Emotion, Cognition and Consciousness

National Public Radio

Talk of the Nation/Science Friday, National Public Radio

October 10, 2003

Analysis: Emotion, cognition and consciousness

Edition: 3:00-4:00 PM Estimated printed pages: 24

Article Text: IRA FLATOW, host:


What is consciousness?  It’s a state of mind most of us take for granted; we don’t even think about it.  But there are people who do think about and study consciousness.  Some are researchers, some are philosophers and some are poets.  And the juncture where they meet, the meeting of those minds on the subject of the mind, is what we’ll be exploring this hour.

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has used the tools of his profession, brain imaging, to study the human brain in action.  He’s shown that feelings and emotions are necessary for decision-making and, in fact, for our survival.  He also maintains they play a key role in our construction of self; that conscious awareness arises from the brain and its network of neurons.

This hour we’ll talk with Dr. Damasio about what the science of neurology is telling us about consciousness.  We’ll also talk with German philosopher Thomas Metzinger, whose theories of the self seek to bridge the gap between philosophy and science.  And we’ll talk with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jorie Graham about how the process of writing a poem is also the process of constructing a conscious experience.  Could it be that she’s known all along what the neurologist and philosopher are trying to prove?  We’ll find out.

My guests today are joining me from the second Utah Symposium in Science and Literature on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. So if you’d like to join our discussion, give us a call.  Our number, 1 (800) 989-8255, 1 (800) 989-TALK.  And if you’re in the audience at the university, you can step up to the mike with your questions.

Let me introduce my guests.  Antonio Damasio is the author of “The Feeling of What Happens:  Body, Emotion, and the Making of Consciousness,” published by Harcourt in 2000, also “Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain,” out from Harcourt this year.  He’s an adjunct professor at The Salk Institute and the Van Allen distinguished professor and head of the department of neurology at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

Welcome back to the program, Dr. Damasio.

Dr. ANTONIO DAMASIO (University of Iowa):  Good to be here.  Thank you.

FLATOW:  Jorie Graham is the author of several collections of poetry, including “Never,” published in 2002 by HarperCollins, and “The Dream of the Unified Field:  Selected Poems 1974-1994,” winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.  She’s the Boylston professor of oratory and rhetoric at Harvard University in Cambridge.

Welcome to the program.

Professor JORIE GRAHAM (Harvard University):  Thank you.

FLATOW:  You’re welcome.

Thomas Metzinger is the author of “Being No One:  The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity,” published this year by MIT Press.  He’s a professor and head of the department of philosophy and the director of the Theoretical Philosophy Group at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany.

Welcome to the program.

Professor THOMAS METZINGER (Johannes Gutenberg University):  Thanks for inviting me.

FLATOW:  Well, you’re welcome.

Dr. Damasio, let me begin with you because, you being a scientist, we’re sort of on familiar territory with you a little bit in this program. When we talk about consciousness, when we talk about feelings, you have said what feelings are–you can speak with confidence about what feelings are, where they come from, how they happen, what they are made of biologically.  How can you be so sure?

Dr. DAMASIO:  Well, perhaps I should start by saying that I am not so sure. But the fact is that we can relatively easily today–with the tools we have available in neuroscience, we can find out about what is going on in the brain and what is going on in an organism as a whole when we are engaged, for example, in emoting or when we are engaged in feeling an emotion.  So it is possible to studying this phenomena from the point of view of what happens in the behavior of an individual, from the point of view of what that individual is experiencing and can tell us he’s experiencing, but also from the point of view of what is going on in the brain at that same moment, because we have these new tools that allow us to look–in an indirect way, but nonetheless to look–into what the brain is doing at that moment.

FLATOW:  Tell us how you do that.  How do you actually monitor and what kinds of tests do you give your subjects to see what’s going on in the brain?

Dr. DAMASIO:  Well, there are a variety of tools, some old, some very modern. The old ones you probably have heard about for a long time.  They used to be known as brain wave tests.  And, in fact, they use the electrical activity of the brain which is captured by an apparatus that allows you to find out how that activity is distributed in the brain at a given time.  But there are very modern tools.  For example, tools such as magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission tomography that actually allows to look into the structure of the brain and into the activity patterns of the brain at a given moment. These are very modern.

