Inventing the Self

Narrative and Damasio

September 17th, 2013 by matthew finston · No Comments

In “Self Comes to Mind,” Damasio employs literary techniques such as simile, metaphor, and analogy virtually on every page. While reading this text, I first was interested in defining all of Damasio’s key terms. I was hoping to be able to synthesize Damasio’s understanding of consciousness. But the repetitive appearance of these techniques turns out to be more intriguing.


The title and blurb of this book promises the reader a clarification of the relationship between the brain, mind, self, and consciousness. Cracking open the first page of the book of a chapter entitled “Awakening”, Damasio describes waking up during his flight home from Los Angeles. Damasio does not bore his reader solely with the common symptoms of airline travel but uses it as an opportunity to incite intrigue to study the phenomena of consciousness.


What’s peculiar about this opening is what arguments he makes to compel the reader to find the study of consciousness important. “Without consciousness–that is a mind endowed with subjectivity,” writes Damasio, “you would have no way of knowing that you exist let alone know who you are and what you think” (4). Damasio describes consciousness as the object that makes the “you,” being the reader, have an identity and self. In doing so, Damasio places his reader within the text. Damasio is declaring that I, his reader at this stage, have a consciousness. This seems obvious to point out. While we are all familiar with the concept of consciousness, we should still not take its existence for granted. But what Damasio is doing is endowing the reader with the possession of a consciousness, a “puzzle” that befuddles “scientists and nonscientists alike” (5).


Now I have a stake in this text. I have something that is “mysterious” (6). There are many things that I do not understand, especially when it comes to my body. But I assume that the scientific canon on the human body provides answers to any question I have on its mechanism. If I cared deeply, I could access this knowledge. But that would be impractical. Instead, I rely on expert “scientists” to possess this knowledge. Damasio creates double intrigue so as to say not only do “you,” the non-expert, lack comprehension to the thing that makes you “you” but the expert, too. In effect, Damasio is producing a journey that he invites his reader to embark. Within the first opening pages Damasio has incited intrigue, an obstacle, and, most importantly, a stake.


With an object of study, we move to Damasio qualifications. Damasio’s personal biography lists the titles of authority that enable him to discuss the topics relating to the human mind, in this case, consciousness. He is a professor of “Neuroscience, Psychology, and Neurology, and director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California”. He also briefly mentions that he has been “studying the human mind and brain for more than thirty years, and [he has] previously written about consciousness in scientific articles and books” (6). Interestingly, he distinguishes studying “human mind and brain” from writing about “consciousness”. Why doesn’t he lump mind, brain consciousness together?  This distinction I do not think is unintentional. In fact, distinguishing the differences of these objects fills up much of the book’s content. In short, the brain is the physical object that can be empirically studied; the mind is thought of as the non-physical phenomena as a result of the “activity of small circuits is organized across large networks so as to compose momentary patterns”; finally, consciousness is the phenomena of “I” (19). So central to this work are these distinctions that it is easy to forget that these distinctions personally affect Damasio. Damasio articulates that he studies mind and brain but writes about consciousness, subtly demarcating consciousness outside the scope of his empirical studies suggesting that it falls outside the authority that his professional titles provide. Nevertheless,  it is from his authority as a scientist that he possesses expert knowledge on mind and brain so as to write about consciousness.


Scientifically, consciousness, in this light, might as well be a fiction. Without delving too deeply into Damasio’s exploration of consciousness (while  interesting and definitely related to this post), I think it is important to note that the concept of fiction or narrative becomes embedded within Damasio’s conception of consciousness. In fact, Damasio opens the second chapter of his book with admitting that “the narrative of mind and consciousness that I am presenting does not conform to the requirements of fiction” (33). This unabashed admission that his book functions as a “narrative” makes my argument appear redundant. Also, I would like to point out that his statement works precisely within the logic of fiction by establishing an element of suspense and expectation (‘how will this book portray consciousness as unbelievable! Must know!’). This text is more than just a narrative of consciousness: it ultimately describes the mechanisms of consciousness as operating through the logic of narrative. A term he uses, for example, to describe the process of self is “the autobiographical self” (24). Autobiographical self refers to how a “self” constructs its lived past and “anticipated future” (24). In other words, the autobiographical self constructs a story of the self. Skipping to the end of the book, Damasio finishes this narrative of consciousness and mind by discussing “storytelling” (311). “Storytelling is something brains do, naturally and implicitly” (311). He supports this claim with an evolutionary argument: “individual and groups whose brains made them capable of inventing or using such narratives to improve themselves and the societies they lived in became successful enough for the architectural traits of those brains to be selected” (311). Brains do narratives. And it is how we survive.


Consciousness exists without our understanding of what it is or how it works. This was Damasio’s first point. Damasio endeavors to unlock some of the mystery. Damasio employs narrative elements and effectively describes this work as “the narrative of mind and consciousness.” He takes his research of the human mind and brain and weaves in a character called consciousness. Damasio explicates the different parts of the brain and their functions. He provides analogies and metaphors so the science he is describing is intelligible. Our understanding of consciousness then becomes saturated with metaphors that are supposed to help us disclose the science behind consciousness but instead create a thick husk of symbols that place further obscurity between consciousness and us. But in fact, that is precisely how consciousness functions. It appears that consciousness is the process of making meaning out of the referent. In this case, using an empirical study of the brain and mind, Damasio invites us to practice consciousness in the exploration of consciousness. Thus, the book functions to articulate the unavoidable impasse of studying and understanding consciousness. If our brains do narratives, then consciousness is the signification of lived experience. It is the practice of bestowing meaning. I am not just a body responding to stimuli/phenomena but interacting with it, lifting it out of its material place and infusing a name into its being. Unfortunately, just as consciousness exists because our minds, so too, it seems, that it exists only in our minds.

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