Picture: Damasio.

Bitbucket Recent theories of consciousness have tended to neglect or marginalise the emotions. I suppose this is because the dominant conception of thought these days sees it as a computational or at any rate, a problem-solving process. It isn’t obvious where emotions fit into a program about high-level control of visual and motor systems. Perhaps there’s also an unconscious feeling that emotions are wishy-washy stuff, unworthy of the attention of proper scientists. But they clearly have to be included in any full account of human mentality

With a few exceptions (such as Aaron Sloman’s worthy attempts to give emotions a computational reading), most recent theories either disregard them or treat them as something bolted on to the main cognitive process. Perhaps they are the thing that provides the mental computer with motivation and goals? Perhaps they are the relics of older mammalian or even reptilian mental processes? Perhaps they are some kind of singalling process which plays a role in game theoretic transactions between human beings?

At any rate, they can (it’s generally assumed) be left on one side while considering the purely rational functions of the mind, rather in the way that connectionist networks generally leave aside all the vastly complex chemistry of real biological neurons.

In ‘The Feeling of What Happens‘ Antonio Damasio offers a very different account, one which integrates the emotions with both consciousness and the emergence of self and personhood. A holistic, or at least an integrated view is clearly something close to Damasio’s heart: in ‘Descartes Error ‘ he attacked the dualism which puts a gulf between the spirit and the body (or the mind and the brain, for that matter).

Blandula I really think poor Descartes deserves a bit of a break in this respect. OK, he was a dualist, but he wasn’t the first dualist, nor the last. I think it’s even debatable whether the net effect of his work was to reinforce or erode the position of dualism overall.

Bitbucket In any case, according to Damasio, consciousness, selfhood, and the emotions all spring ultimately from a single source: awareness of the current state of the body. The way they develop is complex, but this shared underlying focus neatly clarifies the relationship between them and ensures a close integration all the way up.

So far as the emotions are concerned, Damasio’s idea resembles an earlier one put forward by William James. Putting it crudely, James said that it is the state of your guts which constitutes your emotions and influences your brain – not your brain which conceives emotions which then influence your guts. Damasio’s theory gives a sophisticated development of this
down-to-earth insight and lacks the debunking, reductive overtones of the earlier version. He draws a useful but novel distinction between emotions, which he defines as states of the body related to excitement or arousal, and feelings, which are the patterns evoked in the brain by emotions.

Many recent theorist have fought shy of the self or even dismissed it as an illusion, but Damasio proposes a whole hierarchy of selves, the lowest level of which is the proto-self. This is merely a short term collection of neural patterns of activity which represent the current state of the organism. The core self is a second-order entity which maps the state of the proto-self in rather the same way the proto-self maps the current state of the body: whenever an encounter with an object impinges on the proto-self, the change is registered by activity in the core self. The core self represents the first, lowest level which deserves to be regarded as conscious, though this is the kind of immediate, unreflecting consciousness presumably possessed by animals in general, not just by human beings.

With the next step up, we get the autobiographical self, which draws on permanent (though modifiable) memories instead of just the immediate experiences which power the core self. At this point, there is a real, though still pre-linguistic, sense of self. Damasio thinks chimpanzees and probably dogs enjoy this level of consciousness.A final layer of development, with greater use of longer-term memory, delivers the kind of foresighted, reflective consciousness which we typically associate with human beings

Blandula That’s rather a lot of different varieties of self for someone who’s supposed to be a proponent of integration, isn’t it? It’s not even the full list, is it? We’ve also got the ‘as if’ body loop, which allows, as it were, hypothetical states of the body to be represented and considered – that seems to imply an ‘as if’ self. And then, on top of consciousness itself, we have conscience. Conscience seems a different kind of thing altogether to me – a function of consciousness, not a variety of it – but Damasio has it as the pinnacle of mental development.

Bitbucket You normally like the moral element emphasised, don’t you? You could say that the point about conscience was to bring the moral sense, too, within the same general framework. Again, I think it’s rather neat to regard conscience as another higher-order level. Our normal desires are a matter of wanting more x, but morality is arguably a matter of desires about desires – we wish we didn’t want certain kinds of x and resolve to over-ride our first-order desires by abstaining? That’s not a point Damasio makes, but it does show how nicely his theory coheres, I think.

Anyway, all this is backed up by plausible neurological ideas, but the most convincing aspect is the way it ties emotional states of the body into the process of thought and reasoning. In Damasio’s view, certain emotions (which in his account are states of the body, don’t forget)get associated with certain possible contingencies or outcomes in the external world: they function as ‘somatic markers’ which allow us to be steered towards certain options, and react appropriately to potential longer term rewards, instead of responding to the immediate situation around us. Damasio backs this up by quoting examples of people with emotional impairment arising from specific brain lesions: as his theory predicts, they have trouble dealing effectively with the world even though their purely rational thinking is unaffected.

Blandula There’s a problem with these examples, though, isn’t there? If the emotional faculties can be knocked out by a few specific lesions in the brain, leaving the rational faculties still working, the two can’t be as closely intertwined as all that, can they?

It’s not clear to me, moreover, that the examples really are cases of people whose decision-making per se is impaired. We don’t get a long account, but it sounds as if the problems are partly a matter of judging how to behave towards other people and partly a difficulty over managing one’s own desires coherently. Those are bad problems to have, but they sound to me like the loss of particular mental modules rather than the impairment of central mental processes.

But my main problem with all this is that it skates over the real issues. Damasio talks about the proto-self representing the state of the body without any explanation of how merely being affected by something turns into being a representation of that something. He gives only cursory attention to the whole issue of qualia…

Bitbucket Well, you know, not every book has to be about your beloved qualia. And what Damasio does say (a brief diagnosis of the favourite story about Mary the colour scientist) is spot on, in my view. Understanding the process of having an experience is not the same as having the experience.

But I understand your attitude now. In this respect, and in his friendliness towards the ‘multiple drafts’ idea, Damasio is basically Dennettian (in other respects he certainly isn’t, speaking with respect of both Searle and McGinn). Your problem is that Damasio demonstrates how a Dennett-style account is capable of being developed into an even more comprehensive theory, which is anathema to you, of course…

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