In fact, as you’ve probably heard, the Nobel Prize for medicine in physiology was just awarded to two of the developers of magnetic resonance imaging.  And they allow you still an indirect but nonetheless far closer view of what is going on both in terms of the structure, because you can reconstruct the very anatomy of the brain at the computer screen and create an image from it, but also allows to determine the level of activity that the brain is having in a particular part, in a particular system, thanks in large part to the fact that there are differences in the blood flow in different areas of the brain when we are engaged in different tasks.

FLATOW:  Mm-hmm.  Well, now that you see that the brain is lighting up when you give it different tasks to do, how do you make the jump from watching the brain operate to talking about consciousness?  How do you then–How do you define consciousness?

Dr. DAMASIO:  Right.  Well, the first thing that’s important to know for your listeners and for all of us is that it cannot do any of this without having prior theory and prior hypothesis.  The way science proceeds is not really by having an instrument to measure something willy-nilly and expect (technical difficulties).  It proceeds by having a prior idea of what may be going on, creating a hypothesis about a certain mechanism and then using these modern tools or any tools to find out whether or not your hypothesis is correct.  You make predictions and you check, and you may be correct or incorrect or somewhere in between.  That’s the way it works.

So we begin, to answer your question specifically, by having an idea of what we want to study–for example, the fact that in consciousness we’re interested in understanding, how is it that we have a notion of existence, the notion that we are in a given moment, the notion that we can perceive what is going on and that we can refer that to something that traditionally we have called the self?  So in dictionary definition, you have to talk about, how is it that we are aware of ourself and of our surroundings?  And then we dissect this idea a little further and we ask, for example, questions about what a certain area that we presume is involved in the construction of, say, the self will be doing in a certain task, in certain circumstances?

And we can also do something quite interesting, which is ask ourselves, how in a certain patient, a neurological patient for example, who has lost the ability to be conscious, the ability to have a sense of self–what has been lost in that patient?  And you can–that is a very important means, perhaps the golden means, of understanding what is going on in the brain, especially when you start your inquiry, is how is it that a person with damage in a particular part or parts of the brain will be deprived of the ability to have a self, the ability to emote, the ability to have feelings, the ability to use language?

And that is a very important question to ask, and lo and behold, we have answers from those questions when we study neurological patients.  And very often that leads the way into the further investigations we can undertake when we have all these modern tools that we just talked about.

FLATOW:  Yeah.  And you’ve said before when we’ve spoken that the self is related to the monitoring ability of our life functions, that we’re sort of unconsciously monitoring everything that’s going on around us all the time and making judgments about them?

Dr. DAMASIO:  That’s quite correct, Ira.  What really happens, from our perspective now, is that if we did not have the possibility in our brains to represent in great detail and in myriad fashion what is going on in our bodies, we probably would not be conscious individuals.  We can actually say that we are conscious and have a self as a byproduct of this enormous ability of our brains to monitor the very different functions of our bodies. And the magnificent thing is that the brain is doing this literally for every department of our organism.

It’s monitoring what is going on in the chemistries of, for example, our endocrine systems and our metabolic regulation, but it is also monitoring what is going on in our viscera–for example our heart and lungs and gut and the very skin that forms the membrane and limit of our bodies.  And it is monitoring also what is going on in the muscular activity.  So, for example, when you move about or when you have a facial expression of a given emotion, all of this is being represented in the brain whether you want it to or not.

I like to say that the brain is the captive audience of our body because it really has–it’s entirely at the mercy of this constant barrage of signals that represent the body.  And it is that very fact, this ability to represent continuously, even when we are doing all sorts of things and having all sorts of ideas that are not about our body, that probably forms this basic connection, this anchor that allows us to generate a self and that allows us, in fact, to maintain a continuity of self over a lifetime, as we all know we do.

FLATOW:  Mm-hmm.  Jorie Graham, you’re a poet.  You have a different perspective on the idea of consciousness.  And you have a poem called “Prayer” in your most recent collection.  Do you think you could read it for us?

