1 Let's not overestimate or underestimate consciousness
Consciousness is often overestimated in the modern times. We may find a source for that in the Bible, because science, one important feature of the modern times, has been established by appropriating the God's view; Humans have learned to see the world as if God viewed it. Humans in the modern times, at least many educated ones, have their secularized version of God in their cognition.
Genesis 1: 27 says: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them". Modern humans, much under the influence of Western civilization, have their own image in the image of a secularized God: omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent. Omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence are the modern ideal of science and technology. It is not surprising, I'd argue, if many of us think of ourselves along this line.
Our sense of ourselves are made in the arena of consciousness. "We" are often conscious we. This is probably part of the reason why Freud's unconsciousness shocked many Europeans. The neuroscience's discovery of nonconsciousness, deeper than unconsciousness and undetectable by consciousness, has still been shocking us, inviting ethical and legal discussions. Yet, when unaffected by these findings, our ordinary concept of ourselves is that we, the conscious being, are, in our own world of cognition and action, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent: We believe (or want to believe) that we know ourselves, control ourselves and our consciousness is present everywhere in ourselves.
A simple failure in dieting tells us otherwise. We don't know ourselves or control ourselves, at least completely; our consciousness does not cover ourselves entirely. We need a better understanding of ourselves, our consciousness of course included. We should stop overestimating the power of consciousness.
Here's Damasio explaining his agenda. He is against the modern tradition of viewing consciousness predominantly.
I am reversing the narrative sequence of the traditional account of consciousness by having covert knowledge of life management precede the conscious experience of any such knowledge. (p. 35)
But at the same time, we should avoid underestimating consciousness. That is why reading a book like Antonio Damasio's Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain constitutes an important part of education in modern (or post-modern) times.
Because our cognition and action are largely constituted by the brain, we need to understand its basic constituent: neurons. Neurons are a special type of cells in that they "produce electrochemical signals capable of changing the state of other cells (p. 37)." Neurons, a part of the body themselves, represents the body.
In the elaborate brains of complex creatures, however, networks of neurons eventually come to mimic the structure of parts of the body to which they belong. They end up representing the state of the body, literally mapping the body for which they work and constituting a sort of virtual surrogate of it, a neural double. (p. 38)
In other words, neurons are about the body (p. 39), and this "aboutness", or representational capacity, makes the body a "natural topic of the mind" (p. 89). Damasio further suggests:
as far as the brain is concerned, the body proper is more than just any object: it is the central object of brain mapping, the very first focus of its attentions. (p. 92)
The body needs the central topic of the brain indeed, for our most important task, survival, depends upon maintaining the homeostasis of the body, and for that purpose the brain needs information about the body (Homeostasis can be maintained in a brainless life system, but such a system cannot cope with an irregular change that requires special care). Given its significance, neurons' information of the body "could ever have been translated into a minded, conscious will." (p. 39) We had consciousness for a better chance of survival in our evolution.
1.2 Mind, body and objects
In addition to the central topic, the body, the brain of course has other important topics that are significant for its survival: objects in the outside world. The brain should recognize them and hopefully keep the memory of them. But the memory is not just an 'objective' snapshot; it is (indeed must be) related to us, the body and the brain.
The organism (the body and its brain) interacts with objects, and the brain reacts to the interaction. Rather than making a record of an entity’s structure, the brain actually records the multiple consequences of the organism’s interactions with the entity. (p. 132)
What we normally refer to as the memory of an object is the composite memory of the sensory and motor activities related to the interaction between the organism and the object during a certain period of time. (p. 133)
Our memories are not 'objective' ("not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased" Random House Dictionary).
Our memories are prejudiced, in the full sense of the term, by our past history and beliefs. Perfectly faithful memory is a myth, applicable only to trivial objects. The notion that the brain ever holds anything like an isolated “memory of the object” seems untenable. The brain holds a memory of what went on during an interaction, and the interaction importantly includes our own past, and often the past of our biological species and of our culture. (p. 133)
So, what we consciously sense is not just about things (objects in the world) or ourselves (the body), but the interactions between the objects, the body and the brain. Consciousness is not a mirror of the world. It is about its being with itself and other things.
