Science Rediscovers Consciousness.
Bernard J. Baars is Institute Faculty Professor at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, California. He is a cognitive neuroscientist best known for his work on consciousness and volition. He is coeditor of Consciousness and Cognition: An International Journal. His best-known scientific work is A Cognitive Theory of Consciousness (Cambridge University Press, 1988).
Book Info:THE FEELING OF WHAT HAPPENS Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness Antonio R. Damasio Publisher:New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1999 400 pp., $28.00
An odd thing happened to science on the way to the third millennium. Science first forgot its mind, and then--just in the last few decades-- found it again. This book is a sign of the scientific rediscovery of consciousness. It is a tour of the evidence we have about the brain and how it supports the conscious experiences we all share, from waking up in the morning to mental images, intuitions, and feelings. Antonio DamasioOs The Feeling of What Happens tells about the new understanding of the mind from the perspective of a neurologist, deeply influenced by his experience of people with broken brains. Consciousness and emotion are his twin obsessions.
But why are scientists like Damasio suddenly telling us about human consciousness at the end of the twentieth century? Why is there a sense of novelty about this most ancient of philosophical topics? Human subjectivity was explored in great depth by civilizations from the Greeks of the Golden Age to the sages of the Himalayas, going back to the beginnings of written thought. Much of our common vocabulary about our own consciousness comes from the Greeks. It was Aristotle who first proposed that mental images are "faint copies" of visual experiences, an idea that was verified by brain scan studies only a few years ago. And ever since Schopenhauer, Western thought has been influenced by the majestic writings of Buddhism and the Upanishads. Almost all the great names of philosophy, East and West, have contributed to our understanding of our own experiences. What could be new about that?
It is not just new facts and evidence. Facts there are aplenty, but more important than mere facts is a new openness to human consciousness as a topic that scientists may have something to say about. For most of this century, consciousness was a scientific taboo. "Consciousness is nothing but the soul of theology," said John Watson, the founder of behaviorism, early in the century. It was a superstition left over from the age of metaphysics and could be discarded, Watson thought, without losing anything really important. External stimuli and responses were the only things scientists needed to know. It was a theme that caught on with extraordinary rapidity in the years after 1900. Bertrand Russell celebrated Watson's rejection of consciousness, Pavlov's work on the conditioned reflex was taken to validate it, and B.F. Skinner spent six decades of his life explaining why subjective experience was expendable.
In biology, Lloyd Morgan's Canon prohibited biologists from attributing consciousness to other animals. Philosophers in the Anglo-American world worked for decades to excise consciousness from the network of ideas that make up our common understanding of human nature. College professors taught generations of undergraduates that their personal conscious experiences were irrelevant to science. Students so trained could not understand the entire tradition of human thought about personal experience, nor even the contemporary work of James Joyce or Sigmund Freud. It was the most alienating doctrine imaginable and surely helped to drive a great wedge between the sciences and the humanities.
By the same token, today's rediscovery of consciousness may signal a new cultural event, a return to a unified conception of body and mind. Damasio's book adds to our understanding of human consciousness, but it is even more important as a symbol of the new age of rediscovery. For consciousness is no longer taboo. Instead, it has become one of the most exciting and fast-moving topics in brain science and psychology. Not a month goes by without new findings appearing in leading scientific journals. Damasio and his distinguished wife, Hannah, have been among the most active contributors. Well-known Nobelists such as Francis Crick and Gerald Edelman have dedicated decades of their lives to the effort, and philosophers including Daniel Dennett and David Chalmers have tried to make sense of the new developments. The philosophical puzzles have not been solved, but it is widely felt that scientific progress is still possible.
