The Feeling of What Happens: Antonio Damasio on What Makes ‘Me’, Me

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A neuroscientist comments on the vital role of emotions and feelings, rather than disembodied rationality, in our survival.

In my continuing search for the self I’d like to present a simplified version of the work of eminent neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. What I find intriguing and helpful in Damasio’s analysis of his research results, is that it seems to explicitly address all the different ways in which we use the idea of ‘self’ — as an organism (see my previous post: “Am I a Self or an Organism?”); as a persistent, obvious kind of intuitive sense of ‘being here’; and as a collection of memories, ideas, thoughts, will, desire, etc. (the last being the kind which it seems therapy often seeks to ‘sort out’).

In The Feeling of What Happens (1999) [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], Damasio suggests that we are made up of at least three selves — each corresponding to a layer of consciousness whose characteristics and neural correlates can be identified (largely by watching what happens when specific areas of the brain are damaged).

The first self, proto-self, is our organism maintaining itself. We are not conscious of any of the tasks it constantly performs in order to keep ourselves alive, regulating and creating the necessary balance in exchanges with the environment, constantly making small adjustments to meet the narrow set of conditions for our existence.

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The second, core-self, is available to consciousness. In fact, you could say it is where consciousness appears in the evolutionary process. It is that self-evident (sic) sense of our always being here, immediately present. It is the feeling of what happens — not the experience of the thing happening directly, but the feeling that it is happening to us. While in a conceptual sense this seems quite a nebulous way of capturing an existential flavour to experience, empirically speaking Damasio’s research investigates conditions, such as absence automatisms and akinetic mutisms, in which a person in a state of wakefulness — able in an absence automatism episode to react appropriately to objects in a very simple immediate sense (open a door, walk out into the street) — is not aware of what they are doing in the slightest and when the episode stops, has no recollection of what has happened. This is a case of the severing of proto-self from core consciousness, which also happens in comas, deep sleep and anaesthesia.

The third, autobiographical self, is the person we identify with. It consists of our memories, histories, temperaments, likes and dislikes. It uses language, is partially determined by culture, and creates forms of extended consciousness. Instances of amnesia demonstrate that it is possible to have an intact core-consciousness and sense of self in the moment — in the case of David, Damasio’s example, lasting about 45 seconds — yet have no autobiographical self. Hence David has no meaningful context in which to experience that moment, no grasp of complex social situations, no idea who his friends actually are, when asked (although he knows who he likes and who he doesn’t consistently over time), no way in which to make plans for the future.

While Damasio argues that these selves are constructed by the brain, he also stresses that they are continuous living processes within our bodies, constantly spurred on by contact with different objects. Emotions have a crucial role in the process of survival. Damasio defines emotions as outwardly directed and visible responses to objects, which can even be seen in simple organisms, such as a sea anemone as it opens and shuts.

Feelings become possible only with consciousness, and they produce the core self. Feelings are senses of what the emotion was, how contact with this ‘object’ (person, experience, thought) has changed us, and how this change in some way belongs to us. The changes are measurable occurrences within the body milieu, and the neural circuits. Our brains, emotions, feelings, nervous systems are all of a piece, all of one process, or rather a series of inextricable, interlinking processes. These processes build naturally one upon the other, following evolution — the core self, with consciousness of its own existence, rides on the proto-self, which keeps it alive, and the autobiographical self rides on the core consciousness.

Following from the work of Bennett and Hacker (2003), I would argue that these selves are not so much ‘constructed by the brain’ as dependent upon certain neural conditions within the brain to function. (We also need certain neural conditions in order to be able to walk, but we don’t say that our walking is constructed by our brains).

But this conceptual confusion does not affect the power of Damasio’s insights into the evolutionarily intricate levels and degrees of consciousness, and the vital role of emotions and feelings, rather than disembodied rationality, in our survival.

References

Bennet, M. R. and P.M.S. Hacker (2003) Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK] Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Damasio, A. (1999) The Feeling of What Happens: Body, Emotion and the Making of Consciousness. [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK] London: Vintage Books.

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