Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain

by Antonio Damasio
Released: November 9, 2010
Publisher: Pantheon (368 pages)

A neuroscientist tries (again)
to track the elusive self

By Robert Lamb

This is a very interesting book, albeit with a misleading title. Perhaps the title was a ploy to attract readers of popular science, when in fact this is a book for readers of serious science. But no harm, no foul.

The author himself is indeed a serious scientist: director of the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute, and author of several other books in the same vein as this one. One of them, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, even cracked The New York Times 10 Best Books list of 2000. And if you still doubt that he is a serious scientist, catch him at his (unsmiling) best in one of his online video presentations.

His video presentations reveal him the same way the book does: cogent, painstaking, imaginative, knowledgeable, honest, and persuasive, but not convincing. He seems to believe that the primitive brain somehow intuited that it needed to become a more complex brain, and then set out to make one, which then produced consciousness, and then a self. Sorry, but that does not compute.

But first, full disclosure: In college, I welcomed gentleman Cs in science courses. So Dr. Damasio need not fret that I might topple his carefully drawn thesis on how the self came to mind. I volunteered to review this book because its title piqued my curiosity (and fooled me); I had thoroughly enjoyed reading a book titled Proust Was a Neuroscientist, by Jonah Lehrer, published in 2007; and I’m a novelist with a lifelong interest in the self, particularly as manifested in creative writing—and, I might add, as seen in simple human observation. Who among us, when berating himself for stupid behavior, has not wondered what entity within us has the audacity to address us as “you,” as in such self-criticisms as: “You sure screwed that up” or “What in the world were you thinking?”

True, Damasio’s interest, at least in these pages, lies not in the divided self, but, as the subtitle suggests, in how the body and brain, working together, first created consciousness—and then created a self. Still I couldn’t shake the feeling that his hypothesis didn’t square with the little I knew of Darwinism—and that his hypothesis assumed a concept of the self that was alien to my English-major mind.

In an introduction to a 150th anniversary edition of The Origin of Species, there is a passage that reads: “Experiments have shown that mutations can only modify or eliminate existing structures; they cannot create new ones.” To me, that means that the human brain, however primitive, arrived with no assembly required. Assuming a normal birth, switch it on and it’s good to go.

Early in Damasio’s books, I noted with quickening pulse his many references to the self as the brain’s “protagonist,” and surely I wasn’t the first fiction writer to discover that it is important in telling a story to find the “voice” that wants most to tell the story.

Also noted with interest (and admiration) is that Damasio’s search for answers sometimes takes him beyond the borders of science into the wilds of the humanities. He even quotes the illustrious literary critic Harold Bloom on Bloom’s provocative contention that Shakespeare invented the modern human being, i.e., the modern consciousness, in making Prince Hamlet a reflective soul whose behavior is changed by listening to his own thoughts, as in the famous soliloquy.

But Bloom’s assessment of the great English poet Robert Browning would have been more pertinent to an accurate concept of the self: “His ‘dramatic monologues’ are misleadingly named: they are subjective, lyrical antiphons in which many voices, usually dwelling in a single person, play against one another” [emphasis added].

Damasio might also have explored with profit some celebrated cases of multiple personality that seem to show that more than one whole self can co-exist in the same person—in which person there is no other sign of mental aberration, i.e., each “self” is a functional being. Is Dr. Damasio familiar with the original, clinical films of the patient whose case became known to the world as The Three Faces of Eve? Years ago, the Medical College of Georgia, where the woman had been treated, presented a showing of the film. The word “startling” doesn’t begin to describe it.

Basically, evidence available to all of us suggests that the self is not monolithic, is not a single entity—and Damasio himself says, “The brain is a system of systems. Each system is composed of an elaborate interconnection of small but macroscopic cortical regions and subcortical nuclei, which are made of neurons, all of which are connected by synapses.”

