Quick thoughts on Damasio's new book, "Self Comes to Mind"

When I saw that renowned neuroscientist Antonio Damasio had a new book coming out I was immediately excited. When I saw that the title was Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain, I was doubly excited and preordered it, for this sounded like the sociocultural approach to consciousness that I have recently been arguing for. Although I am only about halfway through, I wanted to go ahead and post some brief thoughts on the introductory chapter. When I get done with the book, perhaps I will post a proper review of the whole book.

On the sixth page, Damasio writes the following:

I have been studying the human mind and brain for more than thirty years, and I have previously written about consciousness in scientific articles and books. But I have grown dissatisfied with my account of the problem, and reflection on relevant research findings, new and old, has changed my views, on two issues in particular: the origin and nature of feelings and the mechanisms behind the construction of the self.

I am particularly interested in his thoughts on the “construction of the self”, as this is closely related to my own research on Julian Jaynes and the sociocultural development of self-reflexive cognition, narratological cognitive control, and subjective feelings of interiority when introspecting. Like me, Damasio says that “in approaching the conscious mind, I privilege the self. I believe conscious minds arise when a self process is added onto basic mind process” (8).

Now, it is important to note that Damasio distinguishes between two kinds of selves: the self-as-object and the self-as-knower. The self-as-object is simply the living body. Philosophers like to call this self a “minimal self”, a prereflexive bodily self-consciousness. The self-as-knower is that self which is capable of reflective rumination, autobiographical narratological cognition. Damasio’s strength as a theorist is that he is a developmental thinker. In order to understand the mind, we must understand how it evolves in both phylogeny and ontogeny. Similar to my own account based on Julian Jaynes’ views, Damasio looks at human evolution in terms of reflexive introspection being constructed “on top of” or “out of” the underlying subpersonal, prereflective mind. Moreover, “the self-as-subject-and-knower is not only a very real presence but a turning point in biological evolution” (9). This is a very Jaynesian point. Jaynes and Damasio would probably disagree about the dating of the emergence of the self-as-knower, but both would probably agree on this point: “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” (22).

Speaking of Jaynes, I was very excited to see that Jaynes’ book The Origin of Consciousness was cited by Damasio. It wasn’t a very interesting citation, but I was glad to see it and know that respected neuroscientists take Jaynes seriously. Given Damasio’s emphasis on theoretically “starting over”, I am curious as to know if reading Jaynes caused him to reconsider the “mechanisms behind the construction of the self”.

A lot of Damasio’s points are echoed in the paper on neuroplasticity and consciousness that I just finished with Micah Allen. For example, Damasio says “There is no dichotomy between self-as-object and self-as-knower; there is, rather, a continuity and progression. The self-as-knower is grounded on the self-as-object” (10). In our paper, Micah and I argued that consciousness must be understood in terms of a dynamic interaction between prereflective consciousness and reflective consciousness. I take this to be compatible with Damasio’s distinction between the protoself and the autobiographical self, what he calls the “self as witness”.

The one place I think Damasio falters is on the issue of whether you need neurons to “have a mind”.  Damasio is quite clear when he says that “Organisms make minds out of the activity of special cells known as neurons”. (17) This is because Damasio places a great deal of emphasis on the capacity for neural networks to form maps of the internal bodily milieu and the external world. Without neurally grounded representational maps, Damasio doesn’t think you have “raw feels”. I find this to be an interesting position but I think it is open to philosophical inconsistencies. Rather than saying unicellulars lacking nervous systems don’t have any subjectivity proper, we should say that membrane bound, autopoietic,  dynamic systems display online intelligence, what Jaynes called behavioral reactivity. As Michael Wheeler defines it, “A creature displays online intelligence just when it produces a suite of fluid and flexible real-time adaptive responses to incoming sensory stimuli”. So while Damasio is right to say that neural mapping constitutes a computational shift from nonneural systems, this shift must be understood in terms of degrees of online intelligence, not ontological kind. That is, the difference between a nonneural organism and a neural organism is not a difference in consciousness. Their consciousness is exactly the same: nonreflective (what I have called “nonconsciousness”). What they differ in is degrees of online intelligence. The neural system simply allows for much more effective and functionally adaptive online intelligence. But this is a matter of degree, not kind.