Damasio's focus is on the relations between consciousness and emotional feelings. His best insights stem from work with patients suffering from remarkable types of brain damage. Consider the "states of absence" some people experience with epilepsy. Damasio writes:
"Thirty-two years ago, a man sat across from me in a strange, entirely circular, gray-painted examining room. The afternoon sun was shining on us through a skylight as we talked quietly. Suddenly the man stopped in midsentence, his face lost animation; his mouth froze, still open; and his eyes became vacuously fixed on some point on the wall behind me. For a few seconds he remained motionless. I spoke his name but there was no reply. Then he began to move a little, he smacked his lips, his eyes shifted to the table between us, he seemed to see a cup of coffee and a small metal vase of flowers, he must have, he picked up the cup and drank from it. I spoke to him again and again he did not reply. He touched the vase. I asked him what was going on, and he did not reply, his face had no expression. He did not look at me. Now, he rose to his feet and I was nervous; I did not know what to expect. I called his name and he did not reply. When would this end? Now he turned around and walked slowly to the door. I got up and called him again. He stopped, he looked at me, and some expression returned to his face--he looked perplexed. I called him again, and he said, "What?" "
The loss of ordinary consciousness is called an absence seizure; the zombielike actions are called absence automatisms. Both seem to reveal a loss of consciousness but without sleep or coma, simply a momentary lacuna in the flow of experience and the observing self. For some minutes or seconds, they are just gone.
Nature sometimes conducts experiments that reveal more than anything we can do in the laboratory. Epileptic states of absence are like this. They show us the same person, with the same brain, in the same room, and yet everything we expect is gone: In the patient's experience there is no color, no sound, no memory, no willed action, and no retrievable self. The house is open but the lights are out.
To a scientist there is something particularly intriguing about such a case, beyond its human interest. It is the opportunity to vary what needs to be studied, in this case the state of consciousness, without touching anything else. States of absence may allow us to see how consciousness affects the brain by giving us a natural comparison to normal consciousness. Finding such comparison conditions is a crucial step in understanding any basic concept, from gravity to air pressure to temperature. The very concept of gravity could not be understood if gravitational attraction were only observed in one place, on earth. Like any other scientific construct, gravity must be treated as a variable. One contribution of GalileoOs telescope was to reveal a part of the universe where gravity was nearly zero, in order to provide that crucial comparison. The telescope showed how to treat gravity as a variable.
Consciousness as it is given in our own experience has no comparison condition. After all, when we try to subjectively compare consciousness to "no consciousness" we immediately lose our ability to observe. Seen purely from the inside we cannot treat consciousness as a variable, to see the effects of its presence and absence. It is only in rare cases such as Damasio's epileptic patient that we can see what consciousness does for us. That is why brain damage patients are so important, to lay bare to the rest of us what it means to be fully human.
The movie watcher
To Damasio, "the second problem of consciousness is ... how the brain also engenders a sense of self in the act of knowing."
"You are looking at this page, reading the text and constructing the meaning of my words as you go along. But ... in parallel ... your mind also displays something else, something sufficient to indicate, moment by moment, that you rather than anyone else is doing the reading and the understanding of the text. The sensory images of what you perceive externally, and the related images you recall, occupy most of the scope of your mind, but not all of it. Besides those images there is also this other presence that signifies you, as observer of the things imaged, owner of the things imaged, potential actor on the things imaged. There is a presence of you in a particular relationship with some object. ... Solving the second problem of consciousness consists in discovering the biological underpinnings for the curious ability we humans have of constructing, not just the mental patterns of an object but also ... the sense of self in the act of knowing."
"The neurobiology of consciousness faces two problems: The problem of how the movie-in-the-brain is generated, and the problem of how the brain also generates the sense that there is an owner and observer for that movie."
The metaphor of the "movie watcher" has interesting ramifications. To Damasio they suggest that the things that change, as reflected by the brain, are the contents of the movie; what is kept constant in the face of this ever-varying movie is the self. "Some parts of the brain are free to roam over the world ... but some parts of the brain, those that represent the organism's own state, are not free to roam at all," he writes. "They are stuck. ... I have come to conclude that the organism, as represented inside its own brain, is a likely biological forerunner for what eventually becomes the elusive sense of self."
The idea that the self has deep roots in the body is not new, of course. It is embedded in Plato's conception of the levels of self corresponding to the higher and lower parts of the body, perhaps a universal idea that can be found in Asia as well. Freud talked of the human infant's body ego providing the origins of the adult self. Today, Damasio suggests that we are beginning to know enough about the brain to find the neurobiological substrate of self, both in its ancient ancestral forms and in the way a sense of self plays out in the lives of sophisticated adults.
