Qualia II – the hidden beast

I recently read The Self Comes To Mind by Antonio Damasio – an attempt by the author to describe the “architecture” of the conscious human mind from both an evolutionary and neurobiological viewpoint. Being an amateur philosopher interested in the origin and nature of the subjective conscious experience, I was excited to hear what Damasio, a leading researcher in the field of neuroscience, might have to say about my favorite subject. As I read through the book I became privy to some excellent experimental evidence (and accompanying conceptual insight) that set consciousness firmly in the realm of an early evolutionary adaptation in animals – a hypothesis that I’ve been supporting through this blog for some time.

Yet as I approached the latter pages I began to get uneasy; Damasio’s architecture for consciousness was (to put it succinctly and therefore rather crudely) based on the “existence” of “feelings” in the brain that buttressed non-conscious bodily emotions. These “feelings” seem to originate from certain nuclei in the Brain Stem, supported by other brain structures (that are identifiable during experiments through FMRI imaging) such as the Insular Cortex. Did Damasio have nothing to say about the formation of the primitive conscious experience, perhaps explaining it as an emergent property of a particular neural network, process or even a high-level functional architecture that he has indentified in the brain?

I was gradually loosing hope, when suddenly – there it was! On page 256, neatly tucked away in a brief section titled “Qualia II”, Damasio pours out his heart. He postulates that there is such a phenomenon as a “primordial feeling” – for which the root cause is (again summarizing his idea to the point of crudeness) the “signal amplification” in the recursive motor-neuron communication loop to cause the circuit to “feel about itself”. He draws a metaphor from the way single-celled organisms “show purpose to guard life”. He goes on to elaborate his metaphor of the single-celled organism, and says that a unicellular organism “feels” about itself to protect its structural integrity, in some emergent sense, albeit “unconsciously”. Human subjective feeling is pictured to be a similar emergent property of a motor-neuronal feedback loop “feeling about itself”.

I’d agree with Damasio in these senses:

  1. There is a high probability that consciousness is indeed an evolutionary adaptation, and not a non-consequential byproduct (of evolution)
  2. The notion of self is an immense boon in the context of Darwinian survival, and there is an evolved architecture in our brains to create this self
  3. Minds or “control circuits” that govern bodies would have evolved before the self architecture
  4. The generation of the mechanisms for primitive subjective experience has to be viewed in the context of evolutionary time – the evidence being that thoughts seem to light up the “older” sections of the brain (i.e. the Brain Stem) during FMRI based experiments
  5. “Conscious deliberation”, or rather computation facilitated by accompanying feelings, has a statistical consequence on decision-making outcomes when compared with intuition or gut-reactions. The evidence being that, although instant decision-making is in the domain of the non-conscious, and although feelings usually arise after unconscious brain events, an intuition is often the result of prior learning involving conscious feelings (a view that Patricia Churchland also supports). The take-away is that “feelings” reinforce learning, which is another word for programming the vast computational networks that function under the hood of consciousness.

The Self Comes To Mind is an excellent read. Yet I do see a huge vacuum in the book – it fails to identify, even in a very vague conceptual way, what constitutes the ground-conditions for a physical system to feel about its own integrity. Irrespective of the various Darwinian advantages like reinforcement of learning etc, we’ve got to admit that Damasio has no clue about the physical basis for primordial feelings.

Nonetheless, Damasio’s road is a more likely one to lead us to enlightenment, in my present opinion, than some other roads like (say) the one Dan Dennett follows. Dennett, a truly brilliant human being, is unfortunately hung-up about language. He has a beautiful way of putting forward his ideas, for example the way he conceptualizes the high-level processes behind the origin of life in this talk: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8PJyrAE-pvk But to propose that feelings have zero Darwinian survival utility, and to dismiss them as an apparition in humans resulting from their speech, is a bit far fetched.

We all know where the hard problem lies; the absolute inseparability of these so-called feelings from the organism itself, and fact that the only way we can trust their existence outside of our own selves is through language and behavior. So what of this? Feelings have evolved to serve the physical organism, and not to serve that metaphysical construct we call Science. Good luck Damasio, you may not have hit the answer, but you are on the right road.

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