Looking for Consciousness in All the Wrong Places

January 4, 2011

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio is rapidly becoming a media star. His several books, including Looking for Spinoza and The Feeling of What Happens, have brought new discoveries about the brain to a large audience, and he is a popular lecturer on music and education as well as his specialty. I am reading his latest offering, Self Comes to Mind, and it is as spellbinding as a mystery novel.

Damasio first shocked the academic world by suggesting that one of the bedrock tenets of modern thought, the brain-body dichotomy, was false. Why was this shocking? Cartesian “dualism” is the foundation of post-enlightenment philosophy, and one of the things that makes positivism possible. If humans are largely rational creatures, progressive advances by empirical science will produce an increasingly “modern” and perfect society. If humans are more like other mammals, the baser instincts might derail such progress. To those of us who don’t buy the rationalist line, Damasio’s discoveries are fascinating. Who knew that Spinoza was centuries ahead of his time?

The good doctor’s latest hypothesis, also controversial, is that the “feeling brain” can help explain the most vexing problem in psychology: what is consciousness and where does it reside? Previous attempts at finding even a definition were fraught with contradictions. Many of the intuitive explanations for why we possess a “self” were plausible–higher rational processes allow humans to perceive an “autobiographical” self that separates them from other mammals. Unfortunately, they have not been proved in the laboratory, where brain imaging and “mapping” studies have produced startling revelations about how the mind works.

Damasio and his colleagues have located a group of transitional, coordinating regions of neurons that appear to have a critical role in binding the body’s regulating mechanisms with the “higher” brain functions. They are located in positions between the brain stem (the old brain) and the cerebral cortex (the outer, new brain). It seems that our conscious awareness of self (there actually are three flavors: proto, core, and autobiographical) takes place in these transitional areas, not in the expected regions of the outer brain.

Why is this important? Well, for one thing it shows us again that human “nature” is closer to the ground than to the stars. Though we press to distinguish ourselves from our animal neighbors on this planet, we cannot escape the evolutionary story that is preserved in our brains and bodies. It is humbling, but also liberating, to know that the feeling of being human is not as unique as we once supposed. Next time you swim with a dolphin, give him a knowing wink.

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