Friday, December 25, 2009

Antonio Damasio - Emotion, Feeling, and Social Behavior: The Brain Perspective

While doing research for an article I am writing, I returned to Antonio Damasio's The Feeling of What Happens to refresh myself on his ideas regarding the development of the Self. If you have never read it, I highly recommend it for his contention that consciousness is not merely a by-product of brain activity, but is a necessary function of the body as a whole, including the brain. [One caveat, he is not easy to read.]

As an aside, he proposes at least four levels of self, from least complex to most complex:
1. Neural Self (or proto-self) - a short term collection of neural patterns of activity which represent the current state of the organism
2. Core Self - a second-order entity which maps the state of the proto-self in rather the same way the proto-self maps the current state of the body: whenever an encounter with an object impinges on the proto-self, the change is registered by activity in the core self
3. Autobiographical Self - draws on permanent (though modifiable) memories instead of just the immediate experiences which power the core self. At this point, there is a real, though still pre-linguistic, sense of self. Damasio thinks chimpanzees and probably dogs enjoy this level of consciousness
4. Reflective Self - greater use of longer-term memory, delivers the kind of foresighted, reflective consciousness which we typically associate with human beings
In Damasio's view, one which I share, emotions are body states that then are interpreted by the brain to assign a label based on memory and previous learning. The classic example of this was demonstrated years before Damasio wrote his book. In the study, (Schachter & Singer, 1962) researchers gave epinephrine to subjects (telling them it was a vitamin), half of which were told what to expect and half were told nothing or given false information. All subjects were left with a confederate who either acted euphoric or angry. Those told what to expect attributed their arrousal to the injection. Those who were given no information or false information labeled their own experience in line with the behavior of the confederate, not having any other information on which to base their feelings. The researches suggest that emotion is based on arousal + cognition, on the assumption that most emotions share similar body-states.

In general, then, the autobiographical self, or narrative self, creates a story to explain body states based on either environmental cues or previous experience.

To further complicate matters, Damasio also posits an "as-if" body loop, which allows hypothetical states of the body to be represented and considered - that seems to imply an 'as if' self.

Here is the rather complicated way Damasio describes the attribution of emotion:
It may sound strange, at first, that feelings of emotion - which are steeped in the representations of body states, only come to be known after other representations of body state have been integrated to give rise to a proto-self. And it sounds strange, for certain, that the means to know a feeling is another feeling. The situation becomes understandable, however, when we realize that the proto-self, feelings of emotion, and the feeling of knowing feelings emerged at different points of evolution and to this day emerge at different stages of individual development. Proto-self precedes basic feeling and both precede the feeling of knowing that constitutes core consciousness. (The Feeling of What Happens, pg. 280-281)
One more quote that supports the study above:
The collection of neural patterns which constitute the substrate of a feeling arise in two classes of biological changes: changes related to body state and changes related to cognitive state. (pg. 281)
Emotion = body state (arousal) + cognition.

All of which is to set up this cool lecture from Damasio - The Katz Lecture: Emotion, Feeling, and Social Behavior: The Brain Perspective (2003).

Antonio Damasio

University of Iowa

Emotion, Feeling, and Social Behavior: The Brain Perspective

“Neither anguish nor the elation that love or art can bring about are devalued by understanding some of the myriad biological processes that make them what they are… Our sense of wonder should increase before the intricate mechanisms that make such magic possible.”

Antonio Damasio’s trilogy, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (1994), The Feeling of What Happens (1999) and Looking for Spinoza (2003), inspired the theme for the 2003 UW Summer Arts Festival, Spheres. Delving into activity in the anterior portion of the cerebral hemi"spheres," Damasio’s research “… brings us closer to understanding the delicate interaction between affect, consciousness, and memory - the processes that both keep us alive and make life worth living” (Harcourt Books).

Listen to Antonio Damioso’s full Katz Lecture in Windows Video, downloadable MP3 [Play] or iTunes Podcast format.


Unknown said...

Damasio is a brilliant man. His work influences my writing a great deal. He writes with many words and can be tough to read, but his ideas have such potency and economy.

He starts his whole neuroscience of consciousness with the idea that the basic element of experience - like atoms in a molecule - are body-state changes, a three part sentence, body-as-it-was, object, body-as-it-is.

Nothing is known if it isn't first represented in the body. This basic point is full of astounding implications, regardless of what other fascinating conclusions Damasio reaches (and he reaches many more).

Your blog post is a great summary. I would recommend all three of his books to anyone who is curious about consciousness. Read them backwards, starting with Spinoza.

william harryman said...

Thanks Cole - I have Spinoza, but haven't read that one yet - I began with Descartes's Error, which was tough going.

I'm trying to get a better grounding in his work before March, when he will be giving one of the Keynote Addresses at the Toward a Science of Consciousness Conference here in Tucson.