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Damasio’s birth of knowing

In “Stepping Into the Light,” Damasio says “At its simplest… consciousness lets us recognize an irresistible urge to stay alive and develop a concern for the self. At its most complex… consciousness helps us develop a concern for other selves and improve the art of life.” It seems to me that much of Damasio’s ideas are filling a space of naming things that many people can intuitively nod their heads to, but that may have not been filled in before his naming them (within such a linear, definition-based system). This naming acts as a “kicking the ball down the field,” so to speak, as part of a larger conversation that will happen around and after what he has to say in these two pieces we are reading for today’s class. His naming things as he does can only help, in my opinion, as the technology and research from various disciplines, groups of experts, and experiences are all built into a more specific body of knowledge toward sussing out self and consciousness.

In my opinion, the first of Damasio’s most interesting points from “Stepping Into the Light” is that “consciousness and emotion are not separable.” The second is that the different levels of self (proto, core, and autobiographical) are stacked so that the proto acts as a base for the core, and the proto and core as bases for the autobiographical. Similarly, he triangulates mind, body, and brain such that all three are necessary for true consciousness. His discussion of consciousness as the device that people possess to maximize life management in a complex environment, enabling forethought and potential life/path planning, is also interesting (and fraught with complication, as many of the other blog posts point out regarding discussing evolution). 

In the solo chapter, Damasio’s argument/proof method is much more clear and linear than in Self Comes to Mind, probably because the latter came out many years later and inevitably uses his previous work as a foundation that he’s since built upon, and to which he adds more research and information from other people in various fields surrounding him. In this sense, I found the solo chapter less dense and more digestible.  Overall, I might agree with Damasio that consciousness “prevailed in evolution because knowing the feelings caused by emotions was so indispensable for the art of life,…” but his last words in the chapter, which say that he is comfortable with someone taking that to mean that “consciousness was invented so that we could know life,” immediately made me ask the question: how? Is Damasio saying our bodies invented this consciousness? 

Another question I had after finishing this solo chapter is: if how we feel toward something can affect behavior (good/bad), and our bodies feel certain ways and then act as changed by those feelings, what would Damasio say about when a person’s value systems are confused by NURTURE? As Damasio points out (and with which I very much agree), it seems difficult to look at these biological and chemical questions of self and consciousness without looking at people’s broader life management categories, including psychology and sociology. (Another question which many of today’s blog posts bring up… that isolating parts of this discussion without toggling back and forth from a more macro perspective might do it a disservice.)

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One Response to Damasio’s birth of knowing

  1. Jason Tougaw says:

    I think Damasio would put nurture (or environment) in the “object” category. So he would say that we are continuously “modified” through our relationships with objects (including mothers, colors, books, pennies, the sound of traffic…)

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