Antonio Damasio
Self Comes to Mind

Constructing the Conscious Brain
William Heinemann 2010


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A preview of main ideas: Of the ideas advanced in the book, none is more central than the notion that
the body is the foundation of the conscious mind. We know that the most stable aspects of body function are represented in the brain, in the form of maps, thereby contributing images to the mind. This is the basis of the hypothesis that the special kind of mental images of the body produced in body mapping structures, constitutes the proto-self, which foreshadows the self to be. Of note, the critical body mapping and image making structures are located below the level of the cerebral cortex, in a region known as the upper brainstem. This is an old part of the brain shared with many other species.

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I hypothesise that the first and most elementary product of the proto-self is
primordial feelings, which occur spontaneously and continuously whenever one is awake. They provide a direct experience of one's own living body, wordless, unadorned, and connected to nothing but sheer existence. These primordial feelings reflect the current state of the body along varied dimentions, for example, along the scale that ranges from pleasure to pain, and they originate at the level of the brainstem rather than the cerebral cortex. All feelings of emotion are complex musical variations on primordial feelings.

Footnote: My previous accounts of the self did not include the primordial self. The elementary feeling of existence was part of the core self. I came to the conclusion that the process can work only if the brainstem component of the proto-self generates an elementary feeling, a primitive of sorts, independently of any object interacting with the organism and thus modifying the proto-self...The primitive feeling/primordial self is a spontaneous product of the proto-self. In theory, primordial feelings occur regardless of whether the proto-self is engaged by objects and events external to the brain. They need to be related to the living body and nothing else.

Boe: vgl. Peirce quality - firstness

In the functional arrangement outlined here, pain and pleasure are body events. The events are also mapped in the brain that at no instant is separated from the body. Thus primordial feelings are a special kind of image generated thanks to the obligate body/brain interaction, to the characteristics of the circuitry accomplishing the connection, and possibly to a certain properties of neurones. It is not enough to say that feelings are felt because they map the body.

I hypothesise that in addition to holding a unique relationship to the body, the brainstem machinery responsible for making the kind of images we call feelings is capable of richly mixing signals from the body and thus creating complex states with a special novel properties of feeling rather than mere slavish maps of the body. The reason why non-feeling images are also felt is that they are normally accompanied by feelings. The foregoing implies that the notion of a sharp border separating body and brain is problematic. It also suggests the potentially fruitful approach to the vexing problem of why and how normal mental states are invariably imbued with some form of feeling.

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Brains begin building conscious minds not that the level of the cerebral cortex but rather at the level of the brainstem. Primordial feelings are not only the first images generated by the brain but also immediate manifestations of sentience. They are the proto-self foundation for more complex levels of self.

Conscious minds begin when self comes to mind, when brains add a self process to the mind mix, modestly at first but quite robustly later.
The self is built in distinct steps grounded on the proto-self.

The first step is the generation of primordial feelings, the elementary feelings of existence that springs spontaneously from the proto-self.

Next is the
core self. The core self is about action - specifically, about the relationship between the organism and the object. The core self unfolds in the sequence of images that describe an object engaging the proto-self and modifying that proto-self, including its primordial feelings.

Finally there is the
autobiographical self. This self is defined in terms of biographical knowledge pertaining to the past as well as the anticipated future. The multiple images whose ensemble defines a biography generate pulsess of core self whose aggregate constitutes an autobiographical self.

The proto-self with its primordial feelings, and the core self, constitute a „material me“. The autobiographical self, whose higher reaches embrace all aspects of one's social persona, constitute a „social me“. We can observe these aspects of self within our own minds or study their effects in the behaviour of others. In addition, however, the core and autobiographical selves within
our minds construct a knower; in other words, they endow the mind with another variety of subjectivity. For practical purposes, normal human consciousness corresponds to a mind process in which all of these self levels operate, offering to a limited number of mind contents a momentary link to a pulse of core self.

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At neither modest nor robust levels do self unconsciousness happen in one area or region or centre of the brain. Conscious minds result from the smoothly articulated operation of several, often many, brain sites. The key brain structures in charge of implementing the requisite functional steps include specific sectors of the upper brainstem, a set of nuclei in a region known as the thalamus, and specific but widespread regions of the cerebral cortex.

The ultimate conscious product occurs from those numerous brain sites at the same time and not in one site in particular, much as the performance of symphonic piece does not come from the work of a single musician or even from 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, the conductor comes into being. For all intents and purposes, the conductor is now leading the orchestra, although the performance has created the conductor - the self - not the other way around. The conductor is cobbled together by feelings and by a narrative brain device, although this fact does not make the conductor any less real. The conductor undeniably exists in our mind, nothing is gained by dismissing it as an illusion.

