Academic Studies of Human Consciousness

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Consciousness Concepts of Antonio Damasio

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Presenting the roots of consciousness as feelings allows one to glean an explanation for the sense of self, ... that is, how the owner of the movie in the brain emerges within the movie. ... the idea that human consciousness depends on feelings helps us confront the problem of creating conscious artifacts.

(Antonio Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens, Chapter 11)

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Antonio R. Damasio in 2004


Antonio R. Damasio was born on 25 February 1944 in Lisbon, Portugal.   He received a M.D. degree from the University of Lisbon Medical School in 1969.  Subsequently, in 1974, he obtained a Ph. D. from the University of Lisbon.  Until recently, Damasio was the Van Allen Professor of Neurology at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. He currently is the David Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Southern California, where he also directs the Brain and Creativity Institute.

Dr. Damasio has published his views concerning human consciousness in a trilogy of best selling books as follows: 

1)   Descartes' Error (1994);

2)  The Feeling of What Happens (1999); and

3)  Looking for Spinoza (2003).

Damasio's Basic Views of Human Consciousness

Very briefly stated, these three books put forth Damasio's views concerning the mind-body problem and the nature of human consciousness as follows:.

In the 17th Century, the French philosopher Rene Descartes proposed his famous dualist theory that human beings were composed of material bodies and immaterial minds (philosophical dualism).  A contemporary of Descartes, the Dutch philosopher Benedict de Spinoza, disagreed and argued that body and mind were composed of a single continuous substance (philosophical monism).

Descartes described the human mind as being essentially a reasoning machine devoid of emotion.  Spinoza  thought that this was completely wrong.  The reasoning process, Spinoza insisted, contains many elements of emotion. Spinoza also claimed that thoughts and feelings are not primarily reactions to external events but are first and foremost about the body.  In fact, Spinoza suggested that the mind, far from being independent of the body, exists purely to benefit the body and ensure its survival.

For the last three centuries, Descartes's views have dominated western philosophy.  However, based upon recent neuroscientific research, Damasio believes that Spinoza may yet be proven correct.  In the last 20 years, neuroscientists using brain scanning equipment have been gradually eroding the facade of the Cartesian Theatre. Human reasoning is no longer considered to occur in  pristine detachment from the physical world. Also under attack is the now dominant Computational Theory of Mind (CMT), a model where the brain is considered to be like a digital computer composed of a huge number of parallel processors and consciousness is thought of as being merely an illusion produced by a group of complex software programs.

Damasio's Most Important Concepts of Consciousness

Of the three books cited above, The Feeling of What Happens is probably the most important in terms of describing Damasio's ideas concerning the true nature of human consciousness.  Damasio regards the investigation of consciousness, emotion, and feeling as proper subjects for objective, scientific inquiry. In this he hearkens back to William James and the other founding fathers of psychology. While acknowledging the disappearance of such early efforts at the examination of consciousness, Damasio believes that this may primarily have been caused by a lack of proper scientific tools. Today, with our ever-increasing sophistication in brain scanning and brain surgery, serious analysis of the nature of consciousness is once again a proper area of scientific study.

My understanding of what I consider to be his most important concepts concerning consciousness are summarized in the following paragraphs:

1)  Distinguishing Characteristic of Human Consciousness:

Damasio believes that there is no consciousness without a brain.  He understands consciousness as a biologically determined process. Human beings not only are conscious of the passing events of life, but they also are richly aware of themselves as participants in life. Events donít just happen to us; we process them, we remember some of them, we have emotions both aware and unaware regarding them; and, at the pinnacle, we have rich conscious feelings about them. It is this "feeling of what happens," or, as Damasio phrases it, we view our life as a "movie within a movie," that is the distinguishing characteristic that separates humans from the lower animals.

2)  Consciousness Includes Emotions and Feelings:

Damasio proposes that humans and other life forms on Earth have evolved consciousness systems that include emotions and feelings because they are critical to our survival and provide competitive advantage. When we think of evolutionary advantage, we usually think in terms of changes in physical attributes such as development of opposable thumbs and walking upright. However, we should realize that emotions, feelings, and the knowledge of those feelings may be just as important to our survival. Feelings allow us to react to our environment and also interact with it.  We are able to plan our interactions based on a huge database that is both conscious and subconscious, and ultimately we are able to choose the direction of our lives.

3)  Consciousness Is Multi-Layered:

Life forms on Earth have evolved multi-layered forms of consciousness.  The greater the complexity of a given life form, the greater the number of layers in that life form's consciousness.  Not surprisingly, humans are considered to possess a consciousness containing the most layers of complexity.  The two layers of consciousness that are the primary topics of discussion are those of "core consciousness" and "extended consciousness."

Damasio defines core consciousness as the simple sense of self in the present, the self in the here and now.  Core consciousness is not exclusive to humans.  Damasio, in Chapter 1 of The Feeling of What Happens, further defines the sense of self in core consciousness as:

The sense of self which emerges in core consciousness is the core self, a transient entity, ceaselessly recreated for each and every object with which the brain interacts.  Our traditional notion of self, however, is linked to the idea of identity and corresponds to a nontranscient collection of unique facts and ways which characterize a person.  My term for that entity is the autobiographical self. ... the autobiographical self arises from the core self.

Extended consciousness, of which there are many levels and grades, provides an individual with a sense of self in historical time, with an awareness of both a past and a future with respect to oneself and the world environment.  Extended consciousness may not be exclusive to humans, but does reach its highest development in modern humans. It is usually found in conjunction with complex language skills.  In extended consciousness, emotional experience refers to a collection of responses to an event, many of which can be observed objectively and may even be subconscious.  Conversely, feelings are reserved for the private, mental experience of an emotion.

The following table presents a rough picture of my understanding of Damasio's concept of multi-layered consciousness:

Name of Layer Chief Characteristics of Layer Typical Life Form
Higher Extended Consciousness Possession of Complex Language Skills, Strong Sense of both Past and Future,  Strong Sense of Autobiographical Self and Memory, Conscience, Substantial Artistic and Scientific Creativity Modern Humans
Extended Consciousness Possession of some Language Skills, Limited Sense of Autobiographical Self and Memory, Limited Sense of both Past and Future Neanderthals, Chimpanzees, Dolphins
Core Consciousness Sense of Core Self, Conventional Long Term and Short Term Memory, Strong Sense of Being in the Present, No Ability to Use Complex Language Higher Mammals
Consciousness of Self and External Object Relationships Detects Changes in Self and Images of External Objects, Rudimentary Memory Fish, Reptiles, Primitive Mammals
Consciousness of Proto-Self Wakefulness, Image Making Ability, Minimal Attention, Detection of Object Significance Simple Animals

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