Here we have one definition of consciousness.
consciousness is a state of mind in which there is knowledge of one’s own existence and of the existence of surroundings. Consciousness is a state of mind -- if there is no mind there is no consciousness; consciousness is a particular state of mind, enriched by a sense of the particular organism in which a mind is operating; and the state of mind includes knowledge to the effect that the said existence is situated, that there are objects and events surrounding it. Consciousness is a state of mind with a self process added to it.
The interaction between the body and the objects causes some changes in the body, and those changes are represented in neurons in the brain (p. 91). But what is the point of the representation? One, which we confirmed, is that conscious awareness of the significant changes in the body is advantageous for survival, particularly for irregular changes. Another point is the memory. Representation allows a past event, which is gone now, to be recorded in the brain. By having a brain with the representational capacity, humans ceased to be an animal of just 'here and now'. They learned to use the information of the past for a present purpose. They became a historical being, with its time extended from 'now' to remembered pasts.
But representation can extend our time into the other direction: future. The other advantage of the representation is that it can be rearranged so that the brain can simulate a possible move in the future.
the brain can simulate, within somatosensing regions, certain body states, as if they were occurring; and because our perception of any body state is rooted in the body maps of the somatosensing regions, we perceive the body state as actually occurring even if it is not. (pp. 101-102).
By this simulation, we can rehearse a possible course of actions and avoid the risk of the actual trial and error. (Please read my essay "Prospective Consciousness" if you're interested). Damasio argues that the mirror neurons is another type of simulation using the representational capacity of the brain.
So-called mirror neurons are, in effect, the ultimate as-if body device. The network in which those neurons are embedded achieves conceptually what I hypothesized as the as-if body loop system: the simulation, in the brain’s body maps, of a body state that is not actually taking place in the organism. (p. 103)
The brain that is both embodied in the body and embedded in the surrounding world can represent itself (i.e., the interaction between the world, the body and itself). It can use the representation for recalling the past experience and for simulating possible future scenarios.
1.3 A first stage and a second stage as a self-reference of the first
Damasio further elaborates the issues of consciousness by introducing the concepts of disposition and image, of emotion and feeling, of mind and self, among other concepts. I try to summarize these concepts below, but the way I understand the concepts is that these pair concepts are not mutually exclusive or complementary; they are pairs of one and another, the latter being a self-reference of the former.
The first item (disposition, emotion, or mind) is a stage onto which the second item is self-referentially augmented. The first item is not replaced by the second, but rather, supplemented. But it is not just an addition of a distinct unit. The second item is the result of a self-reference (or reentry, if you prefer) of the first item: Image is a self-reference of disposition; feeling is a self-reference of emotion; and self is a self-reference of mind.
So I give my version of summary of the concepts of disposition/image, emotion/feeling and mind/self in the frame work of self-reference.
2 Disposition and image
We have image as a self-reference of disposition. Let's start from explaining disposition.
2.1 Implicit disposition
Humans were not conscious beings for a long time before they became conscious (Read my summary of Julian Jayne's argument, if you like.) Early humans acted largely on their implicit memories. Humans acted in some way or another for survival and they did not exactly know what they were doing. They acted upon dispositions.
Our memories of things, of properties of things, of people and places, of events and relationships, of skills, of life-management processes -- in short all of our memories, inherited from evolution and available at birth or acquired through learning thereafter -- exist in our brains in dispositional form, waiting to become explicit images or actions. Our knowledge base is implicit, encrypted, and unconscious. (p. 144)
Just like other animals learn to go away from a hit, for example, early humans learned to move away from a hit. The learning was a very simple one of disposition.
What was needed was a detection of the hit, a command device, and the ability to move. That’s all. What seems to have been represented by these brain ensembles is not maps but rather dispositions, know-how formulas that code for something like this: if hit from one side, move in the opposite direction for X number of seconds, regardless of the object hitting you or of where you are. (p. 134).
Damasio states that dispositions are non-linguistic or pre-linguistic. They are not represented linguistically or explicitly. They are rather a prerequisite for linguistic expressions in the first place.
