Last updated on 2nd February 2011
I wrote last week about "Antonio Damasio's 'Self comes to mind': overview" saying that I wanted to think a bit more about three of the areas covered in the book - "Emotions and the body", "Memory and the autobiographical self" and "Mindfulness, protoself, core and autobiographical self". I mentioned that a helpful Wikipedia article on Damasio states: "Damásio's most influential contribution to date is the demonstration that emotions play a critical role in high level cognition, an idea that ran counter to dominant 20th c. views in psychology, neuroscience and philosophy. He showed that emotions and their biological underpinnings are involved in decision-making (both positively and negatively, and often non-consciously); provide the scaffolding for the construction of social cognition; and are required for the self processes which undergird consciousness ... (an index of its relevance can be gleaned from the fact that Damásio has been named by the Institute of Scientific Information as one of the most highly cited researchers in the past decade) ... He recovered James' perspective on feelings as a read-out of body states ... His latest book is "Self comes to mind: constructing the conscious brain". In it Damásio suggests that the self is the key to conscious minds and that feelings, from the kind he designates as primordial to the well-known feelings of emotion, are the basic elements in the construction of the protoself and core self."
So what are some of the things that Damasio has to say about emotions and the body? On page 20 he states "Of the ideas advanced in this book, none is more central than the notion that the body is a foundation of the conscious mind ... the special kind of mental images of the body produced in body-mapping structures, constitute the protoself, which foreshadows the self to be ... the body is best conceived as the rock on which the protoself is built, while the protoself is the pivot around which the conscious mind turns." And he goes on to say "I hypothesize that the first and most elementary product of the protoself is primordial feelings, which occur spontaneously and continuously whenever one is awake. They provide a direct experience of one's own living body, wordless, unadorned, and connected to nothing but sheer existence ... all feelings of emotion are complex musical variations on primordial feelings."
And on page 34 we have "Multicellular organisms are made up of multiple, cooperatively organized unicellular organisms, which first arose from the combination of even smaller individual organisms ... If this ... makes you think of human societies, it is because it should. The resemblances are staggering ... The life of a single human organism is built of multitudes of simultaneous, well-articulated lives. As simple as they were and are, single cells had what appeared to be a decisive, unshakable determination to stay alive as long as the genes inside their microscopic nucleus commanded them to do so. The governance of their life included a stubborn insistence to remain, endure, and prevail ... Could it be that our very human conscious desire to live, our will to prevail, began as an aggregate of the inchoate wills of all the cells in our body, a collective voice set free in a song of affirmation?"
And (p.41) "What does it take for a living cell to stay alive? Quite simply it takes good housekeeping and good external relations, which is to say good management of the myriad problems posed by living ... Life is a precarious state, made possible only when a large number of conditions are met simultaneously within the body's interior. For example, in organisms such as ours, the amounts of oxygen and CO2 can vary only within a narrow range, as can the acidity of the bath in which chemical molecules of every sort travel from cell to cell (the pH). The same applies to temperature ... it also applies to the amount of fundamental nutrients in circulation - sugars, fats, proteins. We feel discomfort when the variations depart from the nice and narrow range, and we feel quite agitated if we go for a very long time without doing something about the situation. These mental states and behaviors are signs that the ironclad rules of life regulation are being disobeyed, they are prompts from the netherlands of nonconscious processing toward minded and conscious life, requesting us to find a reasonable solution for a situation that can no longer be managed by automatic, nonconscious devices ... Unfortunately, although the essentials of life regulation (the process of homeostasis) have been known for more than a century and are applied daily in general biology and medicine, their deeper significance in terms of neurobiology and psychology has not been appreciated."
So Damasio is suggesting that it's high time we more fully appreciated the psychological importance of the inner biochemical environment that is provided for the "society" of "multiple, cooperatively organized unicellular organisms" that we're made up of. I wrote a blog some time ago entitled "New research shows diet’s importance for preventing depression" where I said "What excellent news! We now have pretty solid reasons to recommend healthy diet as a way of reducing our risk of developing depression (and quite probably as a way of getting better if we are depressed). It adds a major extra component to the useful interventions we have for treating depression and - instead of potentially having unpleasant side-effects - it is an intervention that we should be encouraging everyone to make anyway because of the huge benefits provided by healthy diet for our physical health. See for example earlier blog posts on "Does healthy lifestyle really make a difference?", "Preventing cancer through life style choices" and "Would you like to be 14 years younger - it's largely a matter of choice!". Notice too that it isn't just the antidepressant effects of a good diet that we can recommend, we should also warn against the pro-depressant effects of a bad diet. This chimes with Westover & Marangell 2002 paper entitled "A cross-national relationship between sugar consumption and major depression?" and the recent, fairly chilling paper by Moore et al "Confectionary consumption in childhood and adult violence"."
And it isn't just food, alcohol too plays its part - see Fergusson et al's "Tests of Causal Links Between Alcohol Abuse or Dependence and Major Depression" - as too does smoking - see "Cigarette smoking and depression: tests of causal linkages using a longitudinal birth cohort." And while we're mentioning internal environment-psychology links, exercise seems relevant as well - "Prospective study of cardiorespiratory fitness and depressive symptoms in women and men" - as too does the broader issue of subclinical systemic inflammation "Association of high-sensitivity C-reactive protein with de novo major depression." "Mens sana in corpore sano" - "A sound mind in a sound body". And more than that ... our brain is part of our body ... our body, Damasio argues, is a foundation of the conscious mind, the rock on which the protoself is built. And the continuous "primordial feelings" emerging from the protoself are a direct experience of our own living bodies with emotions as "complex musical variations on primordial feelings."
See the next post on Damasio's recent book for more on "Emotions and the body".