Prof. GRAHAM:  Sure, Ira.  I’ll try.  I’m now thinking of it as a act of monitoring my own bodily functions, but I…

FLATOW:  I may want to ask you–we have a break coming up in about exactly three minutes.  I don’t want you to get into your poem and then have to interrupt you for the break.  But I want to come back and have you read your poem.  But how do you react to what Dr. Damasio was saying? Are you now monitoring your bodily functions more?

Prof. GRAHAM:  Well, there is a way in which the imagination is an instrument for trawling through an experience in the world with a sort of charged emotional, intellectual openness, attention that Keats called negative capability.  And he did add without irritable reaching after fact and reason,' meaning by that, that you don't necessarily know what you're looking for but you know that you are looking.  And it's a certain quality of attention that the term monitoring’ seems to capture very well.

It does seem crucial in a poem that–and the best poems exhibit this. One only has to think of someone like John Keats–that what is being monitored is not only a phenomenon in the outside world, but what one’s own heart is feeling, what one’s own muscles are doing, the entire list that Tony just underwent for us.  And the poem is, in fact, an undergoing of an experience. It’s not the report of an experience.

The speaker in a poem is the protagonist of the poem, not the narrator of an event.  So it is very much an–as Stevens would say, a poem is an act of the mind in the process of finding what will suffice.  He also says that a poem is the cry of its occasion, and he doesn’t say that it’s the report of its occasion or the interpretation of its occasion.  He says it’s a reaction to and an undergoing of, which is what the dramatic term `cry’ would lead one to believe and feel.

And in that sense, it’s very moving to hear Dr. Damasio’s descriptions because it’s not fair to say that poets knew it all along, although one certainly would have to say that from Shakespeare to Dickinson to Keats, there’s no doubt that these people knew how to access consciousness and to create very complicated constructed selves.  There is sort of an illusion and a fascination with biographies of poets and one thinks that the John Keats who is the dying young man is the John Keats who is writing the “Ode to a Nightingale.”  They’re actually obviously not the same.

FLATOW:  Jorie…

Prof. GRAHAM:  And the construction of these persona of the speaker is something which all the techniques of poetry are in service of.

FLATOW:  All right.  We’re going to take a short break and come back with Jorie Graham, Antonio Damasio, and Thomas Metzinger will jump into the fray. And stay with us.  We’ll be right back with a nice poem.  Don’t go away.

I’m Ira Flatow, and this is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW:  You’re listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY.  I’m Ira Flatow.

We’re talking this hour about consciousness with a poet, a philosopher and a scientist.  My guests are Jorie Graham, author of several collections of poetry, including “Never.”  She is the winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.  Thomas Metzinger, author of “Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity,” out this year from MIT Press. Antonio Damasio, author of “Looking for Spinoza:  Joy, Sorry and the Feeling Brain,” out this year from Harcourt.  Our number:  1 (800) 989-8255.

Jorie, you were going to read us a poem.  Can you set this poem up for us at all, give us any background?

Prof. GRAHAM:  Sure.  It takes place–the speaker is standing over a dock railing looking at minnows.  You have to imagine in the poem an original shock much further out at sea which would be a kind of metaphor for something like a big bang that gives way to a series of ever outward expanding wakes and they finally reach this particular set of railings and pilings, and they carry minnows within them and in their current.

I’m going to read a poem which is in two parts, although it’s all one block, and the first half is all one sentence with nesting parentheses and attempts to, in fact, capture an act of consciousness which has so much simultaneous activity in it, which is why I use parentheses and brackets to sort of indicate the amount that one is thinking about while one is also feeling and doing and looking and remembering.  And they cannot really be carded out from each other.

And then at a certain point there’s a turn in the poem and a series of pressures that the bodily experience of the witnessing of the minnows compels the speaker to suddenly undergo, and they become feelings and then emotions and then they lead to a kind of thinking, and then eventually to a sense of a moral or ethical predicament, which I think is something that Dr. Damasio maps quite brilliantly in his work.  Obviously we just do it instinctively.  I’ll read the poem “Prayer.”

