Friday, June 22, 2012

Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain

Village square in Ceret, 1954. Painting by Arbit Blatas (1908-199), a Lithuanian-born member of the School of Paris, and a favorite painter of Antonio Damasio.

The complexity of the emotional network is simplified in this diagram by neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux.


Antonio Damasio A Pioneer in the Private Life of the Brain.
Wall Street Journal article by Robert Lee Hotz, February 11, 2011

Los Angeles— As a pioneering neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio probes the biology of creativity with all the tools of neural high technology—brain scanners, encephalographs, radioactive tracer dyes and clinical diagnostic tests.

To collect his own thoughts, he always uses a yellow plastic mechanical pencil and a legal pad.
The measured pace of penmanship allows for proper reflection, in his view. "Writing long hand is the last refuge. One needs the time it takes to put pencil to paper and let it run along the ruled line," he said.

In his deliberative manner, Dr. Damasio has written 260 research papers, two technical tomes, congressional-hearing testimony, countless lectures and four best-selling books about the brain, which have been translated into 39 languages. He is famous for overturning the notion that emotions have no role in rational thought. Through clinical studies of brain-damaged patients, he discovered that the neural circuits responsible for our feelings also are critical to healthy decision-making and moral reasoning.

His new book on the biology of self-awareness, "Self Comes to Mind," was published last fall.
On a recent morning in Los Angeles, the 66-year-old Dr. Damasio, dressed in a black turtleneck sweater, black trousers and black clogs, discussed his thought process in his office at the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. There, he oversees 30 neuroscientists and a $3 million research budget. His wife, Hanna Damasio, who developed new ways to study brain structures, is co-director.

She disciplines his theories by ensuring they are anchored to sound experimental evidence. "She is constantly nagging me and saying I am an idiot. It is very good," he said.

By temperament, Dr. Damasio is a courtly impresario of ideas. He was born and educated in Lisbon. As a child, he was fascinated by the workings of internal combustion engines. "Once I grew out of engines, the mechanisms I was concerned with were mechanisms of the mind," Dr. Damasio said.

Dr. Damasio is fluent in five languages, including his native Portuguese. But he usually thinks and writes in English, which he didn't start studying until he was 13 years old.

Broadly speaking, Dr. Damasio's discoveries about the private life of the brain transformed a century's conventional wisdom about how feelings inform decision-making.

Gradually, Dr. Damasio and other scientists are identifying some of the brain circuits underlying creative thought. Generally, brain-wave measures show that a sudden insight is the climax of intense brain states below the level of our awareness. It appears to involve more neural cells than methodical reasoning. Our brain may be working hardest when it seems most unfocused.

Moreover, studies of neural signals suggest that our brain appears to make up its mind 10 seconds before we become conscious of a decision. Our most creative thoughts may be beyond our conscious control. "You get an emotional certainty," he said.

By analyzing brain circuits, he showed that each emotion generates a pattern of neural activity that tempers how we react to new information. Moods powerfully bias what people think, remember and perceive. When critical brain regions are injured, the damage can sever links between emotions, memory and reason, crippling our ability to make decisions just as a stroke can rob a patient of sight or the use of an arm.

In his current research, he explores how brain cells create a sense of self. Clearly, awareness had survival value for the species that evolved consciousness. "That sense of self is our passport into knowing," Dr. Damasio said. "Without it, there would be no motivation, no drive, no need biologically to invent anything or try to modify the circumstances around us."

By choice, his work at the institute puts him at the intersection of science and art. Last year, he turned his research findings into a prose poem for a performance scored by composer Bruce Adolphe and performed by cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Mr. Adolphe recently finished a cantata—"The Obedient Choir of Emotions"—based on passages from Dr. Damasio's new book.

While his research inspires the work of musicians, Dr. Damasio and his colleagues, in turn, are studying how music affects the brain's structure.

Dr. Damasio acknowledged that his own creative mind remains a mystery. An idea presents itself, like a fish nibbling at the hook of awareness. It may strike as he interviews a patient or watches the computerized images take form on a video monitor during a brain scanning session.

He gets waylaid by ideas in his moments between places, as he walks among laboratory buildings or, as a passenger aboard an airplane, flies from one city to another. "It's the change of scenery," he said. "This happens so often that I have come to predict it."

All told, he has three offices, but usually writes seriously only at one—a sparsely furnished alcove in his ninth-floor apartment on the Westside of Los Angeles. There are no phones. There is a computer but he uses it usually just to check references. The window overlooks the distant Santa Monica Mountains. "It's just me and the outside," he said.

