Self Comes to Mind

Constructing the Conscious Brain

by Antonio Damasio

Paperback, 398 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $15.95 | purchase

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Title
Self Comes to Mind
Subtitle
Constructing the Conscious Brain
Author
Antonio Damasio

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Book Summary

A leading neuroscientist addresses key questions about the origins and mechanisms of human consciousness, drawing on decades of research to challenge beliefs about the separateness of consciousness from the body while presenting a revisionist perspective built on traditional approaches. By the author of Descartes' Error. Reprint.

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Excerpt: Self Comes To Mind

1
 Awakening
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When I woke up, we were descending. I had been asleep long enough to miss the announcements about the landing and the weather. I had not been aware of myself or my surroundings. I had been unconscious.
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Few things about our biology are as seemingly trivial as this com­modity known as consciousness, the phenomenal ability that consists of having a mind equipped with an owner, a protagonist for one’s exis­tence, a self inspecting the world inside and around, an agent seemingly ready for action.
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Consciousness is not merely wakefulness. When I woke up, two brief paragraphs ago, I did not look around vacantly, taking in the sights and the sounds as if my awake mind belonged to no one. On the con­trary, I knew, almost instantly, with little hesitation if any, without effort, that this was me, sitting on an airplane, my flying identity com­ing home to Los Angeles with a long to-do list before the day would be over, aware of an odd combination of travel fatigue and enthusiasm for what was ahead, curious about the runway we would be landing on, and attentive to the adjustments of engine power that were bringing us to earth. No doubt, being awake was indispensable to this state, but wake­fulness was hardly its main feature. What was that main feature? The fact that the myriad contents displayed in my mind, regardless of how vivid or well ordered, connected with me, the proprietor of my mind, through invisible strings that brought those contents together in the forward-moving feast we call self; and, no less important, the fact that the connection was felt. There was a feelingness to the experience of the connected me.
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Awakening meant having my temporarily absent mind returned, but with me in it, both property (the mind) and proprietor (me) accounted for. Awakening allowed me to reemerge and survey my mental domains, the sky-wide projection of a magic movie, part documentary and part fiction, otherwise known as the conscious human mind.
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We all have free access to consciousness, bubbling so easily and abun­dantly in our minds that without hesitation or apprehension we let it be turned off every night when we go to sleep and allow it to return every morning when the alarm clock rings, at least 365 times a year, not counting naps. And yet few things about our beings are as remarkable, foundational, and seemingly mysterious as consciousness. Without consciousnessâ€"that is, a mind endowed with subjectivityâ€"you would have no way of knowing that you exist, let alone know who you are and what you think. Had subjectivity not begun, even if very modestly at first, in living creatures far simpler than we are, memory and reasoning are not likely to have expanded in the prodigious way they did, and the evolutionary road for language and the elaborate human version of con­sciousness we now possess would not have been paved. Creativity would not have flourished. There would have been no song, no paint­ing, and no literature. Love would never have been love, just sex. Friendship would have been mere cooperative convenience. Pain would never have become sufferingâ€"not a bad thing, come to think of itâ€" but an equivocal advantage given that pleasure would not have become bliss either. Had subjectivity not made its radical appearance, there would have been no knowing and no one to take notice, and conse­quently there would have been no history of what creatures did through the ages, no culture at all.
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Although I have not yet provided a working definition of conscious­ness, I hope I am leaving no doubt as to what it means not to have con­sciousness: in the absence of consciousness, the personal view is sus­pended; we do not know of our existence; and we do not know that anything else exists. If consciousness had not developed in the course of evolution and expanded to its human version, the humanity we are now familiar with, in all its frailty