Elsewhere, more colorfully, he writes, “The ultimate consciousness product,” by which he means the self, “occurs from these numerous brain sites at the same time and not in one site in particular, much as the performance of a symphonic piece does not come from the work of a single musician or even from a whole section of an orchestra.”

More tellingly, he says, “No single mechanism explains consciousness in the brain, no single device, no single region, or feature, or trick, any more than a symphony can be played by one musician or even a few.”

Now, if those words don’t suggest a multi-faceted self, I’ll eat my hat and my college diploma, too. Monolithic. Multifaceted. What difference does it make?

Well, Freud obviously thought it made a difference, and, after thinking about it, devised the famous concept of the self as consisting of three distinctive parts: the ego, id, and super-ego. And we all know from daily experience that each of us responds to different people in different ways, even on the same subjects, and sometimes within the same hour and setting. We simply present one version of self to lovers, another to parents, and still another to strangers.

Long story short, it seems that a search for the origin of the self ought to begin with a clear idea of what the self is and how it operates. Damasio seems the perfect huntsman for this quarry. You can’t read this book without concluding that he has searched scrupulously high and low for answers, and not just in the laboratory. Let the typical scientist scoff that “philosophy bakes no bread;” Damasio obviously knows that philosophy has leavened a lot of yeasty loaves that got baked in other ovens, and he doesn’t hesitate to prowl philosophical precincts in search of scientific answers. In fact, one of his books is titled Decartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. Still another is titled Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain.

So if you get the idea from all this that Damasio’s quest is both thorough and comprehensive, you’re right. Again and again, he anticipates so many questions the reader might have. He even examines briefly one of the questions that was most puzzling: How can a primitive life form “know” what it needs to do to become a complex life form? Does the life force in a simple one-cell organism come equipped with its own built-in micro-engineer complete with intricate instructions as to what to do next, and how, even over eons of time, to do it, how to figure out that vision, for example, would be a nice thing to have—and then figure out how to build an eye to achieve it?

Don’t think so. But, hey, the question mystified both Damasio and Darwin—and remains still to be answered. Damasio hazards the guess that the simplest of organisms arrive imbued with what he calls “values” that are expressed in the simplest of ways: welcome this, avoid that. But where did this idea of “organic value” originate? So far, nobody has been able to peer into the Great Unknown and give us the answer.

(Reviewer Robert Lamb is a novelist, short-story writer, and adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina. A former reporter and editor for The Atlanta Constitution, he has also done freelance reporting for The New York Times and Dow Jones. This review appeared first in The New York Journal of Books.)

The Western literary canon revisited

By Robert Lamb

News item from the Boston Globe:
“… Universities are full of trendy English professors who don’t read Shakespeare for the beauty of the poetry or its peerless insights into human nature. The point is to uncover the oppression that’s supposed to define Western culture: the racism, ‘patriarchy,’ and imperialism that must lurk beneath the surface of everything written by those ‘dead white males.’ (The latest book from University of Pennsylvania professor emerita Phyllis Rackin, for example, investigates how ‘Macbeth’ contributed to the ‘domestication of women.’)”

I don’t believe for an instant that the Western literary canon should be changed to accommodate social and political agendas. Aesthetics shaped the canon in the beginning and should continue to shape it. Besides, art pressed into the service of a cause becomes propaganda, the aims of which are very different from those of art.

Yes, the canon’s shapers were mainly men, mainly white, mainly European, and, like all men, not without bias. But nowhere have I seen evidence that any work was admitted to the canon for any reason except that it was believed to be an outstanding work of serious intent.

But this should not be construed to mean that the Western canon is sacrosanct. It isn’t, nor should it be. Time changes everything, including the pertinence of art, and esthetic distance can reveal that a work’s admission to the canon might have been hasty or at the very least is ripe for review. Some inferior works also sneaked into the canon as companions of superior relatives. Any critic who believes, for instance, that all of Dickens’ novels are co-equal in quality simply hasn’t been paying attention.

