Inventing the Self

What we think about when we think about ourselves….

September 16th, 2013 by Alessandro Mitrotti · 2 Comments

Whereas Siri Hustvedt surveyed multiple theories of self, Damasio’s focus seems concise and clear. “I believe conscious minds arise when a self process is added onto a basic mind process” ( 8) and later, “There is indeed a self, but it is a process, not a thing, and the process is present at all times when we are presumed to be conscious.” (8)  He is assertive, but not arrogant; he prefaces many of his ideas which expressions like, “As I see it” and “I am ready to believe.” Equally his creative phrases like “the netherlands of the nonconcious processing” – “the tragedy of plants” – the “aboutness” of neurons are humorous, clever and apt. His arguments are linear and logical.

In The Feeling of What Happens Damasio ventures that neurological observations and neuropsychological experiments have connected some aspects of consciousness to specific brain regions, a seemingly plausible premise, and further, that neurological evidence makes a duality of consciousness “transparent”. (16)  He goes on to describe the core consciousness which provides the organism with a sense of self about the here and now. The extended consciousness which provides the organism with an elaborate sense of self, and places that self at a point in individual, historical time, richly aware of the lived past and of the anticipated future….(16) These are lucid and understandable concepts make for very strong arguments, and give this reader a sense of security and conviction in the face of an elusive, abstract concept. This is Damasio’s style, smooth, assured, and articulate. This idea in particular reminded me of Sartre’s Being-in-itself and Being-for-itself from Being and Nothingness, the concept of the self that is and a self that watches, although Sartre’s argument was not based on neuroscience. (as far as I can remember)

Damasio’s work has a efficient structure, he clearly outlines his goals, with each chapter is neatly divided into topics and then each topic is broken down, thoroughly and methodically. Like Hustvedt, I get the feeling that he is using the act of writing to consolidate and clarify, to explore connections and to solidify his ideas.  Earlier this year I read ”  Metaphors we live by” by Lakeoff and Johnson, which examines the degree to which we explain many of the abstract concepts of our living experience via conceptual metaphors, which leads me to the following question:  Is self a metaphor, or metonymy for what Demasio calls the “dynamic collection of integrated neural processes, centered on the representationof the living body, that finds expression in a dynamic collection of integrated mental processes.” (10)?

Susan Blackmore’s lecture was also illuminating. I have read much Zen literature (D.T.Suzuki and Alan Watts), and can understand the concept  of the self as an illusion, albeit from a philosophical rather than neuroscientific perspective. Her ideas like “The idea that we are having a stream of experiences is so compelling that we get wrapped up in it, but it makes no sense at all to what’s happening in the brain…” and her assertion that the self only “seems to be” 1.unified 2.continuing 3.the experiencer of experience 4.the initiator of action. The implications are truly exciting in that they challenge the way we think about ourselves, and isn’t that the point….

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2 responses so far ↓

  • Ruperta Nelson // Sep 17th 2013 at 7:22 pm

    I agreed with what you are saying, especially your last sentence, but I am beginning to see a trend in the ‘self’ class in the last few session that seems to push a bit of an atheists agenda. I find that in Blackmore’s and Demasio’s thought while admitting there are things still aren’t understood that it is still scientific and not just simply beyond. What is agreed upon is that there is no real definition of what it means to be consciousness and that it is complicated. I think they both acknowledge that there is an simultaneous dismiss a ‘beyond-ness’ that makes our ‘selves’ as human beings a higher species. I think Hustvedt gets that there is a spiritual nature the propels us and complicates the ‘self’ and who we are and how we define ourselves based on who is around and what is happen to us.
    I have also read some metaphysical writings and philosophy that has no problem with science, but it seems that science cannot walk hand in hand with the metaphysical. Now I am not talking about horoscopes and charms, but I think that organic science cannot have it both ways, both acknowledging and dismissing the beyond-ness of conciseness. I think you can live in dualism of conciseness. After all this could all be a dream and not real at all.

  • Yitian Liao // Sep 18th 2013 at 4:04 am

    I agree with what you about his structure is efficient but it’s after you start following with his step. I have admitted when he starts talking the core consciousness and extended consciousness and follows up with core-self and autobiographic-self, I was totally freaked out. I was struggling with the concept of “consciousness” and “self” and he just made them more complicated. Later on, it gets better when I actually understand his idea. However, in leading the readers to understand better, I think stories that Hustvedt tells may be easier for me to track.

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