Dispositions are not words; they are abstract records of potentialities. The basis for the enactment of words or signs also exists as dispositions before they come to life in the form of images and actions, as in the production of speech or sign language. The rules with which we put words and signs together, the grammar of a language, are also held as dispositions. (p. 144)
[By the way, pedagogical grammar, one of my current academic interests, is a linguistic device to help learners produce their target language. Uncritical assumption of pedagogical grammar would be that the meta-language in pedagogical grammar of the object language (i.e. the target language) would contribute to the production of the object/target language. However, if the above quotation is correct, the contribution should not be a direct one. It is dispositions, not meta-language, that produces the target language. I'd like to give more thought on this issue on another occasion. ]
2.2 Image as a general term for mental representation
As humans became conscious (and also linguistic) --the exact origin of consciousness and language is another big issue --, they began to represent their learned dispositions. Damasio calls the representations maps.
when the possibility of maps arose, organisms were able to go beyond formulaic responses and respond instead on the basis of the richer information now available in the maps. The quality of management improved accordingly. (p. 135)
Maps are not a replacement of dispositions. Maps (and their images -- I'll explain about the terminology soon) are representation based upon disposition (hence self-reference). In modern humans like us, both dispositions and maps are in operation.
The fascinating fact, then, is that the brain did not discard its true and tried device (dispositions) in favor of the new invention (maps and their images). (p. 135)
Maps, as representation of disposition, tells the brain, the owner of disposition, information about itself for better uses of dispositions.
When the brain makes maps, it informs itself. The information contained in the maps can be used nonconsciously to guide motor behavior efficaciously, a most desirable consequence considering that survival depends on taking the right action. (p. 63)
The evolution does not stop here. Maps, neural representations, turn into images, mental representations, enabling the brain to use them consciously. Immediately after the quotation above, Damasio continues:
But when brains make maps, they are also creating images, the main currency of our minds. Ultimately consciousness allows us to experience maps as images, to manipulate those images, and to apply reasoning to them. (p. 63)
Images, according to Damasio, are the principal media of mind.
images are the main currency of our minds, and that the term refers to patterns of all sensory modalities, not just visual, and to abstract as well as concrete patterns. (p. 160)
In terminology, some people, including Damasio himself in the past, may feel it necessary to distinguish maps and images.
A brief note on terminology: I used to be strict about using the term image only as a synonym of mental pattern or mental image, and the term neural pattern or map to refer to a pattern of activity in the brain as distinct from the mind. (p. 64-65)
However, for someone who stands on physicalism, the employment of two terms, one for the mental and the other for the neural (or physiological), is just aspect dualism.
I was simply indulging in aspect dualism and discussing the way things appear, on their experiential surface. But, of course, so did my friend Spinoza, the standard-bearer for monism, the very opposite of dualism.
But why complicate matters, for myself and for the reader, by using separate terms to refer to two things that I believe to be equivalent? Throughout this book, I use the terms image, map, and neural pattern almost interchangeably. (p. 55)
So we also use the term image for the representation in the brain, both neural and mental. What we experience is mapped in neurons, and what is mapped become images in our consciousness.
A spectacular consequence of the brain’s incessant and dynamic mapping is the mind. The mapped patterns constitute what we, conscious creatures, have come to know as sights, sounds, touches, smells, tastes, pains, pleasures, and the like--in brief, images. (p. 70)
To go back again to the contrast of disposition and image, the former is implicit and the latter is explicit. As perceived representations, images are explicit and we have easy access to and manipulation of them, whereas dispositions are mostly undetected by our consciousness.
The contents exhibited in the image space are explicit, while the contents of the dispositional space are implicit. We can access the contents of images, if we are conscious, but we never access the contents of dispositions directly. Of necessity, the contents of dispositions are always unconscious. They exist in encrypted and dormant form. (p. 143)
3 Emotion and feeling
The second pair of concepts in the self-referential relation is that of emotion and feeling. Let's start from the fundamental one, emotion.
In my understanding, what Damasio means by emotion in contrast with feeling is true with what the word suggests etymologically: emotion derives from motion.
[A linguistic note for Japanese readers: A translation of emotion is 「情動」 and this expresses the meaning of motion nicely with the character 「動」. A translation of feeling ('feeling of emotion', actually, as I'll turn to soon) is 「感情」 and this neatly captures of the sense of 'feeling of emotion' (「感-情」as the feeling (感） of e-motoion (情-動)）. Incidentally, when a Japanese speaker directly senses an emotion, she experiences 「感-動」(feel-ing the e-motion). An interesting match with Damasionian terminology. ]
Emotion is from a motion, or a reaction in the body when something happens to us. It starts from a very basic biological reaction for survival, the most important value for a life.