`Over a dock railing I watch the minnows, thousands, swirl themselves, each a miniscule muscle but also without the way to create current, making of their unison, turning, re-enfolding, entering and exiting their own unison in unison, making of themselves a visual current, one that cannot freight or sway by minutest factions the water’s downdrafts and upswirls, the dockside cycles of finally arriving boat wakes there where they hit deeper resistance, water that seems to burst into itself.  It has those layers, a current, a real current, though mostly invisible, sending into the visible minnows’ arrowing motion that forces change. This is freedom.  This is the force of faith. Nobody gets what they want. Never again are you the same.  The longing is to be pure.  What you get is to be changed more and more by each glistening minute, through which infinity threads itself, also oblivion, of course, the aftershocks of something at sea.  Here, hands full of sand, letting it sift t! hrough in the wind, I look in and say, “Take this.  This is what I have saved. Take this.  Hurry.”  And if I listen now, listen, I was not saying anything.  It was only something I did.  I could not choose words.  I am free to go.  I cannot, of course, come back, not to this, never.  It is a ghost posed on my lips, here, never.’

FLATOW:  Very pretty.

Dr. Damasio, you’re a fan of Jorie Graham so much that you have one of Jorie Graham’s poems in front of your book “The Feeling of What Happens.” So she’s expressing ideas that speak to you?

Dr. DAMASIO:  Oh, absolutely.  You know, I think Jorie is in the tradition of many poets that have, in fact, as she pointed out, been there before we were. It is not that scientists interested, for example, in self and consciousness are breaking ground in this field without others, and especially poets, having treaded there before.  I mean, you think of Shakespeare and you think, for example, of the soliloquies of “Hamlet,” and what is that but, in fact, an enormous attempt to grasp what is going on in the internal monologue of a conscious self.

And you also find wonderful–you know, there’s a passage that I just wrote here as we were talking, when Jorie talked about poets having been there. Wordsworth, for example, talking about emotion in relation to–in one of his poems, the “Tintern Abbey” poems.  He talks about sensations sweet felt in the blood and felt along the heart.'  Now this is one of my preferred verses, almost as much as Jorie's verses, because here he is honing in on something that people at that time did not even know, and that is that there were chemical molecules being poured into the bloodstream to affect changes in our body.  And he is referring to it very specifically when he talks about felt in the blood’ and also `felt along the heart,’ referring, of course, to something that we’ve known for millennia and written about, which is the fact that when we emote we very often have changes in our heartbeat.

So there is this great tradition, and Jorie Graham and other poets who are generally described as metaphysical poets have actually added on to that.  For example, in the beautiful poem she just read, I underlined the following line: `What you get is to be changed.’  This almost describes to me what is really happening when we construct a self.  Self is about the constant change that is occurring in our bodies.  And we only develop the self and we only know that we exist because we have this way of capturing the fact that our body has just undergone change as a result of interacting with the world or interacting with our own structure.

So you have a very good example of this connection between poetry on the one hand and science, which is not terribly surprising because good art in general and science are really aiming at the same thing.  We really want to know about human nature in one way or another.  The immediate purpose tends to be slightly different, but in the end, that’s what distinguishes great science and great art.

FLATOW:  Mm-hmm.  Let me turn to our philosopher, Thomas Metzinger, on the panel.  Do you agree with these descriptions of consciousness that you’ve heard?  How do you define it?

Prof. METZINGER:  Well, the problem is that we have no true description and no true definition of the concept of consciousness, but I think what we have just very clearly seen, what has just been demonstrated, is that if conscious experience and selfhood are our target phenomena, there are many different ways to grasp them.  Neurology makes a big contribution in the present by demarcating the functional and neural correlates of certain kinds of conscious contents and look at how they change over time.  And what Jorie has just demonstrated to us, I think, is something I would like to call active phenomenology.  What poetry and literature do is they heighten introspective attention, introspective awareness, and then drive the process in which conscious mental models of reality are constructed in the brain.

And, of course, this introspective, first-person access to conscious experience is very important, too, because as yet we do not have good instruments to precisely describe all the sudden neuroses in the target phenomenon.  And so I think first-person access through poetry and literature is an important part of the picture.  Philosophers, of course, are interested in conceptual clarity and in epistemological issues and so forth.  For us it is interesting that a real epistemic progress is made right now, because we’ve been at the topic for many centuries and we’ve seen it go up and go down.  And we also see the limitations that all the other disciplines have.

