on 5 March 2011
Living creatures come in all shapes and sizes, from unicellular organisms to elephants, and life in some form or other has been around for over three billion years. Joining the dots through time and space, replacing the mythical unity of creation with a unifying scientific principle, is Darwin's tree of life. Evolution by natural selection is the main driver of change, the means by which such amazing diversity has arisen. But for each individual living creature there is a very different kind of dynamic process at work - homeostasis or life regulation - constantly working in a multitude of ways to keep things the same. In mammals, for example, the temperature of the body and the density of red blood cells must be kept within certain narrow ranges, otherwise the animal risks death. As Antonio Damasio puts it in this remarkable book, "the balanced range of body chemistries compatible with healthy life" is the most essential possession of any living being, whether you happen to be an amoeba or human. "All else flows from it" - including the mind, consciousness and the self.
Anything worth fighting for has value, and the struggle to survive creates biological value: from an organism's point of view, there is better and worse. The trick of life is to seek out the good and avoid the bad. Over long enough timescales, selective forces produce new adaptations: the humble earthworm evolves to flourish in an arsenic-rich soil that would kill its ancestors. Over short timescales, all kinds of behaviours facilitate quick reactions to changing circumstances, to evade a predator, to capture prey, to mate, and so on. And even though single cells can exhibit seemingly intelligent and purposeful behaviour (indeed, Damasio argues that every cell in our body has a kind of "nonconscious attitude"), it's having a brain that makes the big difference.
First came unminded brains, operating "on the basis of dispositions" (know-how formulas that generate useful behaviours): a neuron transmits a signal, a muscle twitches, the insect takes flight. For a long time in evolution, many of "the organisms so equipped did perfectly fine in suitable environments".
Then came brain mapping, the critical biological development that led to the appearance of minds. As brains got bigger and more complex, small circuits of neurons began to be "organized across large networks so as to compose momentary patterns". Minds emerged when these patterns - or maps - were able to "represent things and events located outside the brain, either in the body or in the external world". Such brains "had available more details of the conditions inside and outside the organisms and thus could generate more differentiated and effective responses than unminded brains".
The new invention (maps and their images, the main currency of mental activity) fitted in around the long-established dispositions, but soon became the engine that transformed "plain life regulation into minded regulation and, eventually, into consciously minded regulation". Neurons remained the nuts and bolts underneath the bonnet, but now they were also literally mapping the body for which they worked, constituting "a sort of virtual surrogate of it, a neural double". This "relentless pointing to the body" - this "aboutness" - is their defining character, and why nervous systems "developed as managers of life and curators of biological value".
The next step (an easy logical one to take but another huge "turning point in biological evolution") was for some of these patterns to "represent the brain's own processing of other patterns". When the brain began to map its own doings, it acquired a whole new property: subjectivity. Until this point, all minds had been unconscious, each mind unaware of itself. Indeed, there was no self of which to be aware.
This decisive step was, as it were, for some images to climb out of the mental stream of the unconscious mind, to shake their boots dry and take ownership of the whole river of life that belongs to the singular organism, now perfectly bounded in space (the body's boundary) and time (between birth and death). Thus is the "self-as-subject-and-knower" born: self comes to mind.
When Damasio describes consciousness as "a state of mind with a self process added to it" and suggests that the fundamental advantage of consciousness is that it improves "life regulation in ever more complex environments", readers who have been brought up to associate consciousness only with the deepest mysteries of life may feel a little shortchanged. That the "deep body-relatedness of the brain" is one of the important themes of this book may also disappoint anyone still in thrall to the ghost in the machine, as will thinking of feelings "as barometers of life management". I believe he is right, however, that these ideas help dispel many of "the oddities and mysteries of some of the traditional categories of psychology" (such as emotion, perception, memory, language, intelligence and consciousness).
Damasio himself admits that the "perspective adopted in this book contains a hypothesis that is not universally liked, let alone accepted - namely, the idea that mental states and brain states are essentially equivalent". Nor does he claim to have solved "the mysteries surrounding brain and consciousness". Indeed, even if he had made such a claim, I would be a long way short of judging whether or not he had been successful. I personally have got a great deal out of this book, but I had to cope with many lacunae of comprehension. When Damasio asks, "is it enough to combine the microevents of protocognition and synchrony and scale them up across a nested, hierarchy distributed within the three neuroanatomical divisions"? I feel more like Homer than Lisa Simpson. Thank goodness there are many more simpler sentences of the kind: "The perceptual readout of the emotion is a feeling."
Biology and evolution have made us what we are - and the beauty of reading Antonio Damasio is the magnificent account he gives of just what it is that we are, to the best of his considerable ability. Our minds are capable of inquiring into the past and imagining the future, and using reason to reduce suffering, minimize loss and increase the chances of happiness. And, brought into being each time we awake, orchestrating each consciousness performance, is the self.