Inventing the Self

Consciously Minded Regulation

September 15th, 2013 by Shona Mari Sapphire · 6 Comments

Firstly, I am not certain which portion of my consciousness to thank, but I find myself reading Damasio’s work in a semblance of his voice, or what I may have interpreted from viewing prior class videos. His cadence, tone and soothing dialect seem to infuse conviction for an unproblematic adoption of his highly complex theories on consciousness and the body, brain, mind relationship   – as effortlessly logical and perhaps even, in the best interest of humanity. After reading these five chapters of his work, I may be persuaded to reconsider the future of humanity with perhaps more optimism given the productive possibilities for apprehending its unfolding course and yet undiscovered potential through the vehicle of studying consciousness; “Armed with reflexive deliberation and scientific tools, and understanding of the neural construction of conscious minds also adds a welcome dimension to the task of investigating the development and shaping of cultures, the ultimate product of collective conscious minds” (31).

Damasio’s composition of an engaging format for such voluminous concepts and ideas provides remarkable access for the reader. A journey through the biological evolution of neural cells, creation of the mind in the brain and eruption of self within the mind is charted with great explanatory and interpretive detail. Correlations between the internal world of individual cells and the nature and composition of the human mind and consciousness are particularly fascinating. Damasio makes several references to similarities between the processes of single and mutli cellular organisms with the universe contained in the human mind and with humanity in general; in terms of design, structure and coagulation into an enchanted landscape of synapses, communication and interdependent actions in multidimensional planes of co-existence; “The economy of a mulitcellular organism has many sectors, and the cells within those sectors cooperate. If this sounds familiar and makes you think of human societies it should. The resemblances are staggering” (37).  Damasio elucidates the evolution of neural cells’ organizational structure; from foundational cells of consciousness through “scaling up” of their intelligence to form what amounts to feelings and reflexive thought. He also validates the importance of non-conscious intelligence as the “blueprint” for the making of conscious minds and beautifully poses the question of whether human consciousness is actually a, “collective voice set free in a song of affirmation”(37), unifying the will for survival imbued in the organism’s community of cells.

Damasio  discusses life regulation or homeostasis; a term referring to an internal mechanism occurring in all living beings through which various systems undergo ongoing adjustment and malleability of function to ensure the continuation of the life-process or survival. He expands the notion of this process within humans beyond the borders of the individual organism to include the deliberate attainment of well-being in a social and cultural context, or “sociocultural homeostasis”. This aspect of human consciousness evolution is associated with the unfolding of human history in his observation of a steady decline in “violence and an increase in tolerance that has become so apparent in recent centuries would not have occurred without sociocultural homestasis” (28). Meaning, we can attribute our evolution beyond barbarism and human perpetrated destruction to the evolution of a part of our consciousness which positively relates us with our external environment- a seemingly useful attribute and one which seems counter to beliefs concerning the inherent deterioration of modern humanity at our own life- devouring hands.

Brain mapping is presented as another key principle for understanding how the self is constructed by the mind and how the brain, mind and body interrelate within the task of life-management. The brain as a “mimic of irrepressible variety” (68), lays tracks and pathways in its networks which emulate external forms and structures. The adaptability of the brain in making life management more feasible within ever changing environments is made clear in its ability to map neural patterns which account for interactions with certain objects or experiences outside the body – he sites research in monkeys and humans on observable brain patterns which occur as a result of contact with specific objects (74).  The body, Damasio states, is the critical platform for the development of the mind via the brain. It is the receptacle of the external environment, providing information and context to the brain. This seems an obvious concept but one which may be observed as out of reach to many, (non-brain injured), for whom this relationship seems to become occluded; where the link between bodily/physiological health and the mind state is forgotten or loses potency in the course of day to day existence. The crucial body to brain segue is mapped, “in an integrated manner, the brain manages to create the critical component of what will become the self” (98).  This is why Damasio’s articulation of brain mapping is central to uncovering his analysis on the formulation of consciousness and the self.  The importance of the brain’s agency over the entire being or organism is mentioned in The Feeling of What Happens as the centrally important fact in understanding the development of consciousness; where the brain’s management of life process is  directly tied to the self portion of consciousness (22).

In his discussion of the body to brain relationship the concept of the “as-if body loop” is introduced; the brain’s ability to simulate certain body states in somatosensing, or body sensing, regions as though they were actually occurring, thereby producing “as-if”, physiological responses. This extraordinary mechanism is made possible by mapping in the brain drafted through communication between brain structures which trigger specific emotions and the areas in the body to which they correspond. Damasio’s section on brain mapping ties together the examination of the development of our core consciousness as integrated biological organisms, mediating the external world though our physical embodiment and advancing into a self-producing mind; “The living body is the central locus. Life regulation is the need and the motivation. Brain mapping is the enabler, the engine that transforms plain life relegation into minded regulation and, eventually, into consciously minded regulation” (114).

This brief introduction to Damasio’s theories on consciousness certainly spurs my attention to consciously minded regulation – and sparks inquiry into how well we may be able to effectively facilitate management of our individual body, mind, brain relationship within both internal and social contexts of our day to day existence?

