Picture: Damasio and the shark. Alison Gopnik, author of an excellent book about baby consciousness, has written an interesting review of  Self Comes To Mind, Antonio Damasio’s latest book. The review itself provides a useful brief sketch of the state of play on consciousness, but it dismisses Damasio’s book as a set of minor variations on what he’s already said: neither more up-to-date nor clearer than earlier books. He has, she suggests, jumped the shark.

In all fairness it may be worth repeating true conclusions: as we know David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature ‘fell dead-born from the press’, attracting only a handful of buyers; it wasn’t until he had repeated himself in the Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding that his views even began to gain traction.

Are Damasio’s views worth another outing? They are distinctive in giving a fundamental role to the emotions. To me it seems most likely that our emotional systems have been overtaken by consciousness. Emotional systems – anger, love, fear – were what controlled our behaviour before we got consciousness, leading us into fight, flight, or the other f-word as appropriate.  They didn’t do a bad job:  animals still rely on them, and so, to a lesser extent, do we: steering our daily lives without emotional responses would be an intensive and hazardous business as we had to work out from first principles who to trust, what to eat, and so on. If there could truly be an emotionless race like the Vulcans of Star Trek it’s hard to see what would ever make them get out of bed in the morning. That point of view suggests that emotions are more like a substitute or a junior partner for consciousness than the stuff of which it’s made.

Emotions are certainly of interest, though,  and perhaps they are somewhat neglected as qualia – if they are qualia. Our emotional reactions are certainly accompanied – or is it constituted? – by vivid internal experience. Typically when we discuss qualia we talk about perception: the sight of redness, the sound of music, the smell of grass – and that may tempt us into considering them representational. Feelings of happiness or anger are not so directly about anything but they seem equally valid phenomenal experiences.

Gopnik throws in the suggestion that self-aware, self-conscious thought is just the icing on the cake and that the basis of consciousness is that state where we take in information without consciously reviewing  it (I imagine this fits with her view that adults develop a searchlight of focused attention in contrast to the widely scattered illumination of infant awareness); this is a view she attributes to David Hume (him again) and to Buddhists. In fact she thinks Hume might have got some of his views from Buddhism.  This is not implausible historically: quite apart from the detailed case she makes we know that popular medieval stories were versions of Buddhist texts, even leading to Gautama’s informal recognition as a Christian saint. But Hume of all people relies on no authority and describes in full detail the genesis of his own ideas in his own brain: I think it’s more plausible that radical scepticism sometimes produces similar results whether entertained by an Indian prince or a Scottish philosopher.

Anyway, I don’t think Gopnik’s sharp review persuades me that Self Comes To Mind isn’t worth reading: but it certainly convinces me that Gopnik’s own books are worth a look.


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  2. 2. Kar Lee says:

    An interesting post. What I found even more interesting is your comment that “Emotional systems – anger, love, fear – were what controlled our behaviour before we got consciousness…”

    From this I imply that you have a more focused interpretation of what consciousness is. To me, without consciousness, one cannot even feel the emotions. Consciousness therefore precedes emotions. Otherwise, those emotions are not qualified as emotions because there is not a feeler associated with them. They are just chemical reactions happening inside a body.

    You also comment that –

    “To me it seems most likely that our emotional systems have been overtaken by consciousness…”,

    and then you also point out that –

    “If there could truly be an emotionless race like the Vulcans of Star Trek it’s hard to see what would ever make them get out of bed in the morning.”

    That, to me, indicates the emotion system still controls consciousness, not overtaken by it.

  3. 3. Vicente says:

    I agree with KL(2)

    Regarding Vulcans… I cannot conceive emotionless conscious beings. Action is the result of emotion, because emotion is the core of motivation, and if there is no motivation there is no action.

    Note that emotion and motivation have the same root: motion, which means movement, action.

    This is the whole point of intentionality, when the observer (purely rational), feels the emotion and gets involved.

    In the same fashion, and in the line of the “Buddhist Connection”: Contemplation leads to no action (almost by definition).

    A different, and very interesting issue, is how emotions raise, and can be introspectively analysed, controled and modified by the subject. This makes me think that emotions are definitely more primitive than rational conceptual thought.

    Regarding Damasio… in a way I sympathise Gopnik’s view. We have to understand that Damasio is a neurologist that has been exposed for many years to patients with brain damage, and this has to unavoidably bias a man’s mind. I believe that when you see the effects of these brain damages on patient’s behaviour it is difficult to hold a position different from Damasio’s one, unless you become a dualist and you differentiate both sides, which is not Damasio’s case. In a way it is like man watching TV in his living room. If there is a problem with the TV screen images, it could be because there is malfunction in the TV station or the weather conditions… not necessarily a problem in the TV set.

    Having said this, and I have just gone very quickly through Gopnik’s book. To be fair, Damasio in his previous books makes a difference between emotion and feeling (quite well I believe), and I don’t think Gopnik has consider this distinction sufficiently in her criticism….

