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The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness

Author: Antonio R. Damasio

Publisher: Harcourt Brace, 1999

ISBN: David S. McIn

Summary:"Although consciousness has historically been in the domain of philosophers, it is neurologists who are doing the breakthrough work right now. Antonio Damasio has written a book that will probably be in print a hundred years from now..."

"What is man, that Thou art mindful of him?" This question from the Psalms is inscribed on one of the classroom buildings in Harvard Yard. It reminds the passerby that there is something wonderfully special about mankind, something remarkable and even humbling. To many thinkers, including Descartes, what is special is that we are aware of ourselves. We are within, but distinct from, the world around us. Yes, language and art and love and baseball are miraculous achievements that set us apart from other creatures, but without awareness, without consciousness, they would be impossible.

Although consciousness has historically been in the domain of philosophers, it is neurologists who are doing the breakthrough work right now. Antonio Damasio has written a book that will probably be in print a hundred years from now. Damasio is the Head of the Department of Neurology at the University of Iowa, and an Adjunct Professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Research. Along with his wife, the neurologist Hanna Damasio, he has created one of the world's leading facilities for the study of neurological disorders. He is most famous, perhaps, for his 1994 book, Descartes' Error. In that book, he argued that reason and emotion were not two separate things, that Platonic and Cartesian distinctions were not borne out by science. Using case studies and laboratory research, he showed that emotional deficiencies, from either accidents or disease, caused impairments in reasoning. The brain structures that process emotion in fact underlie the brain processes of thinking. It's not either/or any more.

In The Feeling of What Happens, Damasio moves from emotion to consciousness itself. The book is made up of equal parts of scientific rigor, elegant writing, philosophical awareness, and deep-seated humanism. Overall, the effect is not so much Oliver Sacks (played by Robin Williams in Awakenings) as it is William James (yet to be depicted on the screen):

"Consciousness begins when brains acquire the power, the simple power I must add, of telling a story without words, the story that there is life ticking away in an organism, and that the states of the living organism, within body bounds, are continuously being altered by encounters with objects or events in its environment, or, for that matter, by thoughts and by internal adjustments of the life process."

Damasio's big idea is that core consciousness-the core "you"-doesn't exist in itself; it is not a homunculus inside us watching the movie of life. Instead, core consciousness is born, from moment to moment, as "stories" are being experienced by the body. To demonstrate this, he needs to show two things-how the brain perceives things outside the body, and then how the brain creates a sense of self.

There are typically two ways of doing neurological research. The first involves clinical case studies of people with neurological disorders. Oliver Sacks's The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat is a classic in this genre. By carefully observing what behavioral conditions are associated with what damaged areas of the brain, neurologists are able to speculate about the causes of neurological damage. The second is to study the internal manifestations of the conditions, as reported by the patients. Damasio proposes that we use a third way as well-to contrast patients' reported internal manifestations with what our own internal manifestations are in similar circumstances. Neurological research is not straightforward. There is endless triangulation and what-if-ing. Patient is the word that should be applied to the researchers.

But this book isn't about disease or dysfunction. Instead it is about the difference between existing and knowing that one exists. When Descartes said "I think, therefore I am," he was on the right path. But it wasn't a proof of his existence, and it certainly didn't explain how he knew he existed. Can a person ever know if he really exists, or is this the type of question best left to bad philosophers and earnest college freshmen? "Studying consciousness," writes Damasio, "was simply not the thing to do before you made tenure, and even after you did it was looked upon with suspicion."

Damasio distinguishes between several levels of awareness and consciousness. At the lowest, most basic level is the proto-self, the "collection of neural patterns which map, moment by moment, the state of the physical structure of the organism in its many dimensions." The proto-self is more chemistry than consciousness. It is the brain reacting to all the messages that all the body's parts are sending to say "Here I am, and here's how I'm feeling." The proto-self is a basic element necessary for experiencing external sensation. When we see an object, our brain is not only getting information from our eyes; it is simultaneously hearing from all the other muscles in the body, the ones that move our eyeballs and angle our torsos. The brain recognizes objects by noticing differences in the "internal milieu."

Core consciousness, Damasio writes, "occurs when the brain's representation devices generate an imaged, non-verbal account of how the organism's own state is affected by the organism's processing [or experiencing] of an object [which may or may not be external to the organism]Ö." Core consciousness is transient. It exists in the moment. "The core you is only born as the story is told, within the story itself. You exist as a mental being when primordial stories are being told, and only then; as long as primordial stories are being told, and only then. You are the music [he writes, quoting T. S. Eliot] while the music lasts."

The next level up is the autobiographical self, which has memories and experiences. The brain treats autobiographical memories as objects that can interact with the core consciousness in a way that "allows each of them to generate a pulse of core consciousness." What makes the autobiographical self possible is working memory-the ability to hold several images in the mind at one time, both images that define the autobiographical self and images of whatever thought or object the self is experiencing. This parallel processing lets a person be simultaneously aware of both subject and object-knowing that it is he or she experiencing an object.