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6 responses so far ↓

  • Shona Mari Sapphire // Sep 17th 2013 at 4:17 pm

    Blackmore, Self as Illusion Response:

    Blackmore’s lecture on the concept of self being an illusion or simply not being what we think it is was more interesting than convincing. It would seem that when discussing notions as elusive as “self” and “consciousness”, the delivery might be bolstered by offering some information and evidence. Conveying how she defines “self” ,and especially how “consciousness” is articulated as terms would seem to be important pre-requisites in guiding the audience towards learning from the proceeding lecture. Without these basic definitions, from her perspective, her assertions have less validity. In the absence of clearly articulating what she believes the self to be, the conclusion that it is merely an illusion is less plausible. She mentions that simultaneous pathways of activity as a result of interaction with the external environment are taking place within the brain and mind at all times- this relates with Damasio’s life-regulation process. As she depicts in the diagram, consciousness weaves within a multitude of streams, some of which align into a steady “Me” form, which it seemed she was arguing are the brief moments when one is conscious. The life and survival process indicates unending malleability and adjustment within various spheres of our bodily existence, the brain and mind included. I was unclear as to her reasoning in stating that during the periods when consciousness meanders away from the straight, centered “Me” stream, that we are necessarily “unconscious” or that our self is lost to us. It seemed difficult to differentiate whether she was addressing consciousness or awareness. Meaning, awareness fluidly moves through a multitude of stages and locations within a human mind. I was not persuaded to believe that when awareness slips into a less cognoscente form this indicates a loss of the self or consciousness of the self. Adjusting awareness to a type and intensity which makes the more prevalent every day, interacting with others and the world form of self and consciousness less apparent could be seen as a heightened form of consciousness, rather than proof that it was in fact an illusion in the first place. And, the fact that we have a “different self” now than we did 20 minutes ago also seems logical given the continually forming and re-forming nature of humans as organisms, but I do not see this as evidence that therefore our previous forms of self were an illusion or that they have dissipated into nothingness.
    As a former professional dancer I understand that state of “un-consciousness” or lack of an acute dialogue between mind and physical body in space, which she demonstrated on the stage – when one must “recall” that they have a foot etc – is actually the place in which incredible physical feats are executed in an effortless, non-thinking manner. Anyone who has seen professional ballet performed on stage, or any skill(gymnastics, ice-skating, etc), which requires complete mental and physical control and integration can imagine the total awareness that would be required to do so. I mention this simply to say that blended consciousness is not necessarily a loss of consciousness as she puts it.
    It seems that these discussions are exceedingly difficult to maneuver without agreed upon or established terms. That is one of the main strengths of Damasio’s work in his offering of a stable set of vocabulary which carry meaning and weight throughout the context of his discourse due to their accessible form and function within the topic. Clarity of ideas in this lecture seemed less deliverable due to some semantic inconsistency and frailty.

  • John Giunta // Sep 17th 2013 at 11:04 pm

    It’s funny, I’ve been having a tough time swallowing Damasio’s concept of the protoself, and I’m wondering if anyone else finds his hypotheses about this primitive consciousness problematic. In the first chapter of “The Feeling of What Happens”, Damasio claims the consciousness is not solely derived from memory, or language, and yet I think that something had to have intervened between the protoself and a self capable of generating concepts like community, technology, religion, and the like. Similarly, the comparisons between single-celled organisms, multi-celled organisms (humans), and human society in “Self Comes to Mind” are interesting, but once again I think ascribing paramecium some completely unconscious will-to-live is pushing it too far (he himself admits that it’s tricky to talk about single-celled “will” in relation to human emotions and whatnot), and these kinds of jumps work to unsettle my ability to follow him in his argument. I don’t think some kind of pragmatic, simple memory (even though Damasio doesn’t use this term, I think that the protoself does operate as a kind of series of signals that warn against danger to the body), driven by the undying (puns) need to survive, can alone result in the more complex personalities and belief-systems concocted by a self-self. I dunno, maybe I’ve missed something?

  • Adam Wagner // Sep 18th 2013 at 11:17 am

    John, I disagree. Just because human belief structure and personalities seem complex, doesn’t mean they do not come from simplistic beginnings. Will can be ascribed to the unconscious in humans. Desires and drives and, in honesty, most of our decisions can be attributed to unconscious processes. There is a growing amount of work that focuses on the limited conscious will humans have (if any at all) in comparison to the feeling of volition and conscious will humans tend to ascribe to themselves.

    I understand the difficulty in comparing the will of paramecium to survive to the will of humans but it is precisely that early example that led to building the complexity the human brain/body exhibits. I think his attempts to connect the history and evolution of the biological processes to the connection of the feelings these produce once conscious self comes in to play illuminate an important dichotomy in the biology and phenomenology of being human.

  • John Giunta // Sep 18th 2013 at 11:28 am

    Oh, I can see your point Mr. Wagner. My confusion comes more from what appear to be Damasio’s big leaps in his outline of evolutionary relations. How does the protoself make the jump to self? I can follow his argument as to how they may be related, but it seemed like there’s a kind of “missing link” (as, I guess with evolution, there always is).

  • Jason Tougaw (he/him/his) // Sep 18th 2013 at 4:45 pm

    There’s definitely a missing link. In consciousness studies, we call it the “explanatory gap” (between neural activity and phenomenological experience). Damasio will admit readily that he can’t explain how feelings arise from the brain’s mapping of body states, so there is a big piece missing from his theory–and this may be why he isn’t comfortable calling it a “theory” and uses “framework” instead.

  • Jason Tougaw (he/him/his) // Sep 18th 2013 at 4:47 pm

    Damasio makes another kind of leap, when he analogizes paramecium, neural cells, and human behavior and social interaction. He implies, repeatedly, that the similarities he sees may be governed by some shared logic, but that’s a huge leap and he has no evidence for it. He seems to enjoy taking poetic license in moments like this.

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