Review of Damasio’s Self Comes to Mind

Review of Damasio’s Self Comes to Mind

This is from a review/analysis of Damasio’s book Self Comes to Mind:

“On Page 8 he says, ‘I believe that conscious minds arise when a self process is added to a basic mind process.’ So, in Damasio’s view the difference between mind and consciousness is all about the self. He defines ‘mind’ as the process by which the brain creates images based on its maps, both of the body and of the world. But he says that the mind is unconscious until it has a sense of self.

“Now, based on Damasio’s definition, minds have existed for a long time, but they weren’t conscious. He says, ‘A mind unwitnessed is still a mind.’ The key idea is that mind developed independently of consciousness—or at least before it. But they’re both rooted in the physical processes of the brain, which itself evolved to maintain life.

“Damasio sees consciousness as being mind plus the self process. Thus consciousness is more than being awake; but of course, you have to be awake to be conscious.

“According to Damasio, consciousness requires that: 1. You are awake; 2. You have an operational mind, that is, one that makes images; and 3. You have what he calls an ‘automatic, unprompted, unreduced sense of self.’

“He has what he calls ‘core consciousness’—which he describes as having a sense of self in the here-and-now, without a sense of past or future—and ‘autobiographical consciousness,’ which includes both personhood and identity….this way of thinking about consciousness allows for consciousness to exist in many non-human species…. He emphasizes that ‘core consciousness does not require language.’

“After acknowledging the importance of consciousness, Damasio returns to his evolutionary perspective and says we need to acknowledge what came before consciousness—that is to say, much of what the brain and the mind does is unconscious. He rejects the Freudian unconscious, but he refers to ‘the large unconscious,’ which he says is made up of two ingredients: an active ingredient, which is the maps and images that are constantly being formed and updated (most of which never reach consciousness), and then the dormant ingredient, which is ‘the repository of coded records from which explicit images can be formed.’

“So, it’s a good thing most of this never reaches consciousness, or we’d drown in the din. The brain takes the overabundance of inputs and tries to compose a coherent narrative. This is another aspect of our limited attentional spotlight—that magicians exploit.

“But despite the importance of consciousness, it is important to remember that it’s built on unconscious processes that are in charge of life regulation. Damasio calls these processes ‘blind dispositions,’ and says that they deliver the rewards and punishments that promote drive, motivation, and emotions. The map-making process is also unconscious; so consciousness is what we would call ‘a late-comer to life management.’

“Damasio says that his position is ‘Consciousness offers a direct experience of mind, but the broker of the experience is a self, which is an internal and imperfectly instructed informer rather than an external reliable observer.’

“‘The brain constructs consciousness by generating a self process within an awake mind;’ the parts are the ‘mind’ and ‘wakefulness— which are indispensable—and the ‘self.’

“He also proposes that the self is built in stages. The first stage is the protoself. He says that the protoself is a neural description of relatively stable aspects of the organism. The main product of the protoself is spontaneous feelings of the living body, which he calls ‘primordial feelings.’

“The second stage is the core self. According to Damasio a pulse of core self is generated when the protoself is modified by an interaction between the organism and an object, and then as a result the images of the object get modified. The modified images of the object and the organism are momentarily linked in a coherent pattern. This is described in a narrative sequence of images, some of which are feelings.

“The third stage, the autobiographical self, occurs when objects in one’s biography generate pulses of core self that are subsequently momentarily linked in a large scale coherent pattern.

“Damasio points out that a lot of what’s in the unconscious is stuff that has been put there through training—learning. And it allows us to do things, because if we had to concentrate on everything—for example, walking—we wouldn’t be able to do anything more complicated. He emphasizes the importance of educating the unconscious so that we’re going to respond the way we want. For example, he says moral behavior is a skill set.”

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Paul Watson

First, Ed, thank you for posting so much good stuff! A “self (generating) process” can be completely non-conscious, yet result in a socially adaptive conscious experience of that generated self, which can then be presented to others, subject to constant revision based on the action also of non-conscious information-procecssing mechanisms. No organism can exist without a sense of self, in the broad sense. “Am I gonna fight this fight?” Answering this question requires multi-faceted self-assessment. None of that has to be conscious, so I guess I may disagree with Diamasio. Where I am right now, I cannot see the point… Read more »

Paul Watson

More: “… that magicians exploit.” In the 3-dimensional chess game, cubed, of human social navigation, we are all magicians. It is primarily the intraspecific evolutionary arms race for prowess in social navigation that produced our big brains and the ability to have “come to mind” a dynamic adaptively subjective dreamworld, that we can articulate to social partners to help manipulate and adjust their own in our favor. This dreamworld is imbued with a strong sense of executive control and agency, because that helps create the illusion in our social partners that they are talking to and observing the mental mechanisms… Read more »

Paul Watson

PS: If we want to know ourselves, we have to study our selves in some of the same ways as do our social partners. Any one conscious model of ourselves and our world only provides a limited and adaptively warped, socially strategic representation of who we are, our operative values and intentions.

M Harris

“by observing a given person’s dreamworld-based presentations over time … one can begin to get to know them more deeply. How they change with circumstances, etc., can be used to help zero in on the nonconscious model of reality and intentions that is actually controlling a social partner.”

It is dizzying to consider this, given the ‘one’ who is forming the increasingly accurate model of the other’s non-conscious model is also primarily non-conscious.

M Harris

Thanks for the good summary, Edward.

What, if any, correspondence do you see between Damasio’s mind and Oakley’s and Halligan’s ‘central executive structure’ (CES)?

[…] investigated Damasio‘s various forms of consciousness, from proto to core to narrative, as well as Dehaene‘s […]

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