The autobiographical self has a past and a future. This is the "self" that we are used to thinking about. It exists not just in the moment "while the music lasts," it is really its own composition. The ability to have a past is a requirement for language (and, I suppose, art and love and baseball). One has to remember what the words mean, what the rules are. If we were to lose the ability to remember, as patients with Alzheimer's disease do to a degree, we would lose the better part of our autobiographical selves. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Hagrid tells Harry what it was like to have his memories sucked out by the Dementors: "You can't really remember who you are after a while, and you can't see the point of living at all."

This hierarchy of states is not just a categorization scheme. The higher levels really are built up on the lower ones. We know this from clinical observation. When a lower level function, like core consciousness, is compromised, higher level ones are too. It doesn't work the other way. If one loses the ability to understand language because of a stroke, one does not also automatically lose the ability to experience moments and objects. The lower-level consciousnesses are required for the higher-level ones to operate. That, reasonably enough, is why it is defined as a lower-level state. It is not more or less important, it is just relatively more of a building block.

Emotions, interestingly, are closely associated with core consciousness. "Absence of emotion is a reliable correlate of defective core consciousness, perhaps as much as the presence of some degree of continuous emoting is virtually always associated with the conscious state." In fact, emotions are even more basic than core consciousness. In one case history, an unconscious person in a persistent vegetative state-who could not be said to have core consciousness-still showed an emotional response to seeing pictures of familiar faces. "The so-called 'face area' (at the occipito-temporal junction, within the fusiform gyrus) lit up in a functional imaging scan, much as it does in normal and sentient persons." One doesn't need consciousness to feel certain emotions. Emotions are more basic.

Like core consciousness, emotions are also rooted in specific parts of the brain. Damasio gives an example of how we feel fear. "A structure known as the amygdala, which sits in the depths of the each temporal lobe, is indispensable to recognizing fear in facial expressions, to being conditioned to fear, and even to expressing fearÖ.The amygdala, however, has little interest in recognizing or learning about disgust or happiness."

On a related note, according to research reported in the Economist, music can generate emotional responses even when the listener has lost the ability to hear music as such. There have been cases when patients' temporal lobes were damaged, resulting in the loss of ability to recognize melodies or even changes in pitch. Even so, when music was played for them, parts of their brains, in the limbic system, were abuzz with the activity normally associated with emotional responses. Further evidence that wetware (i.e., gray matter) is more impressive than hardware and software.

Emotions are also tied to the body. We experience objects as our body reacts to them; we don't experience objects directly. In the same way, we experience our body's reactions to emotions, not the emotions themselves. One implication of this is that feelings and emotions can never be captured or recorded accurately outside the body. "Feelings cannot be duplicated unless flesh is duplicated, unless the brain's actions on flesh are duplicated, unless the brain's sensing of flesh after it has been acted upon by the brain is duplicated."

One terrifying case history involves something known as "lock-in syndrome." At first, the patient is thought to be in a coma. Her body lies inert, and she shows no signs of consciousness. Then, over time, it becomes clear that she is conscious. She is able to move her eyes, and can answer simple questions by moving them, but that is it. She is trapped in a body that cannot move. Forever. But in a way, her body's inertness makes the situation less terrifying to her than it might be. When the body is unable to react to emotions generated in the mind (like panic, for instance), it loses the ability to feel those emotions. Consolation in the face of a tragedy.

A disclaimer about this book: In the words of the New York Times, "this is not casual reading." Just the same, the Times recognized the book as one of the eleven Best Books of 1999. "Unlike any other book here, it will change your experience of yourself."

I have found that true in both larger and smaller ways. Now, whenever I see a horror movie or read Aristotle, I will think about the chemistry of the brain. In the Poetics, Aristotle writes that tragedy has a purifying effect based on the sudden suspension of fear and pity that had been steadily building. What I had not realized is that this purifying rush is a chemical reaction in the body. When the brain is feeling an emotion, the body is producing chemicals in the bloodstream. When the emotion changes, so do the chemicals. "Whether we like it or not, we feel very comfortable after Janet Leigh stops screaming in the shower and lies quietly on the bathtub floor."

So how is this book relevant to business? It is one more part of the biological revolution which has moved the cutting edge of science from the edges of the universe to the inside of a cell. In business, the dominant metaphors used to come from engineering; now they are from biology and ecology; eventually they may be from neurology. When organizations begin to think of themselves as organisms instead of machines, they will need to start understanding their own processes of awareness and consciousness.

Many of the subjects Damasio writes about have analogies in business. Organizations have sensing mechanisms that are, in some ways, equivalent to core consciousness. To take another example, we know that emotion is essential for reasoning. What is the role of emotion in the workplace? If an organization collects and communicates quantitative but not emotional information, can it ever be adequately aware of its environment and its needs? Going further, emotions (like fear) are sited in specific locations in the brain (the amygdala). Maybe organizations have specific pockets of people who are uniquely responsible for recognizing particular phenomena. What happens if they get "lobotomized" in a corporate restructuring? And, thinking about lock-in syndrome, is it possible that if people are powerless to act on their emotions (inspiration, or competitive drive) they will eventually become incapable of feeling those things? Consolation, perhaps, but still a tragedy.

What is the Organization, that we are mindful of it? What does it even mean to be mindful of something? The Feeling of What Happens is a remarkable achievement because it helps answer these questions, just as it makes us understand how remarkable it is that we can even ask them.

©  David S. McIntosh, Center for Business Innovation, Cambridge MA.