Wednesday, May 5, 1999

Q&A Antonio Damasio: Homunculus Phobia

Originally appeared in The Boston Book Review

Q&A Antonio Damasio: Homunculus Phobia

By the time you get "delivery" of consciousness for a given object, things have been ticking away in the machinery of your brain for what would seem like an eternity to a molecule -- if molecules could think. We are always hopelessly late for consciousness and because we all suffer from the tardiness no one notices it.
   "The Feeling of What Happens"

HB: There can't be too many neuroscientists who allude to Derrida, as you do in your writing.

AD: I grew up with the idea that there's really no separation between professional activity in science and culture. I grew up reading a lot that was not professional -- novels, poetry, philosophy. I think that kind of reading is very helpful -- unless you're in some profession where the world of the mind does not count.

HB: Peter Brook blurbed your book. As you know, his last two plays -- "The Man Who," and "I Am a Phenomenon" -- are based on neurology.

AD: He's a brilliant figure and a very good example of a crossover of interest. He is involved in theater and in film-making because he's interested in human behavior and in the human mind, and he's involved in neuroscience because that amplifies his interests in the human mind. This has been long-standing. If you look at "Marat/Sade" he was already interested in mind and in disturbances of mind. Brook is a phenomenal intellect and who has been very interested in our work. We met a few times and helped him with the last play, which is about memory.

HB: Why is there so much interest in neuroscience these days?

AD: It has to do with the interest in the human spirit in general. When you're interested in memory, language, emotion and consciousness, chances are you also have an interest in the kinds of intellects who have approached the topic from different perspectives.

Somebody once asked me who I thought were the great historical forerunners to the kind of work I was doing. I said, the first name to come to mind would be Shakespeare. It's not because I'm comparing myself to the person I most admire intellectually in the history of the human mind. It's because somebody like Shakespeare, or any great poet, is deeply interested in the same phenomena I'm interested in, except that their interest is expressed through writing a play or a poem and my interest is expressed by designing a theory and running experiments that can be done with the very modern techniques of neuroimaging. But in the end, it's the same thing in that it's trying to understand the underpinnings of the human mind.

HB: A generation ago, neuroscience didn't have its current popularity.

AD: Right. What's happening right now is that, without paying it much notice, people who had been looking at poetry or the novel for an understanding of the mind now think they can get some satisfaction from science. I think they are perfectly correct; some part of the science we are doing right now will end up answering a lot of very important questions.

HB: You allude frequently in "The Feeling of What Happens" to the fact that consciousness studies are relatively new. You speak about a momentary breakthrough of consciousness studies in Freud, Darwin, William James and the neurologist Hughlings Jackson but you say that then consciousness studies pretty much came to a halt. Why did they stop and what's bringing them to life today?

AD: What is true of consciousness is true of emotion. People like William James were very interested in consciousness and emotion but throughout the twentieth-century there's a paucity of studies in those areas, certainly in neuroscience. I think people became extremely suspicious of things they regarded as not objective. Consciousness was seen as totally internal, hard to pin down. Emotion, likewise, was seen as elusive and vague.

HB: So these subjects were left to philosophy and the arts?

AD: Exactly. I remember, fifteen years ago, being at a major NIH sponsored meeting of neuroscientists. When the topic of consciousness was raised, the response was, we don't really want to deal with that because it's just not going to be objective enough.

Of course, what is objective and what is not objective depends on the theory we have to describe the object. I think that now, with better theorizing and with much better methods to get at the processes that produce these phenomena, the attitude is changing.

HB: Was it brain scanning techniques that made it plausible to once again study consciousness ?

AD: The existence of a lot of very powerful results from new techniques such as neuroimaging was one factor. Second, there was an increasing ability to conceptualize what the brain is like. So instead of being very narrow in your focus, you can have a theory that is broader and more encompassing, and that can accommodate the elusiveness of emotions or the ethereal aspects of consciousness.

HB: Has computer science had an impact on consciousness studies?

AD: There is hardly anything we do today in neuroscience that has not felt the impact of computer science. All the imaging methods we have -- the ability to reconstruct the brain in 3D, the ability to analyze functional imaging data -- are tied to the enormous power of computation.

HB: Following neuroscientists, some computer scientists have begun to add emotion to their models of intelligence.

AD: Many people have written me to the effect that the work in my previous book, "Descartes Error," was instrumental to their understanding that emotion and affect have very important roles to play in mental process. People say that "Descartes Error" makes it obvious that decision making and reasoning are not purely cognitive or purely rational acts; they are embedded in emotion and affect.

HB: What is the relationship between neuroscience and computer science? Is neuroscience stimulated by the models of mind that come out of computer science?

AD: I don't think so. It's much more the other way around. Computer scientists who are doing interesting things with neural nets, for example, have been influenced by neuroscience. But the way we run our studies is not inspired by computer science.

HB: But you do reckon with philosophers whose thinking about the mind has been influenced by computer science.

AD: Absolutely. When I'm asked if philosophy influences what I do, I say yes. And of course, you are quite correct in saying that there are a lot of philosophers who are strongly influenced by computer science. Dan Dennett, John Searle, Paul and Patricia Churchland, for example, are very close to the world of computer science, and they are important thinkers on aspects of the mind, such as consciousness. Neuroscientists like me have all the reason to listen to what they say because they often have interesting takes on the problem. You need to be informed about what they consider to be an interesting as opposed to a uninteresting way of looking at a problem.

For an experimentalist like me to do sensible and useful work, I have to be aware of what is going on in other fields, such as the field of philosophy, with its influence from computational science.