A discussion of emotions entails an investigation of the extremely varied devices of life regulation available in brains but inspired by principles and goals that anteceded brains and that, by and large, operate automatically and somewhat blindly, until they begin to be known to conscious minds in the form of feelings. Emotions are the dutiful executors and servants of the value principle, the most intelligent offspring yet of biological value. (p. 108)
What happens to us is of course not just a physical matter; A physical event almost always accompanies our cognitive event. So emotion affects us cognitively as well .
Emotions are complex, largely automated programs of actions concocted by evolution. The actions are complemented by a cognitive program that includes certain ideas and modes of cognition, but the world of emotions is largely one of actions carried out in our bodies, from facial expressions and postures to changes in viscera and internal milieu. (p. 109)
[Note: 'Reaction' is an 'action' to a "previous condition" (Collins English Dictionary). I believe the "actions" in the above quotation is interchangeable with "reaction". ]
Emotion as a (re)action is felt when it is conspicuous; This is when feeling (as 'feeling of emotion' or 'emotional feeling') starts.
Feelings of emotion, on the other hand, are composite perceptions of what happens in our body and mind when we are emoting. As far as the body is concerned, feelings are images of actions rather than actions themselves; the world of feelings is one of perceptions executed in brain maps. (p. 109)
Here is how Damasio explains the distinction between emotion and feeling.
While emotions are actions accompanied by ideas and certain modes of thinking, emotional feelings are mostly perceptions of what our bodies do during the emoting, along with perceptions of our state of mind during that same period of time. In simple organisms capable of behavior but without a mind process, emotions can be alive and well, but states of emotional feeling may not necessarily follow. (p. 110)
Because feeling is a perception of (and in) our mind/body being, feeling also includes the feeling of our being in a most fundamental way. The fundamental feeling is called by Damasio priomordial feeling, that becomes the basis of our sense of being and subjectivity.
the feeling of what happens is not the whole story. There is some deeper feeling to be guessed and then found in the depths of the conscious mind. It is the feeling that my own body exists, and it is present, independently of any object with which it interacts, as a rock-solid, wordless affirmation that I am alive. This fundamental feeling, which I had not deemed necessary to note in earlier approaches to this problem, I now introduce as a critical element of the self process. I call it primordial feeling, and I note that it has a definite quality, a valence, somewhere along the pleasure-to-pain range. (p. 185)
So fundamental are primordial feelins that Damasio argues that all feelings of emotions are extensions of the primordial feelings.
All feelings of emotion are variations of the ongoing primordial feelings. All feelings caused by the interaction of objects with the organism are variations of the ongoing primordial feelings. Primordial feelings and their emotional variations generate an observant chorus that accompanies all other images going on in the mind. (p. 193)
Feelings, from the primordial to the extended, make a firm ground of the sense of being, subjectivity, ownership of the feelings, personhood, agency, personal identity and so on. To talk about these, we have to introduce the notion of self, which is a product of a self-reference of mind.
4 Mind and self
4.1 Consciousness in realtion to mind and self
So I explain mind and self in this section. But how are they related to consciousness. Are they different or not? Let's start from clarifying the relationship between mind and consciousness.
Mind as a functional mechanism of congnition and action needs not to be conscious, as is clear in the case of simpler life systems. We know about our mind only after we have consciousness.
Mind is a most natural result of evolution, and it is largely nonconscious, internal, and unrevealed. It comes to be known thanks to the narrow window of consciousness. (p. 177)
The functions of mind is perceived in consciousness, but in that conscious awareness, we find something that senses the functions of mind. The process of that finding is to be called self. Self is something emerges internally. It is not clear or distinct as an entity in the outside world, but it is there in mind.
Consciousness offers a direct experience of mind, but the broker of the experience is a self, which is an internal and imperfectly constructed informer rather than an external, reliable observer. (p. 177)
(We may say that self is an internal process of observing ourselves -- please read my previous essay "Where is Self, and what is it?" No, it's rather "How is Self?": Luhmann's theory of autopoiesis").
