A Meditation on Antonio Damasio’s Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain (Vintage Books, 2010)

Review by Rob Price

In Self Comes to Mind, neurobiologist Antonio Damasio observes that in the field of criminal justice “the weight given to evidence coming from brain science and cognitive science has been negligible” (300). I think that that goes double for ecclesial discourse. Damasio’s presentation of recent findings in evolutionary brain science bears significantly on epistemology, ethics, and eschatology.

A true delight of Damasio’s book is his description of mapping as the essential feature of sense perception. From single-celled eukaryotes on up, animal life is defined by the ability to sense an object outside of itself, determine its location, and detect whether or not it is food, a toxin/threat, or (later in evolution) a reproductive partner. Purposeful movement towards or away from the sensed object was the obvious next step in evolutionary advantage. However, this requires a “map”: a way to locate an object in space relative to one’s own position in order to guide movement. Neurons – and their clustering into ganglia and brains – perform this task in all organisms: from flagellates, to earthworms, to ants, to bees, to humans. The bigger the brain, the more complex the maps.

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The central insight that Damasio gives the reader is that the most important map of all, constantly maintained and updated in the mind/brain, is the map of the interior of the organism. In social mammals this map includes basic emotions required by group life and in humans all the maps are combined to create the autobiographical self. Our “selves” are the layered and self-observed maps of our bodies and minds going through space and time (perceived and mapped as a different kind of “space”) encountering a variety of external objects (including other people) and internal objects (memories and experiences of our feelings).

Damasio’s account bears directly on epistemology. First, in light of evolution, a subjectivist perspective, which posits a radical distrust of our sense perception’s ability to relay objective experiences of our interior and exterior milieu, is simply naïve. If we cannot trust what our senses are telling us about the world exterior to our own bodies (or even our own minds), we would never have made it beyond a combination of amino acids. Nature has selected for objectivity. Plants can afford to be solipsistic – to believe that the self is all that exists. Animals that must move through space cannot. It really is that simple.

Additionally, the perception of exterior objects as other to the self is not some malevolent process – “othering” the Other, in post-modern discourse – but is required for the organism to exist. Being a self, for all life, is about boundaries; or rather, about the boundary between myself and other objects. Knowing the other as an Other is simply natural; one must do it, and does do it, or one is not a self. Nevertheless, although the self is fundamentally incommunicable, humans (and higher primates like Capuchin monkeys) have minds that can empathize with the emotional life of others. That is to say, empathy is a map-making exercise – in this case, of the hypothesized interior, emotional life of an other.

The sheer universality of the basic emotions (fear, sadness, happiness, anger, disgust) in both physiological and exterior affect provide a bridge into the consciousness of others when our senses detect their presence in them. Because all humans fear and experience that fear in the same way (even if triggered by different stimuli), we can understand and seek to alleviate it in others. Jung’s observation of story archetypes and the social emotions they evoke (jealously, pride, sacrifice, etc.) is another case in point. Evolution has supplied all the reason we need to be sanguine about our  ability to know and understand one another.

Responding well to our emotions and those of others, on the other hand, is a different story. There is an adage shared among Navy SEALs: if you don’t rise to the occasion, you’ll descend to the level of your training. For example, the primitive emotion of disgust possesses a basic life value by preventing the organism from ingesting toxins. The facial expressions associated with disgust, along with the vomit response, exist transculturally and point to the emotion’s deep genetic basis. In humans, though, the emotion of disgust is also generated by images (either external or imagined) of actions: our brain has applied the food toxicity response to acts that threaten moral contamination. Those who perform “disgusting” actions generate the social emotion of contempt in the perceiver. And social emotions, given the cultural diversity of their stimuli, show a capacity for social conditioning, or training.

Strong emotions require equally strong training to be overcome. This is especially true when they drive behaviors that are contrary to conscious plans or principles. As Damasio notes, “we think we are in control, but we often are not, and the epidemics of obesity, hypertension, and heart disease [from unhealthy eating] prove that we are not” (298). Emotionally-driven behaviors that are contrary to moral commitments are even more impervious to conscious control. In the face of primitive emotions such as fear, anger, contempt, and pride (to balance two individual emotions with two social ones), self-control and compassion are fighting an uphill battle. Damasio commends “ritualized skill building,” in which conscious programs of training seek to make successful and sustained resistance to unwanted natural behaviors automatic.