The coordination on which conscious minds depend is achieved by a variety of means. At the modest core level, it begins quietly, as a spontaneous assembly of images that emerge one after the other in close time proximity, the image of an object, on the one hand, and the image of the proto-self changed by the object, on the other.

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No single mechanism explains consciousness in the brain, no single device, no single region, or feature, or trick, any more than a symphony can be played by one musician or even a few. Many are needed. What each of them contributes does count. But only the ensemble produces the results we seek to explain.

Managing and safekeeping life efficiently are two of the recognisable achievements of consciousness: neurological patients whose consciousness is compromised are unable to manage their lives independently even when their basic life functions operate normally.

And yet mechanisms for managing and maintaining life are not a novelty in biological evolution and are not necessarily dependent on consciousness. Such mechanisms already exist in single cells and are coded in their game genome. There are also widely replicated within ancient, humble, un-minded and un-conscious neuron circuits, and they are very much present deep in human brains. We shall see that managing and safekeeping life is the fundamental premise of biological value.

Biological value has influenced the evolution of brain structures, and in any brain it influences almost every step of brain operations. It is expressed as simply as in the release of chemical molecules related to reward and punishment, or as elaborately as in our social emotions and in sophisticated reasoning. Biological value naturally guides and colors, so to speak, almost everything that happens inside our very minded, very conscious brains. Biological value has the status of a principle.

In brief, the conscious mind emerges within the history of life regulation. Life regulation, a dynamic process known as homeostasis for short, begins in unicellular living creatures, such as a bacterial cell or a simple amoeba, which do not have the brain but are capable of adaptive behaviour.
It progresses in individuals whose behaviour is managed by simple brains, as is the case with worms, and it continues its march in individuals whose brains generate both behaviour and mind (insects and fish being examples).
I am ready to believe that whenever brains begin to generate primordial feelings - and that could be quite early in evolutionary history - organisms acquired an early form of sentience.
From there on, and organise self process could develop and be added to the mind, thereby providing the beginning of elaborate conscious minds. Reptiles are contenders for this distinction, for example; birds make even stronger contenders; and mammals get the award.
Most species whose brains generate a self do so at core level. Humans have both core self and autobiographical self. A number of mammals are likely to have both as well, namely wolfs, our ape cousins, marine mammals and elephants, cats, and, of course, that off-the-scale species called the domestic dog.

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The march of mind progress does not end with the arrival of the modern levels of self. Throughout the evolution of mammals, especially primates, minds become ever more complex, memory and reasoning expanding notably, and the self processes enlarge their scope. The core self remains, but is gradually surrounded by an autobiographical self, whose neural and mental natures are very different from those of the core self.
We become able to use part of our minds operation to monitor the operation of other parts. The conscious mind of humans, armed with such complex selves and supported by even greater capabilities of memory, reasoning, and language, engender the instruments of culture and open the way to new means of homeostasis at the level of societies and culture. In an extraordinary leap, homeostasis acquires an extension into the
sociocultural space. Justice systems, economic and political organisations, the arts, medicine, and technology are examples of the new devices of regulation - sociocultural homeostasis.

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T
he topic of the mind: Before consciousness came to be regarded as the central problem in mind and brain research, the closely related issue, known as the mind-body problem, dominated the intellectual debate. In one form or another, it permeated the thinking philosophers and scientists from Descartes and Spinoza to the present. The functional arrangement described in chapter 3 makes my position on this problem clear: the brains map-making ability provides an essential element in its solution. In brief, complex brains such as ours naturally make explicit maps of the structures that compose the body proper, in more or less detail. Inevitably brains also map the functional states naturally assumed by those body, components. Because, as we have seen, brain maps are the substrate of mental images, map-making brains have the power of literally introducing the body as content into the mind process. Thanks to the brain, the body becomes a natural topic of the mind.

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The body-minded brain: The situation that emerges from the preceding facts and reflections is strange and unexpected but quite liberating. We can all have our body and mind, at all times, providing us with a backdrop of feeling potentially available at every instant but noticeable only when it departs significantly from relatively balanced states and begins to register in the pleasantness or unpleasantness range.
We have our body and mind because it helps govern behaviour in all manner of situations that could threaten the integrity of the organism and compromise life. That particular functional draws on the oldest kind of life regulation based on the brain. It harks back to a simple body-to-brain signalling, two basic prompts for automated regulatory responses meant to assist with life management. But we simply have to marvel at what has been accomplished from such humble beginnings. Body mapping of the most refined order undergirds both the self process in conscious minds and the representations of the world external to the organism. The inner world has opened the way of our ability to know not only that very inner world but also the world around us.
The living body is the central locus. Life regulation is the need and the motivation. Brain mapping is the enabler, the engine that transforms plain life regulation into minded regulation and, eventually, into consciously minded regulation.

Damasio Self Comes to Mind

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