Feelings change self
What about the title of Damasio's book, The Feeling of What Happens? What about feeling and emotion? The notion that emotions create change is already implicit in the etymology of the word: "e-motion," to move out. Emotion is what moves us. The root is the same as "motivation," which is what makes us move our bodies and act in the world. Emotion and motivation are twins, intimately tied to the most basic biological and personal ends. But what does it mean when we feel that something moves us? One answer is that feelings like love and anger, pity and terror can create a change in our core beliefs and commitments in life, our core motivational selves. It is we, our moving selves ourselves, who are moved by emotion. When a traumatic change occurs in our lives, when we learn not to trust the stability of the earth after a major earthquake, things have to change in us that are so fundamental that they seem to be a part of our essential being. The very fabric and substance of our assumptions about the world, ourselves, and other people needs to adjust to new realities, and it always seems to do so through the medium of emotions.
Consider again what happens to people who cannot experience emotions in the way most of us do. Damasio cites a young woman whose emotional centers, the two amygdalas that lie about an inch behind each eye, were calcified by a disease called Urbach-Wiethe syndrome.
"My first impression of S was of a tall, slender and extremely pleasant young woman. ... There was nothing wrong with S's ability to learn facts. This was evident when I met her for only the second time and she clearly recognized me, smiled, and greeted me by name. ... Her social history, on the other hand, was exceptional. S approached people and situations with a predominantly positive attitude. Others would say that her approach was excessively and inappropriately forthcoming. S was not only pleasant and cheerful, she seemed eager to interact with most anyone who would engage her in conversation. ... Shortly after an introduction, S would not shy away from hugging and touching. ... She made friends easily, formed romantic attachments without difficulty, and had often been taken advantage of by people she trusted. ... It was as if negative emotions such as fear and anger had been removed from her affective vocabulary."
Of course there are perfectly ordinary people who always seem positive and a bit gullible. Was S really different? A test devised by one of Damasio's associates showed that S was unable to consistently identify expressions of fear in pictures of facial expressions, a known function of the amygdala. Nor could she draw an expression of fear, although she could draw faces with other emotions. She could imitate facial expressions of surprise and happiness but not fear. She knows intellectually about fear, but she does not seem to learn to avoid fearful and unpleasant situations. It is a curious deficit, and one that many people might wish for. But humans lacking amygdalas would not survive well in nature. Again, nature's experiments point to an answer. Her self, the system that maintains inner constancy in the face of the movie of consciousness, was unable to adapt to the demands of an unpredictable world.
A new Renaissance?
The Italian Renaissance that awoke Europe after the long sleep of the Middle Ages was a rediscovery, an experience of being born again, as the very word indicates. To their lasting surprise and excitement the artists and thinkers of Europe discovered their own ancient heritage, lost for a millennium. The rediscovery of Plato and Aristotle, Euclid and Sophocles has shaped the art and science of Europe ever after. Scientists today may be in the midst of a similar renaissance. After a century of neglect, the whole traditional vocabulary of conscious experience, of self, volition, emotion, feeling, and imagination, is proving necessary to understanding brain scan evidence that was utterly unimaginable before the last decade.
Damasio's evidence from patients with brain damage demonstrates clearly that under some circumstances, consciousness can be separated from voluntary action; emotion from action; perception from self. Cases can be found in which all these entities run separately, isolated from all the others. In technical jargon, they can all be "dissociated" from each other. For scientists this means that the traditional terms must be taken seriously because they refer to separable aspects of the human mind and brain. But in the working human brain, they are all in constant interaction. In the normal brain, self, consciousness, and all the other ingredients make up a seamless whole.
A renaissance is more than a rediscovery. It is a rebirth, a new construction using old bricks and mortar, but with new tools, new perspectives, and new possibilities. Just as the hundred-year reign of behaviorism tended to alienate young people from their own rich heritage of psychological ideas, the rediscovery of those ideas may create an opportunity for a new Renaissance humanism, not just a new field of science but a whole new intellectual culture. We can now look into the living brain as it is experiencing and engaging the world. Giving the lie to a century of denial of human realities, this evidence provides a solid basis to go from alienation to a new relatedness, a recognition of the fundamental reality of a universe in which consciousness is one of the ineluctable ingredients. Curiously enough, rather than leading to confusion, the scientific evidence gives new weight to T.S. Eliot's promise that
"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."