02 December 2010

A Dynamic Collection of Integrated Neural Processes, Centered on the Representation of the Living Body, That Finds Expression in a Dynamic Collection of Integrated Mental Processes


B&NReview

Cognitive scientist Antonio Damasio has authored some of the most successful, influential, and widely read popular science books on the mind. His latest book, "Self Comes to Mind," is an attempt at "starting over." Damasio wants to re-draw his vision of consciousness and the mind, on a larger canvas, and with the advantage of recent research findings and more comprehensive thinking on his own part.

But can a middle-aged man truly start over? Will society allow it? The publication of Damasio's new book has spawned a large number of published responses, from the respectful Jonah Lehrer interview, to the somewhat bemused Barnes & Noble review by philosopher A C Grayling, to the quasi-temper tantrum thrown by psychologist Alison Gopnik, in Slate.

When a person accumulates a body of work and thought, it is difficult to start over. And despite his claim, Damasio is not actually beginning again at the beginning -- that would be impossible. He is taking much of the respect and credibility that he has earned from past research and writings, and risking it all in an attempt to create something quite magnificent -- the beginnings of a seminal vision of how human minds work.

Damasio makes a case for the necessity of a "self", or subjective element, in the mind. And he locates the self precisely within the body -- or at least the parts of the brain that sense and map the body. Despite Damasio's claims of "starting over," feelings and emotions play central roles in this embodied self, this anchor of higher consciousness. In fact, threads of his previous thoughts pervade his newest work.

The author builds his argument chapter by chapter, bringing the reader up to date on known brain functions, theories of mind, and new research findings which utilise the latest tools. So far, so good. But then, in connecting the threads of self, the body, feelings, consciousness, perception, movement, attention, and some types of memory, Damasio climbs far out onto the brain stem. By doing so, he may be providing jealous rivals -- some of them possessing psychological chain saws -- an opportunity to cut him off at the stump. Damasio does not care. To Damasio, the vision is the important thing, not necessarily what others might construe of it. If the vision is true, eventually it will come through.

Damasio looks at the mind from the level of brain centers and pathways, and from the higher level of mental processes up to the self. Some readers will be satisfied with his weaving of the two levels together, and others will not. It is worth the time and the struggle, in my opinion, as an introduction to cognition.

The truly hard work has yet to be done. And since an ultimate understanding of the human mind -- as far as modern humans are capable -- will require a monumental acquisition of concepts as well as a monumental erasing of mis-concepts, it is unlikely that many of the current crop of cognitive scientists will ever live to see the promised land. Starting over is much harder than one might think.

Update 27Dec2010: Philosopher Ned Block takes a shot at Damasio's book in the pages of the New York Times. I admit to being a bit puzzled by Block's obvious and repeated mischaracterisations of some of the basic ideas in Damasio's book, until I reached the final paragraph in Block's critique. It seems that Block is disturbed that some of Damasio's ideas may be used to justify suffering by cows and chickens in the livestock and food production business. Apparently, Block did not read the book at all, but rather seized upon a few sections which raised red flags in the minefield of Block's politically correct consciousness.

You would be amazed how common it is that busy book reviewers fail to read the books they are reviewing. I suppose when one is politically correct enough, one hardly has to read or think deeply about an idea in order to recognise it as heresy. Understanding such emotional and reflexive "thinking" is part of the reason why thinking people should read books such as Damasio's "Self Comes to Mind."

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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