Tonight, my great and good friends of the Secret Science Club are presenting a Zoom lecture with University of Southern California neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy professor (and director of their Brain and Creativity Institute) Dr Antonio Damasio, whose new book is Feeling and Knowing: Making Minds Conscious.
Dr Damasio began his lecture by noting that consciousness permeates our entire lives, though we do not often think about it. It is so pervasive that there are few conditions in which it is not present: anesthesia, fainting, certain periods of deep sleep. One may be more or less alert, but consciousness is usually turned on.
Consciousness is what happens when one is in the act of perceiving. The things in one's conscious minds, are known with certainty to belong to oneself. Consciousness not only involves perception, but this ownership- you are the captain of your perceptions. No other definition of consciousness is necessary.
Understanding how consciousness comes about is not a new endeavor. As long as there has been science, consciousness has been entirely attributed to brain function, and considered the most exalted product of the brain. Dr Damasio doesn't entirely believe with this model- the brain is undoubtedly involved, but he believes that consciousness is not produced by the brain alone.
As researchers studied the brain more and more, they became more and more convinced that understanding consciousness was an insurmountable problem. Dr Damasio believes that this was largely due to flawed definitions of consciousness and a limited view of consciousness being a product of the brain only. The brain is a physical object, how is a physical object able to create something mental? The belief that a physical object cannot produce a mental state has complicated the study of consciousness. Some philosophers opined that consciousness is a property of all matter, present in the elements which produce our minds. He doesn't believe this for a moment, it ignores the biological nature of consciousness.
Dr Damiano then went on to describe what he considers consciousness to be.
Consciousness is a biological process, it is a complex biological process with many moving parts, but not a recent biological process. Many organisms, from fruit flies to elephants, possess some degree of consciousness. The difference between a dog's consciousness and a human's consciousness is not exorbitant, it is a matter of degree, not kind. A human's consciousness is more complex than that of a fish or a fruit fly- it involves the use of reasoning, of memories generating ideas, of turning ideas into creation- translating thoughts into creations. Consciousness is distributed through all aspects of mind, available as a commodity which allows us to maintain coherence as our self-owned ideas arise.
Consciousness does not arise spontaneously. Consciousness is not a product of the brain alone- brain activity does not explain consciousness completely. The brain is necessary to generate consciousness, but consciousness requires non-neural parts of the body, a two-way interaction between the nervous system and the processes of life which occur in the living organism. The way in which we express the interaction of the nervous system and the non-neural body is feeling. Hunger, thirst, pain, desire, well-being... all translate into mental terms, though they originate in rest of the body, such as the viscera. Feelings provide knowing, they create knowledge. Hunger, a mental state, is also a product of the stomach. Thirst, hunger- these feelings tell us the state of our organs, tell us that we should correct the state of our body. Knowledge is presented through feeling and is spontaneously conscious. Feelings are spontaneously conscious, and no complex process is needed to explain this. Feeling is the inaugural event of consciousness. Evolutionarily, when feeling arose, consciousness arose.
Organisms such as bacteria have homeostasis, which allows the regulation of biological processes, but not feeling- needs are taken care of, but not 'known'- without a nervous system, representations of states are impossible. Feelings involve representations of states, which require nervous systems.
Consciousness is a vital connection between the world of the body and the world of the interior- it should not be understood as just a series of tableaux. It is a close interaction. What distinguishes a human's feeling of pain from the feeling of looking at one's surroundings? The difference is clear- on the surface, things from the outside come in from distinct probes (retina, cochlea, etc) . Feelings of pain or well-being come from a particular part of the nervous system. Whereas the way of seeing and hearing are dependent on parts of the nervous system which are modern- myelin-sheathed neurons from complex sensory organs. Feelings of pain or well-being originate in older-type neurons, largely unmyelinated and more interconnected. Spinal ganglia are not affected by the blood/brain barrier, there is a commingling of body and nervous system, aided and abetted by our anatomy. The nervous system which allows communication between humans is very different from the nervous system which signals pain. This is why the world of feeling and the world of perception are discrete.
All of this has to do with homeostasis, the process of regulating life. None of this makes sense without realizing that we are are imminently perishable living organisms. We are vulnerable and have distinct beginnings and end. Balance must be maintained to regulate life, to continue existing. Pain is a signal that life is not being well-regulated, while well-being is a signal that life is well-regulated. Homeostasis is a very important aspect of this story.
Feelings serve all perceptual modalities. A few decades ago, some neuroscientists were very taken with the problem of consciousness. Most of them wanted to connect consciousness with complex processes, such as perception. Vision in particular, was used as a model to study consciousness. Consciousness is exactly the opposite, connected as something which 'came with the furniture' from older organisms with less complex nervous system. Feelings give us self, they give us the notion of who we are. Feelings pervade our mental representations. The key point to remember is that consciousness is the complex interaction between nervous system and body.
The lecture was followed by a Q&A session. Non-human animals can have consciousness, all of rhe animals in the zoo have consciousness. It is not a private property of humans. Even fruit flies have some sort of consciousness, but the human brain is able to make wide representations of the world. It is a matter of quantity in the mind, not the consciousness system. How and why did the nervous system evolve? Complexity- multiple-cell organisms evolved specialized cells, and as organisms enlarged to thousands and millions of cells, they evolved dozens and scores of cell-types. Once an organism hits a certain level of complexity, a coordinating system was needed- not every cell can communicate with every other cell, which would be chaos.
Language is not a vital component of consciousness, but it can help us expand our consciousness. Are there levels of consciousness? They would be related to our attention to surroundings, not just our perceptions
The SSC has, once again delivered a thoughtful, informative lecture. Kudos to Dr Damasio, and Margaret and Dorian for another fantastic night of learning.
Here is a video of a lecture with Dr Damasio on this subject:
Pour yourself a nice beverage and soak in that SCIENCE!