For those who think that Wheeler’s definition of online intelligence rules out unicellulars since he emphasizes “sensory stimuli”, consider this: does not a white bloodcell biochemically “sense” the presence of an enemy bacterium? On the most parsimonious metaphysical account, the white bloodcell is making a categorization judgment between invaders and noninvaders. This surely counts as an instance of sensory perception. To “sense” something means to “make sense” of it i.e. to make an interpretation. Unicellulars are surely capable of interpreting the world as either being nutritious or toxic. Sucrose is encountered as nutritious, for example. Heidegger made this point quite well. Any organism that “uses” the environment in the way unicellulars “use” sucrose demonstrates the structural ecstasies of temporality: retrospectivity (having-been) and prospectivity (futural). Perceiving an affordance involves perceiving an opportunity, which is futural. But what the world affords you depends on your entire past history of structural coupling (your having-been). Where the past meets the future is the present: the dynamic unfolding of action out of the virtual realm of opportunity.

Damasio is so close to getting it right on this point. He recognizes that biological value is rooted in the basic homeostatic life regulation we share with even unicellular organisms. Indeed,

What is not commonly appreciated, although it is well known, is that long before living creatures had minds, they exhibited efficient and adaptive behaviors that for all intents and purposes resemble those that arise in mindful, conscious creatures. Of necessity, those behaviors were not caused by minds, let alone consciousness. In brief, it is not just that conscious and nonconscious processes coexist but rather that nonconscious processes that are relevant to maintaining life can exist without their conscious partners. (31)

I agree wholeheartedly that unicellular life regulation is nonconscious. But I don’t think adding neurons bootstraps you into consciousness either, unless you mean prereflective bodily self-consciousness or phenomenal consciousness. But Damasio isn’t precise enough in his terminology and often seems to conflate prereflective consciousness and reflective consciousness. His distinction between nonminds, minds, and conscious minds just seems confusing. I suggest a continuum of online intelligence starting from unicellulars to higher mammals, with humanity’s offline autiobiographical intelligence being the qualitative evolutionary shift based on symbolic language and highly complex social inheritance mechanisms.



Filed under Consciousness, Psychology

10 responses to “Quick thoughts on Damasio's new book, "Self Comes to Mind"

  1. gregorylent

    it is imperative for investigators of self and mind to take in the understandings of mystics, who are “camped” exactly at the meeting point of self and consciousness. too many academic verbal concept games, otherwise. and no wisdom.

  2. dare we say a ‘spectrum of consciousness’ from physical catalytics to cellular prehension to emotive memesis to symbolic gesture? no less than the emergence of sentience…

  3. Gary Williams


    After reading Deleuze I am becoming more comfortable with the idea of stretching the spectrum of consciousness down to the inorganic level. I keep asking myself, “Is there something it is like to be a rock?” It seems conceptually coherent to say, yes, there is something it is like to be an inorganic assemblage. However, I’m just not sure how productive this schema is because it seems like if we extend cognition down to the inorganic level, we lose a lot of explanatory power i.e. the term “mind” or “consciousness” applies so widely it becomes a meaningless term.

  4. Agreed Gary.

    I almost never use the term consciousness anymore, because I find that we could indeed apply it to basically anything with catalytic properties (from minerals to plants and computer programs). And I think there is terrible confusion with most psychological terms.

    For instance, I would not suggest that we extend cognition down to the inorganic level precisely because, as you say, we lose so much explanatory power, as well as descriptive purchase. I reserve the word ‘cognition’ for forms of life-process that have a certain degree of plasticity and complexity that a rock just doesn’t have (operations such as memory-recall).

    What I have suggested, however, is that we rehabilitate the term sentience. The word has the double benefit of avoiding the kind of dualist baggage of the term ‘mind’, while also bypassing the fuzziness of applying the term ‘consciousness’ to pre-reflexive activity. We could argue that while rocks have varying degrees of prehensive irritability or sensitivity, cells have more intensive and expressive properties that approach what we can call sentience. However cells are still without the sort (degree) of reflexive awareness or sentience that could be described as conscious. The rudimentary capacity for reflexive cognitions in animals is, I would argue, where we could mark a qualitative leap (still of degree and not kind) in sentience.