For instance, something–just to give you one example I notice when listening to Tony and Jorie is that they are both naive realists about the self.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW:  Does that mean that you got there before they did?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. METZINGER:  They really think there is such a thing in reality, and I would rather claim that none of your listeners, nor you, Ira, have something or are something like a self.  There are just no such things as components of reality.  What exists are self models, representations created in brains, which are not any more recognized as representations by brains. But if we look closely, there is no thing, a self thing, that corresponds to these neurorepresentations in the brain, and that is the actual thing, the actual idea, we now have to depart from in this phase of our history.

FLATOW:  Would that be like saying, `My brain thinks, therefore I am’?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. METZINGER:  Well, it’s not your brain, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. METZINGER:  My brain implies that there is a relationship of ownership between you and your brain, and I think the truth may be even more frightening than that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW:  I’m scared to ask the next question.  Go ahead, Thomas.

Dr. DAMASIO:  There is no self thing, but there is something like a self process.  I think that we can all agree with that, even Thomas.

Prof. METZINGER:  Well, of course, right.  We need a process perspective on selves.  Selves are not things, but ongoing processes.  And they are sometimes suspended.  The process of conscious self-modeling goes on in dream sleep and it goes on during waking consciousness.  Some parts are invariant; some parts stay really stable, like the bodily background of self-awareness.  Other things are rather fleeting and change frequently, like thoughts or fast emotions.  But we are much more processes than things, and we are not metaphysical entities.  And if we start to think about these issues, I think it becomes clear that the contribution that, for instance, neuroscience currently makes to our self-understanding has great cultural ramifications, too, because we depart from an image of man which has been very dear to us for many centuries, and this is what is happening right now.

FLATOW:  That’s why I have the problem answering the question when somebody says, `How are you?’ ‘cause I’m not sure what part of me they want to know about.  ‘Cause if I hear what you’re saying correctly, you’re saying that there are these constant parts, but we’re really in a dynamic flux all the time, constantly monitoring ourselves and figuring out who we are.

Prof. GRAHAM:  Ira, can I jump in for a minute?

FLATOW:  Yes, go ahead.

Prof. GRAHAM:  I don’t think that the constructed voice of any poet or, for that matter, any painter or even composer is naive in the sense that it doesn’t know that it’s a construction.  But it is concerned with creating a system which will allow a person to feel empathy and to undergo accountability.  And, you know, we might not be here really, but we really are killing people.  And we might not, you know, have actual–you could probably prove to me that I’m a creature, a total creature of circumstance, but unfortunately, I’m also a creature that has to cast a vote.  I’m a person who has to be a mother.  I’m a person who’s responsible for taking care of somebody wounded in an emergency.

And at that point, whether I have a moral life and a complex moral life–well, whether I’m able to process the information that this culture–I think that news report that preceded you–I actually wanted to ask you if it was real news or if it was just, like, funny news you made up for us before the program started.  But at any rate, if we are to take just the news to heart, the levels of complex personhood that we have to develop in order to retain not only our sanity but our humanity at present–and something that will allow us to remain, you know, fully capable of handling contradiction–fear, rage, compassion–capable of being outraged at terrorist acts and perhaps unwilling to undertake terrorist acts ourselves in order to retaliate–maybe we have to have selves and be too simple and naive, because if we give up on that, there’s something horrifying about the degree to which we might slip out from under the mantle of accountability.

FLATOW:  Let me just remind everybody that I’m Ira Flatow and this is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Let’s see if we can get a phone call or two in here.  Let’s go to David in Iowa City.  Hi, David.

DAVID (Caller):  Hi.  How are you?

FLATOW:  Hi.  Go ahead.

DAVID:  I have a question involving, I guess, something that would almost be like a wrench thrown into the discussion, but it would be the unconscious and the place that Lacan described as a gap between perception and consciousness. And I believe in some senses that that relates to the way poetry is written, and a particular type of poetry, different from Wordsworthian models, where emotion might be recollected in tranquility. And I would just kind of throw that in there to see what the guests have to say.  And I’ll take my answer off the air.

FLATOW:  OK.  Thanks for calling.

What about the unconscious?  Anybody want to jump in and comment on that?

