Neuroscience: Knowing and feeling

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Owen Flanagan is unconvinced by Antonio Damasio's argument that 'the self' is needed to explain consciousness.

Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain

Pantheon: 2010. 384 pp. $28.95, £25 9780307378750 | ISBN: 978-0-3073-7875-0

The value of a popular science book depends on the author's ability to sort and present evidence and to be aware of its limitations. In my view, experimental neuroscientist Antonio Damasio stretches too far in his latest work, Self Comes to Mind, in which he considers what the self is and how it connects to consciousness.

Through his series of popular books, Damasio has become a major spokesman for a humane science of the mind that knits together reason and the emotions. His first and rightly celebrated best-seller was Descartes' Error (Harper, 1995). It bemoaned the continuing legacy of what in 1949 philosopher Gilbert Ryle called the “myth of the ghost in the machine”, and what Damasio judged “the abyssal separation of mind and body”. His later books touched on the neuroscience behind consciousness and free will.

Self Comes to Mind is an upbeat but long-winded and desultory stroll through Damasio's musings on much of what he has thought about or worked on. With more than 90 sections on disconnected topics, each averaging a few pages, his writings come over as a neuroscientist's equivalent of haiku. The grand titles of his essays, such as 'Nature and Culture' or 'Brain and Justice', are not matched by insights. In this piecemeal collection, his thesis is hard to follow; in particular, it is not clear what he means by 'the self'.

Philosophers have conveyed various views of the self over millennia: as an immaterial soul; as some growing brain-pearl that explains feelings of self-identity; the living body; a memory connection to the past; a narrative of who I am. A vast literature has grown up around this deep psychological, philosophical and anthropological problem. Yet Damasio does not engage with it. He simply criticizes eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume's scepticism that there is a self — writing that Hume “pulverized the self” — and sides with psychologist William James's more embodied approach.

Henry Fuseli's The Nightmare (1781) sparked debate among psychologists about consciousness and dreaming. Credit: THE ART ARCHIVE/DETROIT INST. OF ARTS/SUPERSTOCK

He also does not engage with the arguments and evidence supplied by cognitive scientists about the connection between consciousness and the self. Damasio offers vague signposts to his thinking: he feels that the self is a process rather than a thing; it is necessary for consciousness; and it requires a 'knower' to be generated in the brain to witness experiences in order for the mind to become conscious. Yet he does not set out scientific evidence to back up these claims.

According to most neuroscientists, consciousness refers to experience. We seek to explain how consciousness arises from the brain and body and, through evolutionary biology, why it was selected for, emerged and became ubiquitous. Damasio's views on these issues are not fleshed out. As for the mechanism, he recounts the accepted picture that the brainstem, thalamus and posteromedial cortices play a big part. His 'just-so' answer on the evolutionary function of consciousness is unconvincing.

Damasio gives familiar descriptions of experiences that require an organism but do not require a 'self'. Most basic is simple sensory consciousness, as when an animal experiences pain or pleasure, hunger or thirst (which Damasio calls the proto-consciousness). Then there are more extended experiences, as when a raccoon foraging at a stream takes in the sights, smells and sensations of its surroundings (Damasio's core consciousness). And there is self-consciousness — possibly unique to humans — that includes awareness of self-referential feelings such as anxiety, or the story of one's life or character (autobiographical consciousness).

Present in all these types of consciousness, he says, is a 'self process'. This may be involved in the 'self as witness' or the 'self as protagonist', but it is not clear why it is necessary for the 'self as experiencer'. In fact, Damasio explicitly excludes dreaming — in which the sleeper has experiences but lacks self-awareness — from the set of conscious experiences. This is obviously unwarranted. We have experiences when dreaming and while under anaesthetic, 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 that 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.

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Flanagan, O. Neuroscience: Knowing and feeling. Nature 469, 160–161 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/469160a

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