We may say consciousness and self come almost at the same time to mind. And then self develops in some stages according to the degree of consciousness involved.
Below is Damasio's hypothesis of the construction of self, divided into two parts. The first part is about the construction of self in a general sense: Self is a process that takes place in a conscious mind where it finds itself.
The hypothesis comes in two parts. The first specifies that the brain constructs consciousness by generating a self process within an awake mind. The essence of the self is a focusing of the mind on the material organism that it inhabits. Wakefulness and mind are indispensable components of consciousness, but the self is the distinctive element. (p. 181)
In the second part of his hypothesis, Damasio introduces three stages of self: protoself, core self, and autobiographical self:
The simplest stage emerges from the part of the brain that stands for the organism (the protoself) and consists of a gathering of images that describe relatively stable aspects of the body and generate spontaneous feelings of the living body (primordial feelings). The second stage results from establishing a relationship between the organism (as represented by the protoself) and any part of the brain that represents an object-to-be-known. The result is the core self. The third stage allows multiple objects, previously recorded as lived experience or as anticipated future, to interact with the protoself and produce an abundance of core self pulses. The result is the autobiographical self. (p. 181).
Let's take a closer look of these three types of self in the following three sub-sections.
Protoself is mostly related to the primordial feelings.
The protoself is the stepping-stone required for the 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. The protoself maps are distinctive in that they generate not merely body images but also felt body images. These primordial feelings of the body are spontaneously present in the normal awake brain. (p. 191)
Protoself that is felt leaves in us something undeniable, that must be there at all time as long as we are we.
The protoself is a collection of maps that remains connected interactively with its source, a deep root that cannot be alienated. (p. 200)
4.3 Core self
Core self is a development of protoself, with core consciousness , that provides personhood, firmer senses of being than primordial feelings.
The minimal-scope kind I call core consciousness, the sense of the here and now, unencumbered by much past and by little or no future. It revolves around a core self and is about personhood but not necessarily identity. (p. 168)
Core self, although it is only about here and now -- that is why it is not identity yet --, begins to deal with things around itself consciously, and that consciousness about the dealing gives core self subjectivity and a sense of a protagonist, for without subjectivity or a sense of a protagonist it is not easy to make sense of things in the world perceived or acted upon by something, that is core self.
In thinking about a strategy to construct the self, it is appropriate to start with the requirements for 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. (p. 201)
Core self with subjectivity and a sense of a protagonist provides a sharper sense of cognition, which we usually call attention.
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 in 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. (p. 203)
This must indeed be core self, or a 'self in its simple version', for on this level of conscious self, we acquire perspective, ownership, and agency on top of primordial feelings.
In brief, while plunging into the depths of the conscious mind, I discover that it is a composite of different images. One set of those images describes the objects in consciousness. Other images describe me, and the me includes: (1) the perspective in which the objects are being mapped (the fact that my mind has a standpoint of viewing, touching, hearing, and so on, and that the standpoint is my body); (2) the feeling that the objects are being represented in a mind belonging to me and to no one else (ownership); (3) the feeling that I have agency relative to the objects and that the actions being carried out by my body are commanded by my mind; and (4) primordial feelings, which signify the existence of my living body independently of how objects engage it or not. The aggregate of elements (1) through (4) constitutes a self in its simple version. When the images of the self aggregate are folded together with the images of nonself objects, the result is a conscious mind. (pp. 185-186)
However, this basic core self, argues Damasio, does not have to be linguistic yet.
Core consciousness does not require language and must have preceded language, obviously in nonhuman species but also in humans. (p. 172)
Damasio calls the self that involves language autobiographical self.
4.4 Autobiographical self
With language, as a useful medium, memory and reasoning are enhanced. With this enhancement, narratives become possible, giving a core self a still firmer sense of a protagonist, that is an autobiological self.
In brains endowed with abundant memory, language, and reasoning, narratives with this same simple origin and contour are enriched and allowed to display even more knowledge, thus producing a well-defined protagonist, an autobiographical self. Inferences can be added, and actual interpretations of the proceedings can be produced. (p. 204)
Autobiographical self, with its narrative autobiographical consiousness, extends itself from 'here and now' to the past and the future imaginable. This extended self is what we usually refer to as identity.