The Church’s word for this is asceticism. Indeed, even an evolutionary scientist like Damasio can commend “wise [religious] leaders [who] have … asked followers to observe disciplined rituals whose side effect must have been a gradual imposition of consciously willed decisions on nonconscious processes” as a means of “etching the desired mechanism in the human mind” (299). It occurs to me that liberal religion, in its eschewing of both ritual and asceticism, simply lacks the power to produce in its adherents the laudable human behaviors it values: compassion, generosity, tolerance, etc. From an evolutionary perspective, “conservative” and sacramental religions have a greater capacity for producing humans able to think and act empathetically in the midst of fear, anger, disgust, and sadness.

With regard to morality, Damasio’s book suggests that Jeremy Bentham might have been right all along: it’s all about pleasure and pain. But according to Damasio, the avoidance of pain and the seeking of pleasure is only the intermediate step in the evolution of conscious decision-making. He surmises that even as DNA proteins began to assemble themselves in order to give instructions to cells, protein orders were selected that resulted in the organism’s homeostatic “well-being.” That is, the DNA ordering which won out was that which ordered the cell’s components to do what was necessary to maintain vitality until mitosis/reproduction was achieved.

These DNA sequences effected cell behaviors that had value in successfully responding to its internal milieu and its external environment. Cells that exclusively pursued value-driven behavior survived. This “single-minded” focus on value became the “will to live” that seems present in all animal life. Behaviors that had value became associated with “pleasure,” those that did not, with “pain.” Pleasure and pain, then, have a genetic basis in the origin of all life, and are simply codes for behaviors that tend toward homeostatic well-being and its goal of reproduction. Pleasure and pain are cellular and point to deep incentive systems selected for in evolution that dramatically pre-date the endocrine system’s use of hormones to inform the brain of changes in its body and incentivize the brain to instruct the body to do things that tend toward its well-being.

The human advantage consists of having a mind that is also conscious. The human brain – seemingly uniquely – can plan ahead and in non-emergent contexts observe its own pleasure and pain as a part of its interior map in order to engage in behaviors that enhance well-being in the long-term. Pleasure and pain and the emotions that are their indicators and harbingers are now felt as “healthy/good” or “dangerous/bad,” instead of merely experienced by a self deprived of autobiography. Humans are also advantaged by being able to take that planning ability and scale it up into communities and entire civilizations, where the parallel concepts of “right” and “wrong” are now introduced and made into moral categories.

In an extraordinary feat of evolutionary biology, the human mind can synchronize individual and social “well-being” as the ability to reproduce/grow and construct social maps that depend on an empathy for the interior experiences of others (i.e., “the greatest good”). Altruism is explained as simply the human brain’s pursuit of the well-being of a society in which the subject’s personal well-being is staked. It is not a “self-less” act – for Damasio that would be impossible – but rather a behavior driven by pleasure and pain, rooted in our evolution.

What would the pursuit of human well-being look like without the imperative to reproduce? Or without threats? Or pain? Christians have a vision of this sort of life: “they will neither marry nor be given in marriage”; “the wolf shall lie down with the lamb”; “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares”; “crying and pain will be no more”; (Matt. 22:30; Isaiah 11:6; Isaiah 2:4; Rev. 21:4). What if the primary thing to be made new in the New Creation is our neurobiology? Damasio’s book has convinced me that the life of the Resurrection starts with transformation at the cellular level, in terms of the basic economy of pleasure and pain with which we have evolved under God’s providence. This economy so determines our notions of well-being and right and wrong that a morality without its calculus is nearly impossible to imagine.

Perhaps this is what so captivates the reader of the Gospels: in Jesus, one seems to encounter a human that can clearly feel pleasure and pain, but whose behavior and moral vision seem untouched by the drives and emotions (fear and disgust, in particular) that derive from them. I wonder if that is why the gospel narratives seem to struggle to describe that aspect of Jesus’ life with creedal consistency: they are in touch with the living memories of those who were in touch with a transfigured human. Perhaps Damasio’s insights can move us to an understanding of Jesus’ impassible divine nature in which emotions are felt, but he remains utterly free of their moral effects: the sins that cling so closely as we sink to the level of our evolutionary training. To be free of the ineluctable rule of biological value is to be free, indeed! Come, Holy Spirit and give us that age-to-come life that our evolution – even in its most impressive achievements – can never give!

To engage with Self Comes to Mind is to think anew about what we know, how we know it, the ways to know and do new things, and what it means to be made new. I commend Damasio’s work as a useful interlocutor for curious Christian minds.

The Very Rev. Robert (Rob) Price is Dean of St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas, Texas.

 

About The Author

The Very Rev. Robert (Rob) Price is Dean of St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas, Texas.

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