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Antonio Damasio’s “Self comes to mind”: memory and the autobiographical self 1

"Why shouldn't truth be stranger than fiction?  Fiction, after all, has to make sense."  Mark Twain 

I wrote last month 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 his recent book - "Emotions and the body", "Memory and the autobiographical self" and "Mindfulness, protoself, core and autobiographical self".  I subsequently posted on "Emotions and the body 1" and "Emotions and the body 2".  I'd now like to say a little about "Memory and the autobiographical self".  In order to do so, I think it's helpful to talk first about Antonio Damasio's hypothesized triad of Protoself, Core Self and Autobiographical Self.  He argues that these three "levels" of the Self emerge sequentially in evolution because they promote adaptation and successful survival.

As I noted in "Emotions and the body 1", Damasio writes on page 20 "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 later in the book (p.190) he states "The protoself is the stepping-stone required for construction of the core self.  It is an integrated collection of separate neural patterns that map, moment by moment, the most stable aspects of the organism's physical structure ... from an anatomical standpoint, these maps arise both from the brain stem and from the cortical regions.  The basic state of the protoself is an average of its interoceptive component and its sensory portals component.  The integration of all these diverse and spatially distributed maps takes place by cross-signaling within the same time window.  It does not require a single brain site where the diverse components would be remapped".

And then on page 201, Damasio writes on "Constructing the core self" saying "In thinking about a strategy to construct the self, it is appropriate to start with the requirements of the core self.  The brain needs to introduce into the mind something that was not present before, namely, a protagonist.  Once a protagonist is available in the midst of other mind contents, and once that protagonist is coherently linked to some of the current mind contents, subjectivity begins to inhere in the process.  We need to concentrate first on the protagonist's threshold, the point at which the indispensable elements of knowledge agglutinate, so to speak, to yield subjectivity ... when it comes to the complex mental lives that both you and I are experiencing at this very moment ... protoself and primordial feelings are not enough to account for the self phenomenon we are generating.  The protoself and primordial feelings are the likely foundation of the material me and are, in all probability, an important and peak manifestation of consciousness in numerous living species.  But we need some intermediate self process placed between the protoself and its primordial feelings, on the one hand, and the autobiographical selves that give us our sense of personhood and identity, on the other.  Something critical must change in the very state of the protoself for it to become a self in the proper sense, that is, a core self."  And he continues "As I see it, the critical change of the protoself comes from its moment-to-moment engagement as caused by any object perceived.  The engagement occurs in close temporal proximity to the sensory processing of the object.  Anytime the organism encounters an object, any object, the protoself is changed by the encounter.  This is because, in order to map the object, the brain must adjust the body in a suitable way, and because the results of those adjustments as well as the content of the mapped image are signaled to the protoself." 

It is here, Damasio, proposes that the core self emerges - "Changes in the protoself inaugurate the momentary creation of the core self and initiate a chain of events.  The first event in the chain is a transformation in the primordial feeling that results in a 'feeling of knowing the object,' a feeling that differentiates the object from other objects of the moment.  The second event in the chain is a consequence of the feeling of knowing.  It is a generation of 'saliency' for the engaging object, a process generally subsumed by the term 'attention', a drawing of processing resources toward one particular object more than others.  The core self, then, is created by linking the modified protoself to the object that caused the modification, an object that has now been hallmarked by feeling and enhanced by attention ... the nonverbal narrative of such perpetually occurring events spontaneously portrays in the mind the fact that there is a protagonist to whom certain events are happening, that protagonist being the material me.  The portrayal in the nonverbal narrative simultaneously creates and reveals the protagonist, connects the actions being produced by the organism to that same protagonist, and, along with feeling generated by engaging with the object, engenders a sense of ownership ... the self comes to mind in the form of images, relentlessly telling a story of engagements." 

More to follow ...


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