Anyhow, of esteemed works in general, here are some nominations, purely random, for either demotion in the ranks or outright discharge from the canon (no pun).

–Moby Dick, by Herman Melville – Rather than a whale of a story, which might qualify it for canon membership, this novel is largely a treatise on whaling, with no more relevance to modern life than a how-to manual on buffalo-hunting. Moreover, Melville never uses one word when a few thousand will do, violates the most basic (and common-sense) rules of first-person storytelling (such as repeatedly entering the mind of another character, Ahab), and interrupts the story ad nauseam to deliver lessons on the anatomy of the whale. The best use of this novel is as an antidote to insomnia. If the celebrated (?) chapter on whiteness (yes, whiteness!) doesn’t put you to sleep, alas, your insomnia is incurable.

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy – This novel is the best argument for abridged novels ever written. As with Moby Dick, we have in War and Peace a novel that is largely a polemic disguised as a story. In fact, you can’t read War and Peace attentively without seeing that Tolstoy wrote it mainly to rebut history’s traditional accounts of the War of 1812. The novel’s beguiling love story is merely a Trojan horse designed by the author to sneak his version of history into the reader’s mind. In fact, when abridgers abridge this often-abridged novel, they simply throw out Tolstoy’s meticulous recounting of Napoleon’s ill-fated campaign against Russia. Is the abridged version worthy of admission to the canon? Well, as I said, it is a beguiling story. So maybe. But it would have to wait in line behind Tolstoy’s Anna Karinana, which is truly a great novel and fully deserves inclusion in the Western canon.

–King Lear, by Shakespeare – Inexplicably, some literary critics declare this disjointed and tiresome work to be one of the Immortal Bard’s best plays. It isn’t even close; in fact it’s one of his worst, exceeded only (perhaps) by The Tempest. Lear, a foolish old monarch with three daughters, divides his kingdom between two of them and banishes the third daughter for refusing to compete with her sisters in banal blandishments of filial love and gratitude. What follows is a tedious testament to folly and ingratitude proving only, ho-hum, that a fool and his kingdom are soon parted – but leaving unanswered, and even unasked, the question of how they got together in the first place. Then, grafted onto the story like scenes left over from another, unfinished play, is the story of Edmund, the bastard son of Glouchester, whose evil schemes are no more believable than is the credulity of those who fall for them. And Kent? He could have stayed home for all the use he was to the plot. Only Edmund’s father lucks out in this mish-mash of a play. Blinded early in the action, he doesn’t have to watch much of it.

The Devine Comedy, by Dante – This work hasn’t been relevant to man, not even spiritual man, in at least 150 years.

Lest it appear that I’m mired in the classics, let’s look at some contemporaries who are presumptive canon-ites. (So help me, I’m picking my targets solely from works that I read or re-read, for various reasons, sometimes mere curiosity, in the past year or so.) One that I had the misfortune to stumble upon (and stumble all the way through) was John Irvin’s A Widow for One Year. First, full disclosure: I’ve never read The World According to Garp. The dust-jacket notes alone induced yawning, as did the movie’s previews. I did tackle (in good faith, I promise) A Prayer for Owen Meany, but I threw in the towel (prayer shawl?) around the half-way mark. More yawning. Now A Widow for One Year has cured me forever of any interest in a John Irvin* novel. Long story short (which you’ll certainly never get in an Irvin novel): The author is a literary windbag with a Victorian guilt about sex. And to the press agent who dreamed up the absurd comparison of Irvin to Dickens, I say with all the fervor I can muster: 1) Get an honest job, and 2) stop defaming dead authors.

Next, in the grip of a burgeoning disbelief, I read to the end of Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park, which more aptly would be titled Lunacy Park. I pushed on for one reason, and one reason only: His Less Than Zero is a small masterpiece. After Lunar Park, I have not taken him up again, and I won’t until I’m assured that he will never again write while in a marijuana haze or while trying to outdo Stephen King in the supernatural genre.

