Antonio Damasio:
"Self Comes to Mind" (Pantheon, 2011)

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Damasio's previous books DESCARTES' ERROR (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1995), THE FEELING OF WHAT HAPPENS (Harcourt Brace, 1999), and LOOKING FOR SPINOZA (Harcourt, 2003) had provided a uniform and consistent view of the way the brain "thinks". Somehow Damasio felt that he had to revisit all of his concepts and retell the story from another angle. One problem is that it is not clear at all how consistent the new story is with the previous one. The other problem is that Damasio is still using a rather non-scientific way to present his ideas. It is often difficult to understand what he is talking about because he uses (abuses?) popular words (like "consciousness") without having defined them but soon one realizes that he is not using them the way they are normally used. For example: "Consciousness offers a direct experience of mind, but the broker of the experience is a self." How self, mind and consciousness differ is left to the reader to guess. Damasio's "mind" must be non-conscious. It sounds like it is simply everything that the brain has learned. However he confuses the concept by stating "Minds emerge when the activity of small circuits is organized across large networks so as to compose momentary patterns... that represent things and events located outside the brain". The self, in particular, is continuously named, renamed, defined and redefined that in different chapters it seems to refer to different things altogether. There is none of the clarity of, say, Michael Gazzaniga's theory of the "interpreter". All we understand is that when the self meets the mind, then the mind becomes conscious. The logic of some of his arguments also leaves to be desired. He is clearly no mathematician. Many of his logical deductions are just inaccurate and do not prove what he thinks they prove.

First of all, here is what Damasio told us in the past about the self. The mind is an idea of the body. All living organisms have "proto-selves", but only organisms with a complex nervous system capable of "seeing" their proto-self interacting with the world also have real "consciousness". These organisms are capable of registering the "feeling of what happens". Human consciousness is one further step beyond, enabled by the fact that we have a large memory that enables autobiographical memory. The mind is an idea of the body, and the self is an idea of ideas. The self groups all the ideas of the body and generates a sense of unity.

For this new book the terms are slightly different: consciousness emerges when "self comes to mind", i.e. when the maps of sensory experience (the mind) intersect with the maps of past experiences (the self). The result is autobiographical memory, which Damasio seems to identify with "the self".

Just like in his previous books Damasio does not even try to explain where feelings and consciousness come from. What he refers to "consciousness", he is talking about some neural fact that is endowed with consciousness. He is merely a neurologist analyzing the way the emotional system works. He basically takes consciousness for granted: it is there, and he only studies how it "evolves" to become what it is in humans, not how it originates.

Despite all its flaws, this book has one merit: it clarifies the role that maps play in Damasio's view. It's all about mapping, after all. The brain is a decide to map the body, to map the interaction between the body and the environment (sensory experience) and to map the story of this interaction (the self). Cognitive life is a recursive process of mapping and remapping one thing into the other. Consciousness is "a state of mind in which there is knowledge of one's own existence and of the existence of surroundings". Of course, this is cheating: a tree has "knowledge" of its own existence and of the existence of surroundings. Even a rock can be said to have such knowledge. What Damasio really means is that this knowledge must be "conscious" knowledge, but then he is merely defining consciousness as something... conscious. We knew that.

He also guesses something important when he writes that human brains (not all brains) are natural storytellers, but then fails to meditate on this fact. To him it is just another piece of evidence for the autobiographical self.

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