The Feeling of What Happens. Antonio Damasio.

Damasio, Antonio. The Feeling of What Happens. Harcourt (Harvest book) Orlando 1999. NF; 3/13.

Finally I finished this remarkable thing. I started it quite a long time ago after having dinner with a professional philosopher, and asking him what’s going on in philosophy of mind these days. “Damasio” he said. Expecting a metaphysicist, I confronted instead a consciousness neurologist. Another blurring of the boundary between art and science.

I think Dr. Damasio answers the big bad philosophy of mind question (“is there an insubstantial mind?”) in the affirmative. He sounds an awful lot like a professor of neurology in much of the book but he starts out softly, and finally ends that way too. Gently agnostic. But what an awful lot comes at us along the way.

There is a rough concordance between “consciousness” and “self”, consciousness starting with “core consciousness” and building in humans to “extended consciousness”, parallel to a “proto-self”, “core self”, and “autobiographical self”. All of this is based in the body and emotions, and operates through a recursive process of perceiving and then knowing. “… Consciousness consists of constructing knowledge about two facts: that the organism is involved in relating to some object, and that the object in the relation causes a change in the organism.” But this simple appreciation of the relationships among one’s “self”, objects (which can be memories, thoughts, and emotions) and the change objects cause in the self is observed multiply. The “owner of the movie-in-the-brain emerges in the movie.” Memories of events which constitute core self are the stuff of, and accessible to, the autobiographical self, as a “second-order nonverbal account” and that account tells the story “… of the organism, caught in the act of representing its own changing state as it goes about representing something else. But the astonishing fact is that the knowable entity of the catcher has just been created in the narrative of the catching process.” Goodness.

Who is the catcher? He’s pretty evanescent. There’s no clever little homunculus. The story as a conscious understanding of the world unfolding with us in it is not “… told by you as a self because the core you is only born as the story is told, within the story itself. You exist as a mental being when primordial stories are being told, and only then; as long as primordial stories are being told, and only then. You are the music while the music lasts.” Core consciousness is a continuing generated story of the act of knowing. Hard not to think of the word in the beginning, and such stuff as dreams are made on.

Large sections of the book contain traditional neurologic evidence-based rationales for anatomic locations of various functions, including these selves. I (who had to write a supplementary exam in my second-year neurophysiology) learned quite a bit from reading these but have forgotten most of it. It’s the “Mr. A has a lesion in his right cingulate gyrus, and has lost the ability to XYZ, therefore the cingulate gyrus is where function XYZ resides.” Above a certain point in the brainstem (which is the primitive reptilian brain) there exists a comprehensive picture of body state which is accessible to the proto-self. Below this point, no such gathering-together of the big picture. That old-brain core consciousness is enhanced by neo-cortical (and limbic?) extended consciousness.

This functional-anatomic-imaging rationale, now enriched with functional imaging, may seem to tighten the noose around the necks of epiphenomenalists like David Chalmers. I don’t think it finally does, and I don’t think Damasio thinks so either. For sure there are many parts of the brain that figure in several different aspects of his functional maps.  Cingulate cortex for example involves emotion, sensation, motor, arousal, attention, and all these are part of the much less specific consciousness. I’m guessing it’ll be awhile yet before we can be transported electronically to enlightenment, have our personality disorder zapped, or white out our grief with a laser.

Feelings are distinguished from emotions by the presence of knowing. Many mental events are “as if” events, in which the self represents hypothetical body or emotional objects.  There are second-order representations of feelings as objects, their impact on the proto-self, and changes in the proto-self which is what we “feel”, what we know. There is of course a third-order set of events: feelings of feelings… it’s all based on body and emotions, but builds from there to ever more sophisticated representations of the organism’s sensation and understanding of itself as it relates to the world.

There are a couple of sections contrasting consciousness and conscience, and Dr. Damasio doesn’t lay claim to having uncovered major metaphysical or moral answers. He says we know more about conscience than we do about consciousness, but this is due to millennia of art and philosophy, not to science.

The mind-body problem? He says of the science-fiction scanner that tells us everything going on in the brain, “(Scanning me) you don’t see what I see, my experience, you see the activity of the brain as I see what I see.” The neuro-scientifically omniscient physiologist born in a black-and-white world who then sees colour has a new experience of it even though she could have explained it perfectly before she saw it. Neurophysiology can explain experience but understanding that explanation, even completely, isn’t the experience. Consciousness is a permit for civilization. “The feeling of what happens is the answer to a question we never asked and… the coin in a Faustian bargain we never could have negotiated.”

So he says, quite beautifully, although I’ll have to think some more about just what that bargain is. I was mightily relieved reliably to be able to imagine that Damasio would agree with me that the completed physical explanation of a pianist and the operation of his instrument is not the tears we cry, much less the feeling of what happens, when we hear the music.  9.5/7.0

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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