"The Feeling of What Happens"

I feel, therefore I am: A scientist asks, What, exactly, is consciousness?


Dan Stern
September 21, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

I remember wondering as I took my Intro to Bio midterm why I couldn't answer certain questions about the brain. The very machinery that had told me to put one foot in front of the other in order to get me to that classroom was now holding out on me about its own nature. "What are the components of neurons?" Not a clue. What was relaying this question through my mind? Neurons. It doesn't get much more paradoxical than that.

Consciousness -- our sense of self-identity or self-awareness -- eludes us in the same bizarre manner. We experience it as the voice inside our head that contemplates our own existence and makes us who we are; but what, exactly, consciousness is remains a mystery. Talk about not knowing yourself. The fashionable new field of consciousness studies -- which at this point is as primitive as physics was prior to Newton -- has given rise to practically as many theories of the mind as there are cells in the brain.

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Some say there is no mystery at all -- that consciousness studies is simply what students from the psychedelic '60s entertain themselves with now that they are the professors and researchers of the neural '90s. Skeptics say that science isn't even capable of dissecting this subjective phenomenon. And others proceed cautiously, equipped with the latest neuroimaging techniques and insight gleaned from case studies of neurological impairment (Alzheimer's, epilepsy, amnesia), in the process gradually learning the neurobiology behind the conscious self. Antonio Damasio, a renowned neuroscientist, belongs to this latter camp.

In his bestselling "Descartes' Error," Damasio illustrated the significance of emotion in reasoning, doing away with the Cartesian dualism of rationalist philosophy, which separated the body from the mind. In his new book, "The Feeling of What Happens," he fleshes out this premise and attempts to merge body and mind in a unified theory of consciousness. His central claim here: Consciousness is the feeling of what happens -- the mind noticing the body's reaction to stimuli.

There is a difference, he states, between a "feeling" and "knowing that we have a feeling"; we can have feelings without an awareness of them. His neurobiological breakdown of the way we achieve this feeling of a feeling, which he defends like a long, technical proof, forms the bulk of the book. The prose this time is less appropriate for a lay audience than for an academic one -- certainly you need a basic knowledge of the brain and an intense passion for the subject matter. It's not beach reading.

Consciousness is not a monolith. Damasio separates it into simple and complex kinds -- namely core consciousness (the fundamental feeling of knowing) and extended consciousness (what most theorists have in mind when addressing the higher-order glory of self-awareness). His breakthrough moment came when he saw consciousness in terms of two players, the organism and the object (e.g., an emotion), and of the relationship between those players.

One of the greatest challenges in consciousness studies is its inherent semantic confusion -- there isn't a shared lexicon to utilize. And though Damasio notes this problem, he adds to the turmoil by introducing several new terms (e.g., "proto-self") and using old ones like "emotion" and "feeling" in admittedly unconventional ways. Emotions, feelings of emotions, awareness of a feeling of an emotion -- this is obscure material, and his argument can be hard to follow.

Damasio seems to have taken a few intriguing case studies and unusual experiments and extrapolated a theory of consciousness from the scant though sometimes compelling evidence they offer. His metaphorical speculations are a necessary step toward decoding consciousness and providing a basis for future research. But have paradigms shifted as a result of this step? As Damasio himself would concede: no. It's far too early to tell whether his theory will hold up or perish like a fleeting image in the brain.

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Dan Stern

Dan Stern lives and writes in New York.

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