Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain by Antonio Damasio

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Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain by Antonio Damasio

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Category: Popular Science
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: A demanding but fascinating look at the problem of consciousness which attempts to present an evolutionary and neurobiological framework for the emergence of conscious mind focused on self.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: January 2012
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099498025

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What makes us, us? How is awareness of one's own being created in the human mind? What makes me who got up this morning me that went to bed last night, and the same me that got up on most mornings in the preceding forty-odd years? How is it that we see, remember and understand things, other humans and the world in general? And who is doing the understanding? How is it that we are conscious of our own experiences, and how is it that we are conscious of ourselves being conscious?

The problems of the mind and the self, the consciousness and the self-consciousness have interested philosophers since the human inquiry into the nature of things began, but the area has been, mostly, outside the remit of 'proper' science, not least because of the lack of framework and lack of means for such an investigation.

Psychology is the science of human behaviour. This was drummed into our undergraduate heads when I started a psychology degree in the late 1980s. A quarter of a century on, the problem of the consciousness looks more respectable, and more solvable.

The solution won't, alas, come from psychology as such but from the exciting borderland between psychology, physiology and computer science that is often known as neuroscience or cognitive science. Antonio Damasio is one of the leading practitioners in that field as well as an author of several books in which he dared to speculate on neurobiological data in order to come up with explanations of higher-order phenomena.

Self Comes to Mind, subtitled Constructing the Conscious Brain aims high: it offers a coherent, hypothetical model of how the conscious human mind might arise as a result of the brain function. The book attempts to address two questions: How does the brain make mind? and How does the brain make that mind conscious?. The self is seen as crucial to the creation of the consciousness; the self is a process that is both an object of knowledge (the me that is me) as well as a knower which processes, focuses and, ultimately, reflects on the experiences.

This is, obviously, speculative, as any model of such kind must be, but supported by vast erudition and plenty of experimental material. In fact, Self Comes to Mind presents – and at least attempts to bridge the gaps between and integrate – insights into the construction of self that come from a variety of sources and perspectives ranging from the introspection of philosophers and artists to behavioural data of the psychologists to the brain data of the neurologists. Damasio's overarching approach is evolutionary: he attempts to unravel the high-level workings of modern human brains by tracking the phylogenetic development of consciousness.

The whole framework relies on several ideas. The first, and according to Damasio the most important one is that the mind (and with it, the consciousness and the self) is the creation of the body. The mapping of the body, and the loop that transmits the feelings between the brain and the body parts and organs forms a foundation of what Damasio calls the protoself. In Damasio's framework the whole body – not just the brain – create the mind. These basic foundations are located in the brain stem and forever hitched to the body, but it's those that are necessary for the whole magnificent tapestry of wider-than-the-sky imagery created in the cooperation of higher brain regions, ceaselessly unfolding as it's created during the human life.

And thus, the conscious mind emerges from the life-regulating functions of the brain. The self as knower is an emergent quality of the process, a conductor that is leading the orchestra's performance although it's the performance that created the conductor.

Such an evolutionary approach offers not only a great frame on which to construct the theory of self (although Damasio modestly refers to a framework) but provides a very psychologically satisfying - at least to this reviewer - way of bridging the gap between the mind and body, nature and artifice, arts and sciences.

Self Comes to Mind is not a particularly easy read. Damasio's writing is erudite and persuasive, and although he has a tendency to run into quite elaborate metaphors, it seems justified considering an elusive nature of the subject. There are also many fairly tangential digressions, which would attract some readers (including this one) but put off others. Altogether it's a very idea-dense book, and in some chapters, on every page there is an idea or a concept that makes one stop and consider its implications. Other parts are rather technical. The varied fields of reference mean that to fully appreciate it, one needs to make an effort – especially if human neurobiology is unfamiliar – but it's an effort worth making.

I found Self Comes to Mind simply riveting and read it over a long period, with numerous breaks for considering the content, and even more so, the implications of what's being said. This might be because of my background in psychology and long-standing interest in neuroscience. I envy the modern undergraduates - and maybe even more the ones that will come to the field a few years hence - who may have a chance to explore the mechanics of consciousness. But I also think that Damasio's book is of interest to more than just an audience of unfulfilled (or budding) cognitive scientists.

Questions that Self Comes to Mind aims to explore reach to the very core of our being. Our conscious selves define what it is to be a human. Knowing how those selves are constructed on the foundation of the feedback loop between the brain and the rest of the body may inform moral, legal and scientific reasoning, and never more usefully than nowadays. From animal rights to notions of personal responsibility, from learning skills to deferring gratification and defying patterns that were adaptive in Palaeocene but are not in modern cities, understanding consciousness has many applications that go well beyond knowledge-for-knowledge's sake.

Highly recommended.

If this book appeals then you might also like to try:

In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind by Eric R Kandel is more accessible and combines autobiography and cutting edge neuroscience.

Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer explores mind's mechanisms for creating the sense of external reality.

Sex, Drugs and Chocolate: The Science of Pleasure by Paul Martin explores human experiences of pleasure (and ties with many Damasio's ideas on planning and life-management.

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