A Mind on its Own

In the first few chapters of the books The Feeling of What Happens and Self Comes to Mind, Antonio Damasio takes on the mystery of consciousness by grounding his answers to the biological foundation of the mind. Of particular interest is the idea of the body’s need to ensure homeostasis. Not only does it provide a platform to explain feelings such as pain and pleasure to keep humans within the life-supporting zone but it also gives this management, the mind, a goal, or a purpose so to speak. However with that platform the’s mind purpose seems to have extended beyond the need to maintain the body within its comfort zone and now includes its own interests as well. The mind, having been at first introduced as a tool to help keep the body within its homeostasis state, has outgrown its evolutionary function and became a purpose in itself. It is at this transition that I think Damasio’s explanations fall somewhat short. If natural selection remained in control, it would not have allowed the mind to put the body at risk. Yet people go to war. In what way does going to war, and not simply self-defense, help the body maintain its homeostasis state? Similarly, the body is indifferent to the amount of wealth a person owns as long as it is enough to survive. But the mind seems endlessly preoccupied with finding ways to increase wealth and forces the body to work harder and longer than needed. The body obeys and in doing so risks its wellbeing. Another example is education. How does the body compel the mind to pursue an education, or is it rather the other way around? Is it the mind that dictates the body to go to school? To be sure, Damasio did say that human conscious mind has taken evolution in a new course by providing us with choices and by making relatively complex sociocultural regulation. But when he extrapolated the mind’s life regulation function to include other organisms in societies and subsequently the rise of culture, he undermined the link between the mind and its biological origin in evolution. It is this biological underpinning that is the premise with which Damasio seeks to demystify consciousness.  But once the mind engages in matters that have little to do with keeping the body safe to enhance reproductive success, then what we have is sort of a floating mind detached from the body and without relation to Damasio’s view of a mind. In other words, if the mind does not serve its role in natural selection, then why is it there for? The question as to how the human mind evolved to its current state is ultimately not the question that generates the mystery of consciousness. We can safely assume that when we talk about the evolution of the human body it includes the mind as well. It is this floating mind, one that seems to have a life on its own often in defiance of its original purpose in natural selection, that is closer to the mystery of consciousness and the little man, the homunculus, inside us.

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3 Responses to A Mind on its Own

  1. Jason Tougaw says:

    You’re right to notice that the question of evolution here is tricky. Complex traits are difficult to account for in evolutionary terms. Even the opposable thumb functions in a variety of ways. Some of these may have evolved and some may be accidental benefits–what evolutionary theorists sometimes call spandrels (http://coo.fieldofscience.com/2008/08/inevitable-spandrels-on-biology-blog.html). If we’re talking about complex human experiences–emotion, consciousness, sexuality, selfhood–the variables are just too many to trace. I’m always wary when somebody makes an argument for a single evolutionary explanation for traits like these. It feels like common sense to think of consciousness as a useful advantage in terms of endowing us with the ability to think about our own states and make choices about how to navigate our environments. Nonetheless, when Damasio writes about “sociocultural” matters, he gets fairly vague and admits happily that he’s speculating. Speculation is valuable, so long as we know that’s what we’re doing.

  2. Liz and Berni, I feel not very comfortable with Damasio’s evolutionist story. If the ultimate purpose for all organisms is to attain biological value by persistently pursuing life homeostasis individually and collectively, why must consciousness emerge as a result? Why risk allowing the emergence of “higher-order” conscious organisms (e.g. human beings) which may well die off someday (like because of a nuclear war) and destroy the whole homeostasis, when “lower-order” non-conscious organisms (e.g. bacteria) could have achieved the purpose fairly well.

  3. Liz Foley says:

    Berni, I like your point about how evolved human consciousness often seems to break away from its original life-regulating purpose into societal behaviors that paradoxically undermine homeostasis, like war, or that seem to have no immediate relation to its maintenance, like education. I noticed that the latter half of Self Comes to Mind, unlike the biologically focused section we read, is devoted to the experience and implications of having consciousness, including subchapters dealing with things like justice, nature and culture. This is probably where Damasio looks at collective cultural behaviors like engaging in war.

    Without having read this section I shouldn’t attempt to guess what Damasio’s take on sociocultural behaviors might be, but I’ll offer the observation that war is generally undertaken in an attempt to maintain or improve homeostasis for a society at large (with understanding and acceptance of the fact that it will likely prove detrimental or fatal to the homeostasis of individuals). The official rationale a government offers for war (taking a moral stance against slavery, defending itself against terrorism) might not match the de facto motivation (economic recalibration, preservation of interests in regions rich in key resources), but these rationales all share a common theme/goal of defending or bettering an existing societal homeostasis.

    Wealth-seeking and education, meanwhile, might not offer immediate support to our bodily homeostasis, but our conscious minds recognize that pursuing these things is likely to benefit that homeostasis in the long term, whether that’s achieved by being able to afford expensive organic food, being able to move out of a crime-ridden neighborhood, earning credentials that increase our likelihood of obtaining satisfying work, or simply feeling more at ease in the world because we feel we understand it better. It’s one of the ironies of civilization that there are millions of ways in which our conscious attempts to better our state can go awry en route, but Damasio would probably agree that our ability to consciously intervene in our own homeostatic processes, and to make short-term homeostatic sacrifices in the service of longer-term homeostatic gains, is the privilege and curse of a highly evolved consciousness.

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