Dr. DAMASIO:  Well, there’s no question it exists.  Again, it’s a process. Naive or not, there it is.  And, in fact, one of the interesting–we’re here, as you know, in this very interesting symposium, and one of the sessions this morning actually had to do with Freudian thinking. And it’s not only the fact that Freud called attention to this incredibly vast amount of processing that we regard as the unconscious, but that actually modern neuroscience has made it clear that a vast amount of our processing, even a vast amount of what we could call in a certain way `mind,’ is occurring in the subterranean of the unconscious. And, in fact, it’s probably an enormous advantage, too, because we would do very little well if we had to be conscious of every step we take, of every use of grammatical rules in constructing our sentences, and so on.

So there is an unconscious, and whether in classical psychoanalytical thinking or in modern neuroscience, there is no doubt that it exists, that there are all of these processes that we are not aware of, or at least not aware of all the time.  Now I think that in relation to how it plays in artistic activity, that’s also a very interesting question.  Of course, Jorie should answer that. But let me say that the unconscious does play a role because, of course, a lot of what happens when we say that we intuit, when we say that we have an intuition, is happening in a non-conscious processing level.  Intuition is really about arriving at a certain point without having consciousness of all the steps that were necessary to arrive at that point.

FLATOW:  Dr. Damasio…

Dr. DAMASIO:  And so…

FLATOW:  …let me jump in ‘cause we have to take a break.  We’ll come back and let you finish that thought and talk more about unconsciousness and consciousness, take some more calls.  Stay with us.  We’ll be right back.

I’m Ira Flatow, and this is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.


FLATOW:  You’re listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY.  I’m Ira Flatow.

A brief program note:  Join Neal Conan and his guests on Monday as they celebrate Ferdinand Magellan and his odyssey around the world.  That’s this time on Monday on TALK OF THE NATION.

Today on SCIENCE FRIDAY we’re talking about consciousness–you know, what is it, and how does it relate from science to poetry to philosophy?–with my guests, Thomas Metzinger, professor and head of the department of philosophy at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany; Antonio Damasio, adjunct professor at The Salk Institute, the Van Allen distinguished professor and head of the department of neurology, University Iowa in Iowa City; Jorie Graham, the Boylston professor of oratory and rhetoric at Harvard in Cambridge.  Our number, 1 (800) 989-8255.

Dr. Damasio, did you want to finish that thought?

Dr. DAMASIO:  Well, just to say that intuition, with all of its unconscious component, is very much at work in scientific as well as artistic work.  We come to some of our best hypotheses and especially interpretations with, very often, something that we really don’t know the source of, and that source is the unconscious.  And actually, wonderful thinkers have recognized this.  I’ll just give two examples:  one is Einstein, the other is the French mathematician Henri Poincare.  Both of them had a very keen sense of how non-conscious the processing that led to, let’s say, scientific or artistic inspiration had to be.  But I think Jorie should talk about this issue.

FLATOW:  Well, Einstein used to say when he was asked a question just, `I give a little think,’ and he’d do one of his walks in the morning, think about–it would come to him.  Jorie, yes.  Do you want to react?

Prof. GRAHAM:  I just wanted to say quickly–of course, the call would come from Iowa City, so we don’t know if it’s a neurologist or a poet calling. But, of course, when I was referring to Keats’ notion of negative capability, it is that sort of opening up and waiting for the poem to come from what you would think of as precisely the unconscious. A poem is a machine or an experiment for accessing what cannot be accessed by rational means; otherwise, you know, we would be using rational means.  The model of recollection in tranquility, which the caller used–which is the Wordsworthian model–is the alternative, when I was making the distinction between the speaker being the protagonist as opposed to the narrator of the event of the poem.

FLATOW:  Mm-hmm.  Let’s…

Prof. GRAHAM:  Those are our two different traditions.

FLATOW:  OK.  Let’s go to the floor there, people standing at the microphone. First up–hi.  Go ahead.

LEE (Audience Member):  Hi.  Lee from University of Utah.  Two-part question: If there’s no self thing and self is a mental process, first, for Dr. Damasio, is there some sort of disease or brain injury where there have actually been people who are conscious but don’t have a self? And can you describe what that kind of person would be like?  And second, what does it mean to Joe Public on the street that there’s no self thing?