HB: There's a footnote in the book in which you are trying to define moods and moodiness in people. You say: "Fifty years ago you would have been called 'neurotic,' but nobody is neurotic anymore."

Care to expand on that?

AD: You agree with it?

HB: I think you're right.

AD: Several people who read the manuscript said, oh, get rid of that. I liked it and kept it. The footnote is there just to make people aware of how labels change because culture changes. I remember that in medical school we talked a lot about neurosis, and the distinction between neurosis and psychosis. These categories were honored in medical studies and in the culture. Today, I can't remember the last time I heard anybody called neurotic.

HB: Maybe in a Woody Allen movie.

AD: Exactly. But you don't use that category anymore, which simply means that the way you look at human behavior, the way you describe it, has changed. You're now much more focused on specific processes. Rather than putting a large collection of behaviors that are a little odd under the big banner of neurosis, you find language for specific behaviors .

HB: In other words, you apply a neuroscientific model instead of, say, a psychoanalytic model?

AD: True, although I want to tell you that I don't think that in the end, deep down, these things are incompatible. In spite of the labels changing there are certain things that are shared. Take something like the notion of the unconscious, for example. You don't need to be a follower of Freud or of Jung to realize that this is in fact a very important contribution to the understanding of human beings. Neuroscience constantly shows us that a lot of the activity of the brain is not conscious. As we cross epochs, there are certain things that can be salvaged from previous ways of looking at behavior.

HB: At the beginning of the book, you quote T.S. Eliot, from "Dry Salvages":

Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.

Reading this again, I was troubled by the last line -- "The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation." Doesn't saying "Incarnation" -- capital "i" -- turn the passage into a statement of religious doctrine?

AD: There's no question that the word "Incarnation" is capitalized, but I'm not troubled by that. I'm much more interested by the sense, in those lines, of getting at something that is not clear. That's what those lines mean. Perhaps Eliot is trying to introduce some notion of divine causation but still what interests me in the poem in the notion of seeing something through a field of nonclarity, a field of vagueness.

Here you have what I call the movie in the brain, and together with it, a lurking sense that it's your movie. That is what I think of as the hint half-guessed, the gift half-understood. The line I like the most is "you are the music / While the music lasts." It's about something that is constantly being made, and as long as it is being made you are you. The minute that process is suspended -- when the brain breaks down or you fall asleep -- you're no longer there, the music stops playing.

HB: You distinguish between two kinds of consciousness -- core consciousness and extended or autobiographical consciousness.

AD: That is one of the basic distinctions made in the book. It's fundamental in the same way that the distinction between the movie and ownership of the movie is fundamental. These distinctions are foundational, and they are absent from most discussions of this matter.

In the core self, you have this very simple process that I believe is also present in a lot of animals; you maintain a constant window on the here and now. In extended consciousness, which you and I have at this moment, there is the ability to put the here and now in the complicated context of the past and of the anticipated future. In order to be a self in the usual sense of the term, we need an autobiography, a past that is unique and specific to us, and all the memory that is unique and gives us time in a consistent way. But then you need something else, which is the sense of the future. You know right now what you're going to do with the rest of the day, you know what you're going to do in the next few days and weeks, and you know what you wish to do in the future. That's what, in "Desartes Error," I called "memories of the future." It's this constant scenario building that we do. All of my core consciousness is completely encircled by my consistent past, which of course is advancing as time progresses, and my anticipated future. This being caught between past and future is what forms the extended consciousness.

HB: Which consciousness is it that is "the music while the music lasts?"

AD: Core consciousness, the simple one that is being built under the pulses and is there only so long as the pulses exist. The other one is built on top of core. You only have extended consciousness inasmuch as you have core. If you lose core consciousness, you lose it all. But you can lose extended consciousness and keep the core.

HB: What is the neurological condition in which you lose extended consciousness?

AD: Transient global amnesia. If you have transient global amnesia you have no idea what you've been doing over the past few hours or days and no idea what you intend to do. You are reduced to little more than the core self.

HB: So core consciousness is lower level, and closer to the body.

AD: Absolutely, whereas extended consciousness is much more connected to the social and cultural environment. You build extended consciousness in a specific social and cultural context. The way we create an autobiographical self is in part dependent on us but also dependent on the context in which we've grown up. Core consciousness, on the other hand, is going to be the same no matter where we grew up, no matter what our culture was or who our parents were. The core self that animates us is very similar to what is found in the Bonobo chimpanzee.

HB: Though you imply that chimpanzees can also have extended consciousness.

AD: Yes, though to a smaller degree than we do. We have language and greater memory capacity so our extended consciousness is going to be more elaborate.

HB: You describe what you call the homunculus notion of the self -- the way of talking that assumes there's something like a little person inside us who maintains our sense of identiy.. And you say that notion has been disproved. What's interesting, though, is your writing that: "The failure of the homunculus idea to provide a solution for how we know cast doubt on the very notion of self. This was unfortunate."

AD: Take somebody like Daniel Dennett. Dennett has been fantastically important in making people aware that the homunculus is silly, that the Cartesian theater doesn't work. But in reaction he has tended to pull the self out of the conversation, not because he doesn't believe there is a self, but because he doesn't want people to talk about the self in terms of the homunculus. I think this phobia of the homunculus ended up being a phobia of the self, which, of course, is totally ludicrous because self is one of the most important notions we can have about the human mind and human behavior. Great thinkers in the field -- take the neuroscientist Sherrington at the turn of the century, or take William James -- were always aware that the self was the protagonist. There is a particular organization, a peculiar cast of our minds, that creates this notion of self.

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