Being and nothingness: How the brain creates mind and self

Phineas Gage was a big name in brain science. Not a scientist — but a railroad construction foreman. Until in 1848 an accidental explosion rammed a three-foot iron rod through his cheek and out the top of his head.

Gage actually recovered, with little outward impairment. But his character and personality were transformed. Previously admirable, he became an irresponsible jerk. A part of his brain governing temperament was destroyed.

This famous case opens Antonio Damasio’s landmark 1994 book, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. Though not the latest word in neuroscience, I felt it was worth reading, in my eternal quest to understand the most important thing in the world — my self. What, in that sentence, “I” and “felt” really mean.

I’ve written about this before; here are links: (1), (2), (3), (4), (5), (6), (7).

Of course, like everyone, I know perfectly well what being me feels like. But why does it feel that way? Why does anything feel like anything? By what mechanism?

Obviously, it has to do with the workings of the brain. I say “obviously,” but some might disagree. In fact, that was “Descartes’ error” of the book title — the famous philosopher posited the mind being something apart from anything physical. Like the idea of a soul. But these are nonsensical concepts. Not only is there no evidence for them, there’s no possible coherent explanation for how they could be true. There’s no plausible alternative to our minds being rooted in the workings of our brains.

Yet it’s difficult to come up with a coherent explanation for that too (so far, anyway). Brains have been analogized to computers, but computers aren’t conscious (so far, anyway). It’s been suggested that the difference is complexity — the brain’s trillions of synapses vastly dwarf what’s in any computer. Still, this seems more like a label than an explanation.

Some common-sense ideas don’t work. Like there’s somebody in charge in there, a captain at your helm. That’s certainly an illusion — the mind is bottom-up, not top-down. That is, whatever you think you are thinking, it’s not the work of some central command, but a product of a lot of undirected neuronal signaling, actually distributed among various brain modules, that somehow comes together. Similarly, we imagine seeing as a “Cartesian theater” (named for the same Descartes), i.e., as if a signal coming in from the eyes gets projected onto a screen in the brain, viewed by a little person (“homunculus”) in there. But does the homunculus have a Cartesian theater — and a smaller homunculus — in its brain? And so forth? The idea falls apart.

Further, not only is the mind not somehow separate from the brain, it’s not even separate from the whole rest of the body. Another point Damasio makes clear. “Keeping body and soul together” is a paradoxically apt expression here, because the brain evolved, after all, as a device to keep the body going, for its ultimate purpose (to the genes) of reproducing. So the body is the brain’s primary focus, and monitoring and regulating the body, and responding to its cues, is most of what the brain is doing at any given moment. (Thus the sci-fi notion of a disembodied brain in a vat, having normal consciousness, is probably absurd.)

To understand how the mind works, the concept of representation seems crucial. (No mentation without representation!) Start with the idea of reality. There is a reality that obtains within your body; also a reality outside it, that you interact with. But how does the mind perceive these realities? Through senses, yes; but they can’t give the brain direct contact with reality. The reality outside — it’s raining, say — cannot itself get inside your head. It can’t be raining in there. It’s even true of your inner bodily reality. If your stomach hurts, you can’t have a stomachache in your brain. But what your brain can do is construct a representation of a stomachache, or rain shower. Like an artist creates a representation of a still life on his canvas.

Of course the brain doesn’t use paints; it only has neurons and their signaling. Somehow the brain takes the incoming sensory information — you see it raining — and translates it into a representation constructed with neuronal signaling. A mental picture of the raining. And notice this can’t merely be like snapping a photo. The representation has to be sustained — continually refreshed, over some length of time.

This is starting to be complicated. But more: how do “you” (without a homunculus) “see” the representation? Why, of course, by means of a further representation: of yourself perceiving and responding to the first one.

But even this is not the end of it. It’s actually three balls the brain must keep in the air simultaneously: the representation of the reality (the rain); second, the representation of the self reacting to it; and, finally, a third order representation, of your self in the act of coordinating the prior two representations, creating a bridge between them. Only now do “you” decide you need an umbrella.

This at least is Damasio’s theory, insofar as I could understand it. Frankly that third part is the hard one. I’m a little queasy that we might have here another endless homuncular recursion: the representation of the self perceiving the representation of the self perceiving . . . . Yet we know the buck must stop somewhere, because we do have selves that somehow know when it’s raining, and know they know it, and grab umbrellas. And one can see that the first two representation levels don’t quite get us there. So there must be the third.

