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Pondering

Damasio’s anecdote in “Stepping into the Light” involving the patient who was “bodily present but personally unaccounted for, absent without leave” made me wonder about other situations in which our consciousness if affected while in a waking state. In my experience of witnessing panic attacks, there seems to be some parallels in that certain functions work but others are absent. The panic attack leaves motor functions present but seems to paralyze the conscious and awaken the subconscious. I say this because the person I have observed while experiencing a panic attack seemed to lose her sense of self and completely lose her capacities to the overwhelming fear that enveloped her. At times she is unable to describe the fear (after the fact) but it comes on anyway. Very frequently she would experience anxiety attacks and have absolutely no understanding of what had inspired them. Back to the panic attacks though, it seemed that she could possibly hurt herself and others because she was so absent from her very functional body. While the same as the patient having an absence seizure, there definitely seems to be levels of consciousness that are affected by different stimuli.

Reading through the Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain is leaving me without a lot of general questions and also whimsical pondering. I thought I could include them here to see if anyone else shared my questions or had responses to them. I will go through my comments and questions in order.

On page 5, Damasio describes, with fear, the possibility that evolution could have possibly not led humans down the road to consciousness. He rightfully points out that, as unconscious beings, we would be unaware of our plight and loss which leads me to think that blissfully ignorant would not have been so terrible either. My pessimistic thoughts have two origins: first, the earth would probably have been in a much better state had we not had the capability to invent so many objects that cause it harm. Secondly, consciousness allows us to experience both pleasure and pain and to understand the differences between them, a juxtaposition I respect. However, consciousness is also what allows human cruelty to run rampant and for people to inflict untold suffering on one another. There is much to delight in, as demonstrated by his personal attraction to Bach piano paritas and Venice’s Grand Canal, however, where does the scale tip between the positives of the beauty humans have created and the horrors we constantly perpetuate?

Page 25 and page 61, as well as the reading from last week all discussed the idea that our conscious is a step behind our bodies’ stimuli to create a physical motion. The significance of our consciousness being behind is the possibility that free will does not exist. The article was the only reference to explicitly state this but Damasio seems to insinuate the idea when he writes “the oddest thing about the upper reaches of consciousness performance is the conspicuous absence of a conductor before the performance begins, although, as the performance unfolds, a conductor comes into being” (25). I may have misinterpreted this line, in which case, I welcome the explanations of others. The other instance is his description of the C. elegens, a worm. Damasio describes their survival habits but informs us “they do not really know what they are doing, let alone why” (61). The worms’ ability to respond to its environment and respond without self or outside awareness intrigues me because it does beg the question of whether free will exists or if we are just programmed. The way Damasio describes the evolution of the self is that we are able to make our own plans, “permit offline planning and deliberative thinking,” however, how much control do we really have? (62).

The last idea (I have many comments throughout the margins but this getting rather lengthy) that I will talk about is the measurement of human intelligence. My interest comes from Damasio’s statement that “It turns out that living creatures without any brain at all, down to single cells, exhibit seemingly intelligent and purposeful behavior as well” (34). The western world often puts very specific and quantifiable measurements to determine intelligence as if intelligence measurements are based upon a specific function or can be limited to a few skill tests. I think his statement is incredibly significant in its potential implications for how we interpret intelligence. Sheer extreme survival skills are an important form of intelligence that is often ignored, belittled, or as he said, underappreciated. How do others interpret this Damasio’s short statement on intelligence in brainless beings?

 

OK, I’m done. I apologize for writing so much.

 

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3 Responses to Pondering

  1. Justin – Your last few sentences about machines, survival, free will, and consciousness are pretty thought provoking. Thanks for making those points here.

  2. Hi Yael, I really appreciate your bringing up the issue of “free will”. Of Damasio’s saying “the oddest thing about the upper reaches of consciousness performance is the conspicuous absence of a conductor before the performance begins, although, as the performance unfolds, a conductor comes into being”, my interpretation is that he is making the point that self is not a preexistent entity but a process inherent in the flux of our mental images.

    I am also curious about Damasio’s stance on free will. He seems to affirm some sort of free will when he claims that consciousness is a powerful device of imaging making and manipulating for organisms possessing consciousness to act effectively to maintain life balance and staving off enviromental dangers (“Stepping into the Light”, pp.23-24). His usage of word “manipulation” suggests some sort of control and self-awareness. But I suspect that a well-programmed machine will be also able to act effectively to survive in the complex surroundings, though presumably it has no consciousness. If so, it follows that consciousness is not really necessary for life regulation and survival, nor is free will.

  3. Jeff says:

    On the free will thing. The delay in the experiment was less then 30 seconds. Maybe that is one of the reasons people say count to ten befor you say something you might regret.

    Personally I’ve experienced anxiety attacks though not in recent history. My experience was not being able to breath. They scared the hell out of me but I have no memory of losing consciousness. The worse was when I got one in the ocean about 200 yards from the boat. But in all of them I remained conscious. Just very afraid. Ativan and a lot off therapy was a great help.

    One observation. I can not see how understanding Damasio theory of consciousness could have helped me solve my panic attacks. Jeff Vree

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