of moral rules and laws and the development of justice systems responded to the detection of imbalances caused by social behaviors that endangered individuals and the group. The cultural devices created in response to the imbalance aimed at restoring the equilibrium of individuals and of the group.

The similarity of this account to theories of qualia and memes is hereby noted, and just as quickly ignored. If you wish to, you can pursue those angles elsewhere.

Damasio’s conclusion is surprisingly lyrical for a brain researcher, but surely that’s a good thing:

And what is the ultimate gift of consciousness to humanity? Perhaps the ability to navigate the future in the seas of our imagination, guiding the self craft into a safe and productive harbor. This greatest of all gifts depends, once again, on the intersection of the self and memory. Memory, tempered by personal feeling, is what allows humans to imagine both individual well-being and the compounded well-being of a whole society, and to invent the ways and means of achieving and magnifying that well-being.


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