In this series of essays I will try the wrap my mind around consciousness (I know right?!), using the perspectives of neurologists, cognitive scientists, neurolinguists and philosophers of today. This does not mean in any way that I’m disregarding the prior work, as the prior work cannot be detached from today’s knowledge and vise versa. Take it with a grain of salt, I don’t know what I’m doing, but then again who does?
Starting from Antonio Damasio, the Director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, LA. Being trained both as a neurologist and a neuroscientist where grand theme of his work can be summarized as the unification of feelings and consciousness¹. He argues against the assumption that those two are separate, he claims that they are in fact, intertwined.
Before getting there, let’s look at the basis of his idea on consciousness by looking at the example of neurons and specifically their parametric adjustments in the case of creating new neurons and putting an end to those of no use. What we are doing as humans are constant adjustment of parameters as well, only in the macro scale. They are both series of decisions that are happening, turning points. There are many living things on the face-off earth, with fully functional, non-explicit competences that don’t depend on a mind or a consciousness. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a neural system, infact here are already quite a number of microbiological beings even inside us, with reliance of a neural system. First nervous systems emerged around 500 million years ago, but it took 400 million years more for the emergence of the first “mind”.
What do I (or actually Damasio) mean here by the mind? A definition is required. So mind gives us the capacity to manipulate the cortege of representations. The ability to take something from outside or inside (more on this later) and create a map form it.
Does this sound familiar? Cognitive maps? Edward C. Tolman? Mr O’Keefe?
Core physiology of feeling
To understand the relation between the feelings and consciousness, we actually have to distinguish feelings from emotions. I usually used those two terms interchangeably, turns out you kind of shouldn’t.
Feeling can be looked at in two parts. First is homeostatic feelings: the well-being, the sickness, the pain. Those are things that are occurring in our minds, they are mental. They are internal. They are subjective. BUT they are there because they are the mental expressions of organs. “Feeling well” or “feeling sick” is about the way your organs are, if there is a discomfort or problem within the functioning of them. And then there are emotions like happiness and sadness that are caused by the external effects, the challenges that the outside imposes to the system within. Let’s have the example of fear, where in most of time we our reaction is to recoil, accompanied with changes in our facial map and the positioning of our limbs. Those are the measures taken by our nervous system in order to continue our lives.
So why are feelings important? What do they have to do with consciousness? Because all those I’ve stated above are inside consiousness. Those measures are things your consciousness takes without you implicitly taking any part of. So the merit of feelings are merit of consciousness. If I’m to declare that “I” is reducible to the ownership of the mind, thus the body of mind which is being housed.
Is is possible to map the mind?
According to Damasio, yes. Going back to the physiology behind feeling, it is the organs that make the maps. The way in which we gather information (the visual system, hearing, tactile and all the other senses) defines our reality. Now we are arriving to the confusing part. So when we talk about the feeling of pain, it requires introspection: it is the relationship between your body and your nervous system. This type of perception is completely different than the relationship our body has with the outside world Damasio argues. The nervous system is inside the body and can reply, modulate and change what is being perceived, whereas you cannot alter anything that is outside of your body. Thus he concludes, we don’t handle information from inside our body not the same was as we do with the information that is coming from the outside of our body. The biological grounding of that is the dependency of extrqspection to the myelinated neurons.
Going back to where we started
Knowing that since Plato mind has always been prioritized compared to the body, and as John Banville puts it “by the time we get to Descartes, the human has become hardly more than a brain stuck atop a stick, like a child’s hobbyhorse”², Damasio’s theories puts us back on the idea that the mind is still within the body, and that is the only way for it to exist. The radiance of Nietszche’s thinking in his writing along with inspirations from Spinoza (especially the parallels he pulls on the concept of homeostasis) leaves one feeling like a humanist, until the hard science comes at you again.