Pain too is a representation. When the body signals the brain that something’s amiss, it could register the fact without suffering. The suffering is an emotion, triggered by the brain creating a representation of “you” experiencing that feeling. That’s why it hurts. Of course, we evolved this way to make us respond to bodily problems. Rare individuals who can’t feel pain damage themselves — very non-adaptive. And Damasio tells of one patient with an extremely painful condition. After an operation snipping out a bit of brain, he was thoroughly cheerful. Asked about the pain, he said, “Oh, the pains are the same, but I feel fine now.” His brain was no longer representing pain as suffering.

Meantime, while the mind is doing all that representation stuff — continually, as new signals keep arriving — keeping “you” in touch with what’s going on — there’s yet another ball it must keep aloft: who “you” are. Part of it again is the bodily aspect. But you’re not an empty vessel. Damasio likens the representation of your self to the kind of file J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI might have kept on you. Though it’s not all in one file, or file cabinet, but distributed among many different brain modules. It includes data like what you do, where you live, other people important to your life, knowledge of your entire past, and your ideas looking ahead to your future. Everything that makes you you. And it’s not just filed away; all of it the mind must constantly refresh and update. To keep in being the “you” in its representations of “you” interacting with realities like rain or pain.

Of course all the foregoing is merely schematic. We know how painters paint pictures, but how, exactly, neuronal signaling does it remains a very hard problem. But yet again we know it must. There’s no alternative.

And for humans at least, we do know at least part of the answer. We know how to paint word pictures. And they entail a lot of metaphors — another form of representation. In fact, thinking this way is so second-nature that most of us have struggled to imagine what thinking without words could be like. Of course, other animals do it, and have consciousness, without language. But undoubtedly having it is a tremendous enhancer for the three-stage model via representation that I’ve described. I think it gives humans a much deeper, higher-level self-awareness than other animals enjoy. (Damasio, somewhat enigmatically, says this: “Language may not be the source of the self, but it certainly is the source of the ‘I.'”)

What Damasio’s book is really famous for is his take on reason and emotion. Phineas Gage’s iron rod opened not only a hole in his head but a window on the subject. Damasio also discusses the similar case of “Elliot,” a normal, smart, successful man until a lesion destroyed a bit of his brain. He was still perfectly rational. But like Gage’s, his life fell apart, because he could not behave as reason dictated. The explanation turned out to be a loss of emotional capacity. Emotions give us the reasons to utilize our reason! Elliot no longer cared about anything; not even his life falling apart. The lesson is that emotion and reason are not, as many people imagine, separate or even at odds with one another. They are bound together. Moreover, emotion on its own terms isn’t unreasonable. There are always reasons for the emotions we feel (or if not, that’s insanity).

A final point. While Damasio’s book helped a bit, I still can’t say I have a good handle on what accounts for this phenomenon I experience as being me. It still feels like a will-o’-the-wisp that slithers away whenever I try to grasp it. And as difficult as it is to grasp being in existence, it is likewise difficult to grasp the idea of nonexistence.

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3 Responses to “Being and nothingness: How the brain creates mind and self”

  1. Wolfgang Kurth Says:

    Very entertaining and thought provoking. I was familiar with Gage’s experiences. They say he died of an infection a few years after the accident, but I wonder. I knew a lady who apparently had had a localized stroke, destroying her short term memory, but leaving the rest in tact. Her poor husband was incredulous to the disposition of the person he woke up to one morning. But can you imagine thinking you were a young woman (youth in your case), waking up next to a person you didn’t know, in a bed you didn’t know, in an unfamiliar room and house? Can you imagine looking into the mirror when in your mind’s eye you are, say, 10 or 12, and finding an old woman staring back at you? Is it any wonder that after a short visit to a doctor she was immediately institutionalized as a danger to herself and others close to her? I know can not imagine the full horror of that experience, but through it all, with the truth staring him in the face, the husband still remains religiously devout.

  2. Wolfgang Kurth Says:

    One more thing:
    Her husband continued visiting her about twice a week until she passed away a a couple of years later .

  3. Lee Says:

    Philosophers, religions, and others have theories on this. In many cases these theories are “right” in the sense that they cannot be or have not been refuted. However, the set of theories that are also useful is a bit smaller. I am willing to consider a theory if it helps me to evade hungry tigers, to treat patients with brain injuries, etc. but, otherwise, what is the point other than a bit of entertainment?

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