In the December, 2010 edition of Discover Magazine, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio sets forth his understanding of human consciousness. Damasio has recently published a new book on this topic, Self Comes to Mind. Here’s a short excerpt from page 66 of his deeply thought-provoking article at Discover (not available yet online):
Conscious minds result from the smoothly articulated operation of several, often many, brain sites. The ultimate consciousness product occurs from those numerous brain sites at the same time and not in one site in particular, much as the performance of a symphonic piece does not come from the work of a single musician or even a whole section of an orchestra. The oddest thing about the upper reaches of a consciousness performance is the conspicuous absence of a conductor before the performance begins, although as the performance unfolds, a conductor comes into being. For all intents and purposes, a conductor is now leading the orchestra, although the performance has created the conductor–the self–not the other way around. Building a mind capable of encompassing one’s lived past and anticipated future, along with the lives of others added to the fabric and the capacity for reflection to boot, resembles the execution of a symphony of Mahlerian proportions. But the true marvel is that the score and the conductor become reality only as life unfolds. The grand symphonic piece that is consciousness encompasses the foundational contributions of the brainstem, forever hitched to the body, and the wider-than-the-sky imagery created in the cooperation of cerebral cortex and sub cortical structures, all harmoniously stitched together, is ceaseless forward motion, interruptible only by sleep, anesthesia, brain dysfunction, or death.
Damasio, well known for his groundbreaking work in his early book, Descartes’s Error, takes special care to describe the complexity of the mind, the marvel of this emergence of consciousness, and he specifically points out the importance of the emotions for a thorough understanding of consciousness:
Emotions are complex, largely automated programs of actions concocted by evolution. The actions are carried out in our bodies, from facial expressions and postures to changes in viscera and internal millieu. Feelings of emotion, on the other hand, are composite perceptions of what happens in our body and mind when we are emoting. As far as the body is concerned, feelings are images of actions rather than actions themselves. While emotions are actions accompanied by ideas and certain modes of thinking, emotional feelings are mostly perceptions of what our bodies do during the emoting, along with perceptions of our state of mind during that same period of time.
In the same article, Damasio also considers the tantalizing question of why there is consciousness at all, as opposed to know consciousness. His simple answer is that it must have contributed significantly to the survival of our species. The challenge is then to determine how it has contributed to the survival of our species.
Consciousness helps the optimization of responses to environmental conditions. As processed and the conscious mind, images provide details about the environment, and those details can be used to increase the precision of a much-needed response, for example, the exact movement that will neutralize a threat or guarantee the capture of a prey. But the lions share of the advantage comes from the fact that the conscious mind infuses the exploration of the world outside the brain with a concern for the first and foremost problem facing the organism: the successful regulation of life.
I have great respect for Damasio’s work. Descartes’s air should be required reading for anyone who wants to be part of the conversation regarding cognitive science. Damasio is certainly working hard to get rid of the homunculus, the little man in the brain. And there cannot be a little man the brain, because he would present us with an eternal regress. Therefore Damasio’s idea of a symphony that creates its own conductor resonates well with me. On the other hand, his explanation for why there is consciousness at all does not convince me. I can imagine, for instance, a highly sophisticated robot program for survival that can respond with great precision without any capacity for consciousness.
Immediately after reading devices interview at Discover Magazine, I read Owen Flanagan’s critique of Damasio’s new book in the January 13, 2011 edition of Nature (available online only to subscribers). Flanagan has much respect for Damasio, indicating that Damasio “has become a major spokesman for a humane science of the mind that knits together reason in the emotions.” Flanagan finds several of Damasio’s major claims to be unsubstantiated or vague, and he disagrees with Damasio’s claim that all types of consciousness need to involve a “self process.”
Damasio explicitly excludes dreaming– in which the sleeper has experiences that lacks self-awareness– from the set of conscious experiences. This is obviously unwarranted. We have experiences when dreaming and while under anesthetic, even though aspects of our awareness disappear. Dreaming does not require a self process, so consciousness does not either. Just because “self” is in our vocabulary does not mean it has any explanatory role in a science of the mind. Damasio says nothing convincing as to why, in addition to our fully embodied conscious beings we ought to add the self, or self processes, to the ontological table of elements.