Damasio and Lieberman

While both have their root in neuroscience, Matthew Lieberman and Antonio Damasio differ about the idea of Self. Damasio sees the Self as an elaborated tool the brain concocts to ensure the hemostasis of an organism within an environment in which its physiological needs take precedence over its social needs. Lieberman on the other hand places the emphasis on the organism’s social environment. As the brain is wired to connect with other people, Lieberman argues, the Self ought to be the result of such a connection as a means to ensure group living. Their difference can be seen in Abraham Maslow’ hierarchy of needs. While the hierarchy would fit Damasio’s view of the Self, which prioritizes human’s physiological needs, it clearly does not work for Lieberman: “Food, water and shelter are not the most basic needs for an infant. Instead, being socially connected and cared for is paramount.” Both ideas are backed by findings in neuroscience and yet their conclusions about the origin of the Self are incompatible or contradictory even. The problem may be with their different understanding of consciousness. Damasio proposes a two-stage consciousness that began as a core consciousness then expanded into an autobiographical one. Lieberman however undermines Damasio’s view by showing that the default status of the brain is to think of others instead of oneself, to see the world in terms of social and mental elements rather than physical elements. He calls it mentalizing. So if mentalizing is the default condition of the brain at rest then it doesn’t fit Damasio’s view of a primordial core consciousness, which if anything is ego centric. Damasio’s idea of a core consciousness makes more sense to me but Lieberman’s research is more recent. The latter’s view also reminds me of the more philosophical approach to the problem of Self. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in their book Anti Oedipus, Capitalism and Schizophrenia see the Self as the construct of society and Marx argues that there is no human subject outside of social relation. Deleuze, Guattari and Marx based their argument on their understanding of society while Lieberman arrives to a similar conclusion by looking at the brain (and citing Nietsche). And this is where Lieberman falls short. If society were to form the Self, then looking at the brain does not hold the real answer to his question why our brain is wired to be connected. The brain is merely a tool through which signals from the outside pass and the recording of these signals year after year results in a sediment we call identity. Why create this complex individual, a Self, when the brain’s only function is to ensure group living? It would be more efficient for evolution to keep the Self to a minimum to ensure maximum conformity. As Lieberman’s research suggests, the answer appears to be out there, not in the brain.




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