Speaking of which, the Keepers of the Canon Gateway, chief among them literary critic Harold Bloom, long ago launched a propaganda campaign aimed at forestalling any suggestion that King be admitted to the Inner Chamber. But Dr. Bloom is often as absurdly wrong as he can be brilliantly right, and where King is concerned Bloom has uncorked another of his many bloopers. Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption is a fine novel, better than many that hold a charter membership in the canon, and King’s novella The Body (which on film became “Stand By Me”) is a masterpiece. (Be it noted that Bloom has also tried to block the canon’s entrance to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird by damning it with faint praise as “a period piece.” Take my word for it, the period piece is Bloom. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of America’s greatest novels, ranking easily among the top ten.

But let’s hurry on before I run out of space:

*Hemingway qualifies for inclusion in the canon largely on the strength of his short stories and writing style. Only one of his novels, The Old Man and the Sea, is aging well. The others, which were at birth mannered and stiff, now seem downright arthritic. No matter. All of his short stories are clinics in good writing, and the best of them, “The Short Happy Life of Francis McComber” and especially “The Snows of Killamanjaro,” are sublime.

*Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby fully deserves its reputation as one of the best American novels ever written – and is very nearly the best. His other novels, and the short stories, leave me cold.

*Steinbeck. Several years ago, I heard a visiting academic at the University of South Carolina dismiss Steinbeck as “second-rate.” The speaker invited his university audience to agree with him, and I was shocked to see heads nod in the affirmative, and to hear mutterings of general agreement. I have since learned that “second-rate” best describes academic literary opinion. At any rate, Steinbeck’s range alone, not to mention his very American voice, guarantees him a place in literary memory. No such luck to the academics who dissed him.

*Faulkner. Time again for full disclosure: I am not a Faulkner fan. I’ve tried; god knows I’ve tried. I’m even willing to believe that the fault is mine, not his. But I just don’t get it! So there. Sorry, Malcolm.

*Flannery O’Conner. See Faulkner, above. O’Connor is a mix of the religious nutty and the Southern-Gothic batty. Except for her short story “All That Rises Must Converge,” put O’Connor aside in favor of a book by a really good Southern female writer: Carson McCullers. For proof, read her Member of the Wedding.

*Thomas Wolfe. He is, simply, the American Proust, which is to say that his writing is among the very best though his novels are not. Professor Bloom is wrong about Wolfe, too, who will still be read long after Bloom has been forgotten.

Obviously, I can’t cover here (or anywhere else) all the authors and poets and playwrights of Western literature, but I would feel conscience-stricken if I closed without mentioning such truly great writers as Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams, Thomas Hardy, T.S. Eliot, Stephen Crane, James Baldwin, Philip Roth, Robert Frost, Jane Austin, E.A. Robinson, Robert Browning, Robert Frost, Truman Capote, William Wordsworth, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Willa Cather.

Nor can I close without naming the book that deserves, hands down, the title of The Great American Novel. It is Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (and it’s also one of the best movies ever made).

I know, I know: in all these years, it has yet to gain entry to the canon. Academics and other so-called serious literary critics have long been loath to give this fine novel the laurels it deserves (or to even read it, which of course explains a lot). But it is these same critics who have put the Western canon in the mess it’s in today, mainly by using political and social templates to interpret literary works.

There. I feel so much better now.

(*Earlier this year, on NPR’s “Radio Reader,” I listened, in disbelief, to Irvin’s latest novel, Last Night In Twisted River — disbelief that a name writer could write so badly and disbelief that a respected radio show could select so undeserving a novel (from the many available) to air to its readers.)

(Robert Lamb teaches writing and American literature at the University of South Carolina. He has published novels, short stories, and poetry, and is a 2009 winner of the South Carolina Fiction Project.)