Home > Uncategorized > Antonio Damasio: The quest to understand consciousness

Antonio Damasio: The quest to understand consciousness

In this TED Video, about two thirds of the way through, he mentions something I didn’t know about the brain stem which I think supports both the idea of a sense-motive primitive in consciousness, and the idea that consciousness scales relativistically from being to being. He says:

“This is so specific that, for example, if you look at the part that is covered in red in the upper part of the brain stem, if you damage that as a result of a stroke, for example, what you get is coma or vegetative state, which is a state, of course, in which your mind disappears, your consciousness disappears. What happens then actually is that you lose the grounding of the self, you have no longer access to any feeling of your own existence, and, in fact, there can be images going on, being formed in the cerebral cortex, except you don’t know they’re there. You have, in effect, lost consciousness when you have damage to that red section of the brain stem.

But if you consider the green part of the brain stem, nothing like that happens. It is that specific. So in that green component of the brain stem, if you damage it, and often it happens, what you get is complete paralysis, but your conscious mind is maintained.”

I had previously posted this image which correlates the brain-spine morphology with head-tail morphology and implies an underlying isomorphism of concentric-polar or radial symmetry being related to afferent (inbound) perception and linear-projective or Cartesian x,y,z+t sequential relations being associated with outbound, efferent motives.

Even though we are so much larger and more sophisticated than mammalian gametes, this pattern of an active emitter and a passive collector remains surprisingly simple. The upper part of your brain stem gives you access to sense, the lower part lets your motives access your body (and by extension, the world).

As good as Damasio is at revealing the consequences of brain architecture, I think that he, and really everyone else that I have been paying attention to, are still unintentionally sweeping the hard problem under the carpet. In every case, possibility of awareness itself is taken for granted. Patterns have only to be present in the brain for us to assume that there would be some sort of ‘awareness’ of them as patterns and a capacity to ground that awareness somewhere else besides within the tissue of the brain. Sure, once you have a such thing as experience, we can understand how the brain can modulate, suppress, and organize that experience, but there is still no sign of anything that converts such quantitative neurological functions into anything other than what they seem to be in an MRI – groups of cells signalling each other. No different really than any organ except perhaps in sophistication.

To think about consciousness clearly, it is important to recognize the difference between the afferent-efferent (inbound-outbound) form of the communication and the sense-motive (qualia of afferent-efferent) content of experience. It is difficult to break the habit we have been acculturated to of seeing the world outside of our body as being the container of the self rather than the other way around, but with practice, we can begin to see how perception and experience have produced not just one world, but many worlds within worlds.

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