Damasio’s Six Facts for a Theory of Consciousness to Contend With

I’ve just begun reading Antonio Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. I bought the book while I was in grad school, knowing it would be years before I could get to it, but so excited by the title! Consciousness and how it relates to the body and emotions is one of my favorite topics of inquiry. Plus, Damasio is a scientist with a (rare) good reputation as a writer.

In the introduction he describes six facts that a good theory of consciousness will have to take into account. Here are my paraphrases:

1) There will be an “anatomy of consciousness”: Elements of consciousness appear to be associated with activity in certain parts of the brain.

This may be scary to those who believe that consciousness is magical, or that its magic would be somehow diminished if it relied on the brain’s circuitry. I too used to be uneasy about that idea. After diving into brain studies a bit, though, I feel both excited and humbled by it. It’s just neatthat our brains apparently produce all the subtleties of our experience. Also, it’s a good reminder that our experiences of feeling, thinking, knowing, and of awareness itself is createdby our brains, and is not a direct line on reality.

2) Consciousness is more than wakefulness or attentiveness. Humans can be awake and attentive without being conscious.

Damasio describes patients who are clearly awake and attentive, but not conscious, and promises to devote two chapters to the significance of this phenomenon.

3) You cannot have consciousness without emotion.

I am excited about this point because I’ve thought it both crucial and little recognized since reading The Mind’s I many years ago. It had an essay which convinced me that real artificial intelligence would not be possible without emotion. Without emotion all you have is processing power. And in human intelligence at least, emotion brings in the body. Emotions are not just mental phenomenon. I can’t wait to see how Damasio deals with this.

4) There is a distinction between “core consciousness,” producing a sense of moment-to-moment “core self,” and “extended consciousness,” producing a story-making “autobiographical self.”

This distinction could bring clarity to the debates about consciousness in infants and non-human animals. Core consciousness may be the kind that everyone has, and extended consciousness the kind that we develop as our experience becomes more and more intertwined with language and concepts.

Core consciousness sounds to me like the experience that meditators work to remain in. We live most of our lives in the useful but problematic realm of extended consciousness, judging experiences as good or bad, right or wrong, safe or unsafe, and other ways they relate to the story we have of ourselves. Once we are living this way it is difficult to escape. Meditators find that maintaining awareness of core consciousness can be a welcome rest from all that. This practice may help the autobiographical self have an easier time as well.

5) Consciousness cannot be wholly described by other mental activities. Things like language and memory are necessary but not sufficient for full consciousness.

You can’t leave consciousness out of the discussion. It is more than its parts. I like this because I think a lot of scientists are squeamish of even using the word “consciousness.” It makes you sound like a hippy. Prepare to hear a lot of scientists trying to talk about consciousness without sounding like a hippy.

6) Consciousness also cannot be described wholly by describing how the brain creates our experiences out of sensory and mental data.

I read some famous scientist saying that if he were to be at the beginning of his career, he would be looking into creation of qualia, the “particles” of experience, that this was the next holy grail of psychology. That’s a good one, for sure, but I think an explanation of consciousness is a better holy grail than an explanation of qualia.

(First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, July 28, 2012)

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Meditation as Brain Control

This video makes me want to get an EEG machine. It’s of Ken Wilber narrating footage of himself moving through a few different meditative states while hooked up to an EEG machine. (EEG machines show you a very general picture of the electrical activity from your brain from electrodes on your scalp.) He says what each state feels like, too. Pretty neat.

(Minor correction: He makes it sound like dreaming sleep is mostly associated with theta waves, which is not quite true. Dreaming sleep does have some theta activity, but it’s mostly beta or “beta-like” waves. Theta is strongly associated with stage 1 sleep, that 5 or 10 minute transition between waking and sleep. It’s a minor point, but I so rarely find corrections to make in his work, I thought I’d take this chance.)

[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, June 10, 2010.]

My Three Favorite Versions of Free Will

Free Won’t—Some argue that the executive function of our brain, the part of us that is most like a “will,” gets to deflect impulses as they come up out of our non-conscious processes. That is, if we’re paying enough attention to what we are about to do, we get to say “no.” (Look up Benjamin Libet and the controversy around his work, if you’re interested.) This idea has some intuitive appeal, and I do have experiences that feel like I’m exerting myself to avoid doing something, like eating a piece of candy. On the other hand, I also feel like I’m exerting myself when I do math, but I know that sense of exertion has to be coming from flexing extra muscles or something, because there are no sensory nerve endings in the brain.

Focusing—Jeffrey Schwartz, an OCD expert, argues in The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (which is definitely worth reading though at times frustrating to baffling), that in moments of deep concentration, we get to choose to focus—basically that we can choose to pay attention. Again, this has intuitive appeal, and again, I have experiences while doing some kinds of schoolwork or while meditating that feel like I’m exerting myself to bring myself back to the task at hand. Again, I’m suspicious of the “exertion” part of it, but I like the idea that when I’m really calm and concentrating, I can intentionally examine.

Choosing that which we are compelled to do—This one’s from some existentialist philosopher, I think, though I first heard it from Brad Blanton. The Landmark Forum people present it well, too. Again, it requires something of a meditative state, where you (hopefully) have minimized the influence of your past and your habits, and can (hopefully) really grok the situation that you are in. In that state, you can choose to be in that situation. It’s kind of like the “Yes” to Free Won’t’s “No.” I like this one because I do feel most free when I’m in that kind of a state, when I’m not contracting away from reality, so to speak. In that state it feels like I can be really creative and spontaneous. I don’t know if it has anything to do with “will,” but it’s nice.

[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, November 25, 2009.]