Inventing the Self

The ‘Conscious’ Performance

September 17th, 2013 by Sabrina Smith · 3 Comments

During our first session, we discussed briefly the work of Antonio Damsio & Jill Bolte Taylor, and  and their dedication to the study of the brain and consciousness. It was evident that their perspectives and demonstrations on Ted Talks were uniquely different. Taylor’s discussion was a demonstrative in every way: the moment when she brought out the human brain to display the hemispheres, to her prolific performance that reflected a collaboration of knowledge and emotion both physically and emotionally. It was memorable, and then it was time to move on to Damasio’s piece. To my disappointment it was not as moving but rather, a mundane reading that was built on detailed facts and I felt as though I was sitting in a lecture room merely listening out of respect for his contributions to the study.

You can draw the conclusion that I was not really much momentum in his work for this week. But it turns out that I was a bit too judgmental. Damasio is, respectively, telling a story in both the piece Self Comes to Mind and The Feeling of What Happens.  Of course he sticks to storytelling with the ‘textbook style’ writing with sporadic diagrams and the abundance of questions as if we were taking his course. However, I thought it was so refreshing to find imagery in his work.

For one, he creatively compares the conscious mind to a grand symphonic piece which I think is a brilliant observation and an even more clever analogy:

“The grand symphonic piece that is consciousness encompasses the foundational contributions of the brain stem, forever hitched to the body, and the wider-than-the-sky imagery created in the cooperation of the cerebral cortex and the subcortial structures, all harmoniously stitched together, in ceaseless forward motion, interruptible only by sleep, anesthesia, brain dysfunction or death.”

Damasio also describes the consciousness within a ‘revelational’ perspective as well, one that follows the moment that the performer presents himself to an audience. I think the following passage really depicts the attempt to conceptualize the profound nature of consciousness:

As I prepare to introduce this book, however, and as I reflect on what I have written, I sense that stepping into the light is also a powerful metaphor for consciousness, for birth of the knowing mind, for the simple and yet momentous coming of the sense of self into the world of the mental.”

It is interesting to compare the different ‘performances’ surrounding the conscious mind. We have one individual who blows us away with her candid display of the interference of “the universe” and the euphoric feeling that moves in and out of an almost life threatening episode. The alternative is an individual who does nothing to entertain but is found to have a way with words that keeps the reader interested in learning more about the topic.

Overall both strategies are convincing, but I am  more pleased with the fact that I was able to see further into Damasio’s  work.

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3 responses so far ↓

  • matthew finston // Sep 18th 2013 at 12:02 am

    Great stuff. I have to agree with you here. I was bored with the Damasio’s text. But I also had a change of heart when I paid attention to his style. Both Self comes to mind and the feeling of what happens both use storytelling in an interesting way that seems to be integral to his work.

  • Yitian Liao // Sep 18th 2013 at 4:27 am

    I also very like the way Damasio writing comparison but it’s when he tries to distinguish two similar concepts and it’s much easier when actually tries to explain them separately:

    “Protoself with its primordial feelings, and the core self, constitute a ‘material me.’ The autobiographical-self, whose higher reaches embrace all aspects of one’s social persona, constitute a ‘social me’ and a ‘spiritual me’.”

    “Without consciousness–that is a mind endowed with subjectivity, you would have no way of knowing that you exist let alone know who you are and what you think”

  • Yana Walton // Sep 18th 2013 at 11:24 pm

    I’m also in agreement with you: The way that such seemingly miraculous physiological processes and their accompanying revolutionary theories has often amounted to a linear presentation of dry details has felt a bit frustrating to me too. For me, it wasn’t until I started pausing in my readings of Damasio to ask myself, (in much less scientific fashion) “Have I ever felt this way? Does what he’s saying ring true at some gut level, strike an intuitive chord of truth of how I see my self?”

    I have also encountered the idea of our consciousness as the conductor from a Buddhist teacher – where the instruments are the sense perceptions and feelings – and as the observer, we get a lot of agency when choosing what to tell to play. It’s a little different than the biological description of consciousness that Damasio is talking about, but that metaphor seems to ring true across different analytical frameworks for understanding self.

    To get really unscientific for a second, I think that sometimes the translation of feeling/qualia, the most interesting concepts in all of their contradictions, etc…in Damasio’s work can better be captured with the creative and artistic properties of the mind. Sometimes a poem or piece of art can almost explain these concepts of self, feeling, image in a way that I’m more inspired than I am by neuroscience. I love that Damasio included a Jorie Graham poem in the preface to the chapter in “The Feeling of What Happens.”

    I’ll share a poem by Tracy K. Smith on the same topic that did that little illuminating/inspiring thing for me:

    We are part of it. Not guests.
    Is It us, or what contains us?
    How can it be anything but an idea,
    Something teetering on the spine
    Of the number i? It is elegant
    But coy. It avoids the blunt ends.
    Of our fingers as we point. We
    Have gone looking for It everywhere:
    In Bibles and bandwidth, blooming
    Like a wound from the ocean floor.
    Still, It resists the matter of false v. real.
    Unconvinced by our zeal, It is un-
    Appeasable. It is like some novels:
    Vast and unreadable.

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