Dr. DAMASIO:  Well, the first question is very easy to answer.  Yes, we do have to make a very clear separation between a mental process, between mind processes, and the self process that can get eddied onto that mind process. And there are situations in neurological disease where the separation can take place.  For example, in a condition known as epileptic automatism, you can have patients who, for a brief period of time, will be able to move about in a room and, in fact, do a variety of actions that are in themselves, in the micro aspect of the action, quite purposeful, like, for example, grasping for a glass and actually drinking water from it.

And nonetheless, they do not have at that same time a sense of who they are and why they’re doing what they’re doing and where they’re going to be next. In other words, they lack this incredibly rich architecture that all of us have at this moment which allows us to have a sense of identity and project that identity into the lived past and into the unanticipated future. And so there are these conditions, and I could tell you two or three more, where this can happen as a result either of an electrical disturbance in brain function or as a result of a specific lesion in the brain.

What it means for the man in the street that this is a process, not a thing–it’s actually something quite interesting.  We have the very natural tendency to try to explain.  Now that we are all aware of the fact that there is neuroscience and neurobiology and we can understand how our brain works, we have the tendency to explain things in a very old, very traditional way, which comes out of phrenology.  And the idea is that there is a thing in the brain, there is a center, for example, that allows us to speak or to learn and remember or to emote.  And it is just not that way. Things are not only processes in the sense that Thomas Metzinger was talking about, but they’re also very complex enchainment of phenomena that occur in many different systems with many different parts of the brain.

So you have to stay away from the idea that there is a locus for something to happen or a particular thing.  We have to think always of process and in terms of systems creating those processes.

Prof. METZINGER:  May I add to what Tony said?

FLATOW:  Tom Metzinger, go ahead.  Sure.

Prof. METZINGER:  I think one thing we really all have to understand–that being conscious is not the same thing as being self-conscious.  There are at least two large classes of conscious states which are selfless.  One are psychiatric disorders like depersonalization, but there are also non-pathological states like spiritual experiences, mystical states of mind, religious experience. And for the man on the street, I think the number-one message is that it’s becoming more and more unlikely that anything like a conscious self could exist without its neural basis.  So for the man on the street, the main message of all the research currently going on is mortality. We have to think about our own mortality in a new way.

FLATOW:  1 (800) 989-8255 is our number.  Dr. Damasio, are there any tools as a neurologist–you know, I sometimes give scientists a blank check to write themselves something that they could use.  If you had a blank check and you could create any tool to study consciousness, what would it be?

Dr. DAMASIO:  Well, it would be–you know, it’s so complex that it is hard to imagine.  It’s an excellent question, by the way.  But it would have to be a collection of tools–for example, tools that would allow us probably on the basis of developments such as the ones of magnetic resonance imaging to have a far greater detail of the anatomical and physiological process that’s very much more closely tied to the time course.  You have to think that a lot of these wonderful things that are happening to us–like, for example, all of us here talking, answering questions, your listeners listening–all of this is happening on the basis of events that have to do with the firing of single cells in our brains that occur in five milliseconds.  This is awfully fast.

And we need, of course–when we talk about important decisions in our life, when we talk about ethical decisions or about writing a poem, of course we’re talking about larger scales of process that occur in the order of minutes, hours and so on.  But nonetheless, all of this is bootstrapped from extremely fast events.  And until we get the ability to get into that very, very fast scale, we’re not going to be able to understand everything.

The other would be a tool that would allow us to understand how genes carry out their expression in a variety of systems of our brain.  So in a way, I would want this magical collection of tools that would be, at one end, related very closely to the mind into the higher systems of our cognition and which we link very much to human experience as we know it, and on the other, I would want to go down to the level even below selves, the level of molecules, where we have expression of genes, which, by the way, are not only important to make our architecture as we are, but to maintain that architecture, and are constantly being engaged in everything we do–the processes of learning, the processes of speaking, for example.  We constantly are engaging the expression of genes in order to have the nervous system operating.

FLATOW:  Mm-hmm.  Let me go to the audience, get another question.

Prof. GRAHAM:  Ira, can I just…

FLATOW:  Oh, yes, Jorie.  Go ahead.  Jump in.