The big-scope kind I call extended or autobiographical consciousness, given that it manifests itself most powerfully when a substantial part of one’s life comes into play and both the lived past and the anticipated future dominate the proceedings. It is about both personhood and identity. (p. 185-186)
We have reached now to what we know as ourselves. We have started from a noncounsious mind with only dispositions and emotions. When that noncousious mind begins to have images of dispositions and feelings of emotions, it establishes itself self-referentially to make itself a conscious mind. A conscious mind posesses primordial feelings and hence becomes a protoself. When a protoself becomes more self-referential, more aware of its cognitions and actions, a firmer sense of self emerges, which is a core self. When a core self is endowed with language, and thus became able to powefully recall, reason and narrate, it gives itself an extended version of itself, an autobiographical self. This autographical self is, more or less, the life of our conscious mind as we know it.
Now that we have this picture of ourselves, let's go back to our first agenda: avoid over- and under- estimating the power of consciousness. The following section is an attempt to properly estimate the functions of consciousness, and I continue to quote form Damasio's work.
5 Functions of conscious self
5.1 Evolutionary advantage
The evolution of noncouscious mind to autobiographical self must be motivated evolutionally. The largest portion of the evolutionary advantage lies, Damasio says, in how we care the world around us now. With consious self, we are able to connect ourselves with the outside world more advantageously for our well-being. We use images and feelings that we establish within ourselves to better congize and act in this world.
The lion’s share of the advantage, I suspect, comes from the fact that in a conscious mind the processing of environmental images is oriented by a particular set of internal images, those of the subject’s living organism as represented in the self. The self focuses the mind process, it imbues the adventure of encountering other objects and events with a motivation, it infuses the exploration of the world outside the brain with a concern for the first and foremost problem facing the organism: the successful regulation of life. That concern is naturally generated by the self process, whose foundation lies in bodily feelings, primordial and modified. (p. 268)
However, Damasio contends that the ultimate functions of consciousness are for futures, time frames that only an autobiographical self can deal with. We humans as a full-fledged conscious self (at least, so far in the evolutionary history up to now) use memory of the past to deal with not just the actual now but also potential futures.
And what is the ultimate gift of consciousness to humanity? Perhaps the ability to navigate the future in the seas of our imagination, guiding the self craft into a safe and productive harbor. This greatest of all gifts depends, once again, on the intersection of the self and memory. Memory, tempered by personal feeling, is what allows humans to imagine both individual well-being and the compounded well-being of a whole society, and to invent the ways and means of achieving and magnifying that well-being. Memory is responsible for ceaselessly placing the self in an evanescent here and now, between a thoroughly lived past and an anticipated future, perpetually buffeted between the spent yesterdays and the tomorrows that are nothing but possibilities. (p. 298)
For possible futures, we plan and deliberate.
As the process of consciousness became more complex, and as coevolved functions of memory, reasoning, and language were brought into play, further benefits of consciousness were introduced. Those benefits relate largely to planning and deliberation. The advantages here are legion. It became possible to survey the possible future and to either delay or inhibit automatic responses. (p. 268)
If the best part of the functions of consciouness lies in planning and delberation for potential futures, the other side of the same coin means that consciousness is not best fit for a split-second desion now.
In conclusion, what is meant by conscious deliberation has little to do with the ability to control actions in the moment and everything to do with the ability to plan ahead and decide which actions we want or do not want to carry out. Conscious deliberation is largely about decisions taken over extended periods of time, as much as days or weeks in the case of some decisions, and rarely less than minutes or seconds. It is not about split-second decisions. Common knowledge regards lightning-speed choices as “thoughtless” and “automatic.” Conscious deliberation is about reflection over knowledge. We apply reflection and knowledge when we decide on important matters in our lives. We use conscious deliberation to govern our loves and friendships, our education, our professional activities, our relations to others.
The famous aphorism of the centipede unable to walk after it begins to think how to walk already taught us the misuse of consciousness. Use of consciousness for an immediate action is not encouraged at all. (Here, I'm thinking about how pedagogical grammar is to be used for language learning. But this topic is to be left, as I said, for another occasion).
