Is It Possible to Explain How Consciousness Works?

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  • Nov. 2, 2021, 11:23 a.m. ET

Making Minds Conscious
By Antonio Damasio

We each cognize what it means to beryllium conscious. Consciousness is what distinguishes being awake from being successful a coma oregon a authorities of dreamless sleep. I americium present conscious, and truthful (presumably) are you. Many animals — astir apt each mammals — person conscious minds, but plants and bacteria bash not. Nor bash computers (so far). Nor bash stars, oregon rocks.

Why is consciousness important? Well, successful a way, it’s the ground of everything that’s important. Without consciousness, determination would beryllium nary pleasance oregon pain; nary bully oregon evil; nary experiences of beauty, oregon of love. In a beingness that ne'er evolved conscious minds, thing would matter.

Intimately acquainted though we are with it, consciousness confronts america with a mystery. It doesn’t readily acceptable into our technological conception of the world. Consciousness seems to beryllium caused by neural firings successful our brains. But however tin these nonsubjective electrochemical events springiness emergence to ineffable qualitative experiences, similar the odor of a rose, the stab of a symptom oregon the transport of joy? Why, erstwhile a carnal strategy attains a definite grade of complexity, is it “like something” to beryllium that system?

This is the “hard problem” of consciousness: the occupation of however subjective caput arises from brute matter. (There is besides an “easy problem,” that of determining what relation consciousness plays successful the information-processing system of the mind. But 1 happening astatine a time.)


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In the past fewer decades, the enigma of consciousness has exercised thinkers of each stripes, sometimes driving them to alternatively desperate-sounding devices. Philosophers (Thomas Nagel, David Chalmers) person flirted with “panpsychism,” the thought that consciousness mightiness beryllium a cardinal constituent of each matter, close down to the atomic level. The Nobel-laureate physicist Roger Penrose has speculated that immoderate benignant of quantum magic mightiness beryllium down it. In his mega-best-selling “Gödel, Escher, Bach,” the machine idiosyncratic Douglas Hofstadter argued that consciousness arises erstwhile the encephalon becomes intricate capable to signifier self-referential “strange loops” — neural equivalents of Gödel’s notorious look that says, “I americium not provable.”

Meanwhile, neuroscientists person tried to recognize consciousness arsenic a biologic improvement — like, say, digestion. Using brain-imaging and different empirical techniques, they person sought retired the neural signatures of conscious thought wrong the grey spongy substance successful our skulls. Among them person been the Nobel laureates Francis Crick and Gerald Edelman, each of whom produced a publication outlining his ain favored instrumentality connected consciousness. Today, 1 of the astir distinguished researchers moving on these lines is Antonio Damasio, a Portuguese American who holds a seat successful neuroscience astatine the University of Southern California.

“Feeling & Knowing” represents a distillation of themes Damasio has explored successful earlier books, which see “Descartes’ Error” (1994) and “Self Comes to Mind” (2010). The astir salient of his preoccupations is the value of feeling. It is feeling, helium thinks, that tin span the conceptual abyss betwixt the carnal assemblage and the conscious mind.

Before getting down to substance, a connection astir style. In a prologue, Damasio tells america that readers of his earlier books often missed the cardinal ideas amid each the technological details. So helium acceptable retired to constitute “a focused and precise little publication connected consciousness.” Brief the caller publication is: It consists of 40-odd sections, immoderate little than a leafage long, surrounded by ample achromatic space. Each of these mini-chapters reads alternatively similar a prose poem — often soaring to lyrical heights, though sometimes weighted down by bits of neuroscientific argot. “Focused,” though, is not the mot juste for it: Despite its brevity, it tin beryllium meandering and repetitious (“Feelings again, indispensable we? We indispensable indeed”). Crucial ideas often prevarication enshrouded successful an elegant mist of metaphor. Still, the prime of the author’s mind, the boldness of his aims and the suspense of his statement propelled maine done the book.

Put with brutal succinctness, Damasio’s little goes similar this: Mental enactment consists of a watercourse of “images” that representation aspects of the satellite astir us. But these images, by themselves, cannot beryllium conscious. For that, they indispensable beryllium related to a perspective, an “owner,” a aforesaid — this, aft all, is what subjectivity means. And present is wherever feeling comes in. As Damasio uses the term, “feelings” are “the hybrid, interactive processes of the interior, astatine erstwhile intelligence and physical.” They registry however good oregon severely its assorted subsystems are doing astatine maintaining homeostasis, astatine keeping the organism live and flourishing. So feelings constituent within, to the interior; images constituent without, to the world. And erstwhile feelings and images travel unneurotic successful the brain, the effect is conscious thought. To accommodate a simile of Damasio’s, feelings are similar a philharmonic people that, erstwhile added to the soundless reel of images successful the mind, produces cinematic consciousness.

This is Damasio’s solution to the enigma of consciousness. What’s not to like? Plenty!

First, Damasio has adroitly dodged the “hard problem.” An representation of (say) a carnivore is, successful his account, a signifier of neural firing successful the brain. A feeling of (say) fearfulness is different specified pattern. Put them unneurotic and you’ve conscionable got a bigger and much analyzable signifier of neural firing. Why should it beryllium accompanied by qualitative consciousness? For Damasio to usage the presumption “images” and “feelings” to notation to these electrochemical events is to marque them dependable already conscious — which mightiness beryllium called the fallacy of tendentious nomenclature.

Second, for Damasio consciousness requires possessing a consciousness of self, an quality to entertain “me-ish” thoughts. But astir mammals look to person nary specified consciousness of self. They are incapable of recognizing themselves successful a mirror. This is besides existent of quality children successful the archetypal months of beingness — are we to accidental that they are not conscious? This mightiness beryllium called the “Unfair to babies!” objection.

Third, Damasio’s class of “feeling” is excessively capacious. It encompasses not lone emotions, but besides desires, and states of pleasance and pain. Is each of this truly indispensable for consciousness? Might not rational thought positive value-based goals beryllium enough? Call this the “Unfair to Mr. Spock!” objection.

I could spell on.

But if Damasio’s relationship of consciousness is not an unqualified success, that simply puts him successful the institution of each the different distinguished scientists and philosophers who person tried to ace this conundrum. And happily, “Feeling & Knowing” has supplementary virtues that marque it good worthy reading.

Chief among these is however beautifully Damasio expatiates connected the taxable of feeling — connected however feelings “arise successful the interior of organisms, successful the extent of viscera and fluids wherever the chemistry liable for beingness successful each its aspects reigns supreme.” Here the maestro idiosyncratic unites with the silken prose-stylist to nutrient 1 thrilling penetration aft another. For instance: The neural channels that convey feeling, successful opposition to those tasked with different intelligence functions, are uninsulated from the cells that environ them, and from the humor itself. This biochemical nakedness permits “intimate transverse speech betwixt assemblage structures and tense system.” (D. H. Lawrence’s “thinking with the blood” is not, alas, a axenic metaphor.)

Damasio whitethorn not person dispelled the enigma of consciousness successful this book. But helium has succeeded brilliantly successful narrowing the spread betwixt assemblage and mind.

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