Prof. GRAHAM:  It’s not as if a static notion of the self is operative for anyone here and, I doubt, for anyone in the audience or any of your listeners. The need to construct oneself–as Eliot would say, to create a face to meet the faces that we meet at any given moment in any day–is something that we all experience.  We are different in any context, and all of us have a sensation, a very vivid one I believe–and poets have referred to it–of the no one' that we also are.  When Emily Dickinson says, I’m nobody.  Who are you?  Are you nobody, too?’ she doesn’t mean it as an emptiness.  And to mangle a line of Wallace Stevens’, when he refers to what I will change slightly to make sense for you–the no one that one is and the no one that one is not–there’s just a sense that, you know, we have a nobody in us as well. Blake even refers to the Nobodaddy.

There’s just a sense of–the solid self is no one’s operative illusion, and I think that we’re not combating that here.  What we’re trying to do is figure out, you know, what goes into the construction, whether it’s a poem, a work of art, a work of philosophy or, you know, a neurological undertaking that exhibits the characteristics that momentarily coalesce into a self, and then whether that momentary coalescence can last long enough to love or do good or to do harm.


Talking with folks out there in Salt Lake City.  Let’s go to the audience. Hi.  Go ahead.

BROOKE (Audience Member):  Hello.  My name is Brooke.  I’m a student here in Salt Lake City at Westminster College, and I have a question for Ms. Graham. You have mentioned negative capability and the idea how a person can be capable of dealing with uncertainty without reaching after fact and reason, without the irritable reaching after fact and reason.  And here we have been presented with the idea of the uncertainty of the self and a self in flux and a self as a result of circumstance, and I am wondering how you can relate the idea of negative capability to that self in uncertainty, and how you see the idea of negative capability, if it’s something you see as pervasive in poetry.

Prof. GRAHAM:  We’re talking about a state that’s itself a momentary state. It’s a matter of a kind of delay in the act of cognition that allows for other kinds of information and a more complex understanding of the reality that one is in to filter in.  It’s not that eventually you don’t reach for fact and reason; the poem is a machine or an act that moves from the body up through the emotions, into thought and then into action. But it’s about lingering for a much longer duration in the state of receptive sensation.  It allows for the world to thicken and become more real and, as I said before, more complex.  As Whitman would say, `Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.  I contain multitudes.’

And one of the reasons that it’s so important that we keep ourselves as complex as we possibly can, not oversimplified in either a notion of the self or oversimplified in the notion of an abandonment of self, is that we are, as I said before, creatures that have agency and are going to have to act.  And to have an ethical universe that we can operate in, we have to perhaps make our reality as real–and we’re living in a world in which it’s becoming more virtual every minute.  So I think everyone at this table is involved with an attempt to keep reality as thick and as materially real as possible in order that it not become, you know, something as thin as a screen.

FLATOW:  All right, Jorie Graham, you have the last word today.  We’ve run out of time.  Jorie Graham is the Boylston professor of oratory and rhetoric at Harvard University in Cambridge.  She’s author of several collections of poetry, including her latest book “Never” and “The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems of 1974-1994,” which is the winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.  Antonio Damasio, adjunct professor at The Salk Institute, the Van Allen distinguished professor and head of the department of neurology at the University of Iowa in Iowa City and author of “Looking for Spinoza:  Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain.”  Thomas Metzinger, professor and head of the department of philosophy, director of the Theoretical Philosophy Group at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, and author of “Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity.”

Thank you all for taking time to join us today on SCIENCE FRIDAY, and a good weekend to you.

Dr. DAMASIO:  Thank you very much.

Prof. GRAHAM:  Thank you.

FLATOW:  You’re welcome.

(Soundbite of applause)


FLATOW:  If you missed any references, surf over to our Web site at sciencefriday.com.  SCIENCE FRIDAY’s Kids’ Connection is there, free curricula, free teaching materials for schools.  You can also download back issues of SCIENCE FRIDAY onto your Audible player, listen to them on RealAudio.

Have a great weekend.  We’ll see you next week.  I’m Ira Flatow in New York.

Tags: Philosophy, Science

Created at: 10 October 2003 10:10 AM