5.2 Interplay of consciousness and nonconsciousness
As consiousness is never omnipotent, omniscient or omnipresent, it should be used in interplays with the other state of mind, noncosciousness. To understand the interplay, we should also learn the power of noncosciousness as well.
Noncouscious cognition, as we confirmed, includes dispositions. Therefore nonconsciousness is to be used for fundamental cognitions and actions, the use of language included. But what about a more complex cognitive task that requires use of many images?
After citing a study by Dijksterhuis and others (2006) "On Making the Right Choice: The Deliberation-Without-Attention Effect" (Science 17 February 2006: Vol. 311 no. 5763 pp. 1005-1007 DOI: 10.1126/science.1121629), Damasio argues for the power of noncousciousness for complex cognitive tasks.
What they do suggest is that nonconscious processes are capable of some sort of reasoning, far more than they are usually thought to be, and that this reasoning, once it has been properly trained by past experience and when time is scarce, may lead to beneficial decisions. (p. 274).
Damasio further argues that our nonconsciousness not only reasons but also has a larger cognitive capacity.
All this goes to say that I very much like the notion that our cognitive unconscious is capable of reasoning and has a larger “space” for operations than the conscious counterpart. (p. 275)
If our nonconsciousness is capable of excecuting complex cognitive tasks than our conciousness, do we ever need consciouness at all? Here, we have to remind ourselves of the 'ultimate gift of consciousness to humanity': the ability to navigate the future (p. 298). Noncousciousness, although fast and vast, can only deal with events to which the past experiences can be appropriately applied. (Please read an account of a firefighter: Prospective Consciousness if you're interested).
The nonconscious space is wide open and suitable for this covert manipulation, but it works to one’s advantage largely because certain options are nonconsciously marked by a bias connected to previously learned emotional-feeling factors. (p. 275)
Consciousness may have started its function with veto of nonconscious execution (cf. "MIND TIME" by Benjamin Libet (and some thoughts of mine)), but it probably developed most as a new device for planning and deliberation. Consciousness turns out to be very useful when humans have to struggle with new events for which the past memories may not be exactly relevant.
But we should not stop here. Because nonconsiousness is better than consiousness at executing tasks, both simple and complex, as long as the past experiences are relevant, conscious we can teach uncousiousness to do what once was, but no longer is, new. If consiousness can let nonconsiousness do what it has recently learned to do, it can use its resources for something newer.
In the end, the relationship between conscious and nonconscious processes is one more example of the odd functional partnerships that emerge as a result of coevolving processes. Of necessity, consciousness and direct conscious control of actions emerged after nonconscious minds were in place, running the show with plenty of good results but not always. The show could be improved. Consciousness came of age by first restraining part of the nonconscious executives and then exploring them mercilessly to carry out preplanned, predecided actions. Nonconscious processes became a suitable and convenient means to execute behavior and give consciousness more time for further analysis and planning. (p. 270)
This teaching by consiousness to unconsciouness is like human teaching by a teacher to students; that is, not direct or efficient (as we wish it to be). Despite every efforts by a teacher, she cannot transfer her knowledge into students directly. (The teacher and students are different autopoiesis systems, according to Luhmann's systems theory). The language of the teacher is often incomprehensible to students. (We may even say they don't 'speak the same language.') Students react differently, some learn; some don't; some correctly; some distortedly.
The same is probably true when consiousness tries to teach nonconsiousness new tricks. Consciousness cannot transfer what it knows and/or does directly into nonconsiouness. (Consiousness is a psychic system, whereas nonconsiouness is a different, biological system (or an organism)). The 'language' of consiousness is images, linguistic images in particular, while the 'language' of nonconsiouness is mostly dispositions; they don't 'speak the same language.' (Consiousness and nonconsiousness may share some (non-linguistic) images, but they are only slightly mapped onto nonconsciousness). Different parts of nonconsiousness react differently.
This is why we need practice to make ourselves do what we want.