On many evenings, he uses his second work-space at home, instead of staying late at his university office. In that home office, he will take a phone call. Etchings by Lucien Freud and Philip Guston flank the designer desk. "They are a sort of cautionary tale, dealing with resignation in the presence of death," he said. "For pure joy, I look at a small painting by Arbit Blatas. An ocean liner is at the center of the composition, perhaps ready to depart. It holds the promise of discovery."

When he is trying to compose his thoughts, he prefers that there be music playing. "Music can help in the in-betweens, when you stop writing and you think and reflect and rest," he said.
He wrote three chapters of one book listening to the same recording of a Mozart sonata over and over again. "But I cannot listen to Beethoven or Mahler or Chopin or Bach when I write because those composers require you stop what you are doing and listen," he said.

Lucien Frued's 2006 etching The Painter's Doctor presenting a long-nosed bespectacled man in a white coat hunched forward with his brow furrowed. Intrigued Bloomsbury auction bidders pushed the lot past its top estimate of £15,000 to £20,000.

Antonio Damasio's latest book, now on my must-read list.

Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain by Antonio Damasio

Editorial Reviews
From Publishers Weekly
As he has done previously, USC neuroscientist Damasio (Descartes' Error) explores the process that leads to consciousness. And as he has also done previously, he alternates between some exquisite passages that represent the best popular science has to offer and some technical verbiage that few will be able to follow. He draws meaningful distinctions among points on the continuum from brain to mind, consciousness to self, constantly attempting to understand the evolutionary reasons why each arose and attempting to tie each to an underlying physical reality. Damasio goes to great lengths to explain that many species, such as social insects, have minds, but humans are distinguished by the "autobiographical self," which adds flexibility and creativity, and has led to the development of culture, a "radical novelty" in natural history. Damasio ends with a speculative chapter on the evolutionary process by which mind developed and then gave rise to self. In the Pleistocene, he suggests, humans developed emotive responses to shapes and sounds that helped lead to the development of the arts. Readers fascinated from both a philosophical and scientific perspective with the question of the relationships among brain, mind, and self will be rewarded for making the effort to follow Damasio's arguments.

Self Comes to Mind is a Big Idea book penned by a luminous thinker. . . . [A] beautifully sprawling and marvelous work.” —The Dallas Morning News

“Will give pleasure to anyone interested in original thinking about the brain. . . . Breathtakingly original.” —Financial Times
“Damasio introduces some novel ideas. . . . Intriguing.” —New Scientist

“Adventurous, courageous, and intelligent. Antonio Damasio is one of the leading workers in the field of consciousness research. . . . I have great admiration for this book and its author.” —John Searle, The New York Review of Books

“Damasio’s most  ambitious work yet. . . . A lucid and important work.” —

“A very interesting book . . . cogent, painstaking, imaginative, knowledgeable, honest, and persuasive . . . Damasio’s quest is both thorough and comprehensive.” —New York Journal of Books

“Damasio’s continental European training sensitizes him to the reductionist traps that ensnare so many of his colleagues. His is the only one of the many consciousness books weighing down my shelves that feels it necessary to mention Freud’s . . . use of the term unconscious.” —The Guardian (Book of the Week)

“A delight. You will embark on an intellectual journey well worth the effort.” —The Wilson Quarterly
“Readers of [Damasio’s] earlier books will encounter again the clar­ity and the richness of a scientific theory nourished by the practice of the neurologist.” —L’Humanité (France)

“Some scientific heavyweights have dared approach consciousness. Among them, Antonio Damasio has the immense advantage of a dual knowledge of the human brain, as scientist and clinician. In Self Comes to Mind he gives us a fascinating window of this inter­face between the brain and the world, which is grounded in our own body.” —Le Figaro (France)

“The marvel of reading Damasio’s book is to be convinced one can follow the brain at work as it makes the private reality that is the deepest self.” —V. S. Naipaul, Nobel laureate and author of A Bend in the River

“Damasio makes a grand transition from higher- brain views of emotions to deeply evolutionary, lower- brain contributions to emotional, sensory, and homeostatic experiences. He affirms that the roots of consciousness are affective and shared by our fellow animals. Damasio’s creative vision leads relentlessly toward a nat­ural understanding of the very font of being.” —Jaak Panksepp, author of Affective Neuroscience and Baily Endowed Chair for Animal Well- Being Science, Washington State University

“I was totally captivated by Self Comes to Mind. Damasio presents his seminal discoveries in the field of neuroscience in the broader contexts of evolutionary biology and cultural development. This trailblazing book gives us a new way of thinking about ourselves, our history, and the importance of culture in shaping our common future.” —Yo-Yo Ma

No comments:

Post a Comment