    Ultimately, the specific degrees (‘levels’?) of sentience that particular entities embody is what we must focus on. I subscribe to what I call ‘The Principle of Onto-Specificity’ – which states that in order to adequately explain (or describe) any entity or assemblage of entities we are required to state that entity’s specific ontological properties prior to acknowledging any of its resemblances. In other words, what an entity actually is is more important that what it is like. To truly understand something you must first understand its devilish details.

    So I have no problem positing a ‘spectrum of sensation’ that ranges from, perhaps, quantum levels all the way to reflexive awareness and “narratological cognition”, as long as we mark off certain transitions or thresholds where the degree of prehension or sensation shifts (emerges) to take on new forms, orders or complexities.

    At minimum I’d like to acknowledge the shift from physical abrasion to prehension, and pretension to reflexive sentience – but I’m sure this spectrum could be much more nuanced.

  5. Wow, very interesting read. I haven’t done any philosophy of mind in awhile but I am going to take a stab at some of these concepts and hope that I don’t seem too much like a fish out of water.

    Firstly, I don’t know if I believe in a mind without consciousness (prereflexive?). You give an example of a unicellar organism (a white blood cell) “sensing” the presence of a bacteria and reacting to it. While reading this I was reminded of an analogy made by Hofstadter of a toilet “sensing” (or “responding to”) it’s environment whenever someone pushes down the “flush” lever. In some way, is the toilet not “sensing” the pressure and then reacting to it? The mechanics sound similar (on the surface), however, you’d probably be more averse to ascribing a “mind” to the toilet than to the white blood cell.

    Why is that? Is it based solely on the stuff each is made out of? One is made out of organic material, so it is “prereflexive” or “self-as-object,” but the other isn’t a mind because it is not made out of “living stuff?” I am not sure if I can clearly draw that distinction.

    The “self-as-knower” is more akin to my definition of mind (which means there MUST be consciousness or some “reflexive” experience of “self” for there to actually be a mind). “Self-as-object,” without an experiencer of “self” sounds contradictory. It seems more like an anthropomorphism on the observer’s end. How is a prereflexive mind any different than any other object that “reacts” to its environment – even a rock bouncing down a hill?

    Anyway…I hope that makes SOME sense. It’s late and I am a few wine glasses in. I wasn’t expecting to find such a thought-provoking blog post at this hour. I will definitely be around more in the future and please keep up the great work.

    • Gary Williams


      I do think there are some key differences between the toilet and the unicellular organism. For one, the toilet doesn’t automatically repair itself or maintain itself according to regulative norms. The toilet doesn’t have a semi-permeable membrane structure. The toilet has no homeostatic regulatory “needs” and hence does not care about itself. That is, the world does now show up as meaningful for the toilet since it does not care about anything. The toilet does not reproduce, nor does it display any dynamic temporal-spatial phenomena. All these properties seem to be important for generating “prereflective bodily self-consciousness”. The key thing is not the matter of the toilet, but rather, how it is organized. It lacks the organizational property of what’s called “autopoiesis”, which is defined in terms of “self-organizational closure”. That is, the products of the production factory are used to make up the components of the production factory itself. The bacteria feeds itself matter and uses this matter to rebuild and maintain the very components which define it against the environment (the membrane).Hope that makes sense.

      I recommend checking out some of Evan Thompson’s research, particularly his book “Mind in Life”. He puts forward a similar thesis and claims that mind starts with low-level life regulation.

      • Interesting. An air conditioning can have a homeostatic regulatory “need,” in the sense that it turns itself on and off after a certain temperature has been reached. But I guess it still doesn’t have the other requirements..membrane, reproduction, and a temporal-spatial perception. And changing temperature isn’t necessarily crucial for “its” survival.

        Would you say some machines and AI have already met these requirements of a prereflective bodily self-conscious?

        I’ll check out the book. Thanks!

      • Gary Williams

        I’m not sure whether or not any artificial creature has met all the requirements. My guess would be no, but I don’t keep up with the cutting edge in AI and robotics. I would wager that AI researchers are going to have difficulty replicating the “Care structure” of organic life. It is one thing to teach a robot to perceive and act in the world, it is quite another to teach it to care about what it is perceiving and acting upon.

  6. On top of that I want to say that I don’t think the neuronal aspect is necessary for consciousness. I think the reflexive pattern is more important than the hardware doing it. Again, this is something I probably learned from Hofstadter (“I Am A Strange Loop”).

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