Human childhood and adolescence take the inordinate amount of time that they do because it takes a long, long time to educate the nonconscious processes of our brain and to create, within that nonconscious brain space, a form of control that can, more or less faithfully, operate according to conscious intentions and goals. (p. 269-270)
To use some terms from Luhmann again, how consious we (a 'psychic system') can 'permeate' into or establish 'structural coupling' with nonconsiousness (a biological system or an 'organism') is our issue. We may only have traditional wisdom in this teaching, but the important point is to clear ourselves of the modern overestimated concept of consiousness: consciousness can (or should) control ourselves directly and completely. No direct transfer is possible between consciousness and nonconsciousness. Conscious we can just watch noncousious ourselves practice repeatedly. Consciousness may encourage nonconsiousness, but consciousness can never replace nonconsciousness in its performance; Consciousness must let go of itself to let nonconsciousness go on its own. When we want to make our nonconsciousness do what we consciously planned and deliberated, we really have to be patient.
No less important, we need to be aware of the peculiar hurdle faced by our consciously deliberated decisions--they have to find a way into the cognitive unconscious in order to permeate the action machinery--and we need to facilitate that influence. One way to transpose the hurdle would be the intense conscious rehearsal of the procedures and actions we wish to see nonconsciously realized, a process of repeated practice that results in mastering a performing skill, a consciously composed psychological action program gone underground. (p. 281)
Patient as we must be, we may still learn to be better in our teaching to nonconsiousness. We can probably 'get the knack of it' or 'get the hang of it.' [For those interested in Japanese: The Japanese language has an idiom kotsu wo tsukamu (「骨をつかむ」）, whose literal translation would be "to get the bone structure." In Japanese martial arts, realizing the movement of the bone structure in performance is sometimes emphasized.] We should be skillful in making ourselves be skillful. (Welcome back, self-reference!).
Outsourcing expertise to the nonconscious space is what we do when we hone a skill so finely that we are no longer aware of the technical steps needed to be skillful. We develop skills in the clear light of consciousness, but then we let them go underground, into the roomy basement of our minds, where they do not clutter the exiguous square footage of conscious reflection space. (p. 275)
The overestimation of consciousness lies in the modern tradition in which we wish to believe that conscious we can move the body as we wishand that conscious cognition and action are better than unconsious cognition and action.
However, we now know that our consciousness knows only a small part of ourselves; conscious cognition and action may not compete with nonconscious cognition and action; consciousness is particularly bad for an immediate action.
On the other hand, we should not be led to the underestimation of consciousness; Consciousness is effective for new, unexperienced events; Consciousness, if it keeps patience, can teach what it has learned to nonconsiousness, which, after practice, will turn out to be a better performer than consciousness.
We should understand the relatonship between consciousness and nonconsciousness. Consciouness is a self-reference of nonconsiousness. Conscious mind has self (from protoself, core self, up to autobiographical self). Self posesses subjectivity, ownership, agency, personhood, and identity.
Yet, as consciousness is a self-reference of noncosiousness, all these senses -- subjectivity, ownership, agency, personhood, and identity --, in order to be meaningful, must be based on our nonconscious being, which is often convenietly referred to as the body.
The body gives us emotions, and when they are 'felt' by consciousness, they become feelings, which are vital information of ourselves in this world. The body is equipped with dispositions. You may simply use them, or modify them by using images. You can orient the modification with your conscious plan, but don't think that your consciousness constitutes you. You were, long time ago in human history, only a nonconscious being. Your consciousness only derives from your nonconscious being. Culture, school education in particular, may help your consciousness develop quickly, but it is only alive as long as it is rooted in, and repeatedly goes back to and comes back again from your nonconsciousness.
So, put it simply, use your consciousness wisely; don't forget your emotions, feelings, and body. We live in the loop of self-reference.
Other related articles:
Consciousness as a process that is entailed by molecular interactions
"Wider than the sky" by Gerald Edelman
"Making up the mind" by Chris Frith
Damasio on Mind and Body
Language and Consciousness according to Julian Jaynes
'Feeling' of language as a sign of autopoiesis
Damasio (2000) The Feeling of What Happens
Comparing Foreign Language Communication to Budo (Martial Arts)
Another short summary of Damasio's argument on consciousness and self
Here's how John Searle, I believe, fails to see Damasio's points.
The New York Review of Books.
I wonder whether the traditional objective/subject distinction is the right framework to understand Damasio's argument.
Below is the video of Damasio (and its transcript).
Antonio Damasio: "Consciousness" Is How We Know We Exist
Transcript is available from Big Think site.
Antonio Damasio offers seven videos talking about this book.