    Finally, I see that buddhism has an empiricist side, yes, and the opposite too… I don’t find so evident the possible influence of Buddhism on Hume’s work. Could be.

  4. 4. Peter says:


    Yes, I suppose there I’m thinking pretty narrowly of reflective consciousness of the kind which is more or less unique to humans, which as you suggest is not the only kind and perhaps not fundamental.

    I wouldn’t say the emotions control consciousness, though: they may power it, and even overpower it, but they don’t determine it, and usually the steering wheel at least is in the hands of the reflective bit of the mind.


    I think I can conceive of being conscious with zero emotion, though of course such unmotivated entities are in practice unlikely to emerge from the cut-throat competition of evolution.

    Good point about Damasio’s emotions/feelings distinction.

    On Hume I’ll keep an open mind but I think reading him it’s difficult to believe this is a man passing on ideas he picked up from anyone else.

  5. 5. drew hempel says:

    This Alison Gopnik quote zeroes in on the conundrum:

    “The new empirical work and computational ideas suggest a solution to Carey’s dilemma – one that does not require either core cognition as a vehicle for abstract structure, or language and analogy as agents of conceptual change. It is also quite possible that the balance of initial structure, inferential mechanisms, and explicit representational resources might differ in different domains. Mathematics, is, after all, notoriously peculiar, ontologically as well as epistemologically, and might well require different resources than spatial, causal or psychological knowledge.”

    from: Behavioral and Brain Sciences. A unified account of abstract structure and conceptual change: Probabilistic models and early learning mechanisms, Commentary on Susan Carey “The Origin of Concepts”

    Consciousness is nonwestern music as quantum phonon antigravity pressure — it’s noncommutative and formless and can only be logically inferred. Bernard D’Espagnat’s book “Veiled Reality: An Analysis of Present-Day Quantum Mechanical Concepts” gives the quantum logical inference argument for consciousness.

    For the phenomenological answer read “Play of Consciousness: A Spiritual Autobiography/Chitshakti Vilas”
    Muktananda (Author), Paul Zweig (Foreword)

  6. 6. Anonymous says:

    How could consciousness control emotions or vice-versa? we can easily be conscious of being in a particular emotional state, just as we can be conscious of our current perceptually-grounded beliefs. emotions seem to be representational, or at least partially so. every emotional state can be classified as an intentional one. under some form of ontological promiscuity, one can treat whole states of affairs as reified relata: Angry(self, state)

  7. 7. drew hempel says:

    In nonwestern medicine the emotions are directly tied to the organs of the body. This is experienced as what’s called “prioprioception” in science — it’s a tingling heat sensation but it’s also an emotional state. In Chinese traditional medicine anger is a liver blockage — which makes sense as alcohol causes anger while also damaging the liver. Smoking causes depression from the lung damage. Too much caffeine causes fear — again this makes sense from a Western perspective. Sugar causes worry — the emotion of the pancreas.

    There’s a lot more to it — and the pineal gland processes the emotional energy — the electrochemicals as emotions are ionized into electromagnetic information as consciousness. This is called “chi” or “prana” for China and India respectively — although similar terms are found throughout nonwestern cultures. But more so the chi then turns into shen which is akin to the concept of holographic consciousness — it’s also the “biophotons” studied in quantum biology. It’s called “shakti” in India.

    Nevertheless this process of energy transformation in the body, working through the vagus nerve, connects the emotions back to the brain, so that neurohormones turn into neurotransmitters and then turn into electromagnetic energy — just as electric fish have “quasi-telepathy” — it’s the same phenomenon.

  8. 8. Nick says:

    Regarding the post, I’m not sure emotions are phenomenal experiences in the sense of redness, of music, or of smell.

    I find emotions to be more of a lens through which my conscious experience is filtered. I could smell grass angrily, or happily, and find the phenomenological input modified, accentuated, or limited by the emotion(s) through which it was perceived.

  9. 9. Elliot says:

    I think a lot depends on how we define “emotion”. If we’re just going to consider the grand deviations from the norm like love, hatred, anger, etc, then emotions seem pretty much extraneous to the working of consciousness. But if we extend the definition to more subtle phenomena like mood, sense of ease or anxiety, perception of our own sense of well-being–all those subtle states we usually call “feelings”–then emotion would seem much more relevant to consciousness. In fact, you could make the argument that consciousness itself is no more than a feeling of consciousness. an awareness of one’s own ego construct humming along.
    Certainly, every thought we have is the result of an emotion. Even in rationality our need to be rational is caused by a desire. Why do mathematicians or logicians solve problems? Because they’re motivated by emotion. Why are we even asking what consciousness is? Because we’re curious, another emotion.
    I think the emphasis we put on rationality (and the neglect we give emotionality) is sadly skewed. And our attempts at computer consciousness are just another instance of our human tendency to try to understand mind through optimistic analogy with our latest technology.

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