While there is much common ground between the two authors, they come from different perspectives on what constitutes the basis of human consciousness. Whereas Torey opts for language as its crucial evolutionary catalyst and operational fulcrum, Damasio sees the emotions as most important. He notes that when consciousness is suspended in patients, then so too is emotional response, suggesting at the very least that they have "common underpinnings".
The book is well and clearly written, and is intended for both the academic specialist and the interested lay person. Compared to Torey, there is a great deal of information on the neuronal workings of the brain with a large number of actual case studies of patients, supplemented with a wealth of simple diagrams. This aids understanding and has the effect of making transparent the foundations on which his reasoning rests. However, readers should be aware that key words like "self" are not necessarily used in the same way that K, or for that matter, Torey, uses them.
Damasio proposes a structure beginning with something he calls the "proto-self", which might be described as that state existing moment by moment in which the organism collects and regulates peripheral information at many levels of brain operation to ensure ongoing maintenance of a coherent physical organism. It is an entirely unconscious process. Whenever there is some sensory modification of this proto-self, most obviously from touch, smell etc., which registers at a conscious but non-verbal level - a virtually continuous process - a new brain state that he calls the "core self" is generated. Damasio calls this core self a "second order map", referring to the level of neuronal processes involved, and it gives rise to "core consciousness". We are aware at some level of the contents of core consciousness, but it remains limited to that which happens in an endless present; that is, there is no consequential memory retained and there is no effect beyond the continued maintenance of equilibrium of the organism, although at a much wider level than for the proto-self. Core consciousness is where "feelings" (with their attendant connection to the emotions) originate and is an absolutely crucial step in the formation of an "extended consciousness". To justify this distinction (core/extended consciousness) he provides evidence of brain disease that afflicts extended consciousness but leaves a functioning core consciousness. Through this concept of core consciousness Damasio introduces "self consciousness" both in a different manner and at a different evolutionary stage of development to Torey.
This, then, is the final step: extended consciousness (a brain state) that he allies to the "auto-biographical self" (a mindstate). Both extended consciousness and the auto-biographical self depend operationally on detailed memory access. From this individuals can activate a "past" and a projected "future" based on what he calls "the invariant aspects of his/her biography" which are stored as implicit records. These records are re-activated when necessary as neuron patterns and from there into explicit images for extended use and modification by subsequent experience. There is no attempt to distinguish between the physical self and the psychological version, and therefore no perceived need to examine the nature of this "invariance" to which he refers.
I set out to read this material wondering how K's insights into the workings of the mind would fit with the science presently available to us (for which purpose this book is an excellent reference). Although neither Damasio nor Torey would have the slightest respect for such introspective processes, it didn't seem to me that their proposals as to the development and workings of consciousness were necessarily at odds with K's insights. But both authors are wedded exclusively to so-called scientific "truth" and therefore cannot permit themselves to access a resource such as introspection. I did feel, however, that there is plenty of evidence here to negate the simplistic view that the "ego" or "I" does not exist at all in any form. Based on Damasio's research, that is simply not tenable, as some form of "I" seems to be crucial to our neuronal activity and we could not have evolved to where we are or, indeed, survive now, without it. This may mean that K's insights represent a development or refinement of consciousness rather than a regression to a simpler or pre-self-conscious state, as is sometimes portrayed. This, in turn, seems consistent with K's suggestion that we observe ourselves in order to trace the roots of our fear and desire, so that we may be free of their automatic direction of our lives.
Having read, and written, the above some eighteen months ago, it was with some interest that I revisited Damasio's views through his later article in Scientific American.
He is still determined that an essentially mechanistic explanation for the mind will be obtained from further study of the brain. He notes the objections and difficulties, and in particular the fact that "anyone's body and brain are observable to third parties; the mind, though, is observable only to its owner". This is an interesting dichotomy with which he is only able to co-exist by assertion i.e. by a statement of belief in the processes in which he is personally engaged and which he would label "scientific". It is necessary to repeat at this point that Damasio generally sees "consciousness" as being synonymous with "self", or "knowledge of personal ownership"" of the "mind". The lack of clear definitions of these terms makes impossible the extension of the investigation into where, and in what circumstances, the observer is different from the observed, if at all. Although Damasio seems to assume this duality is unavoidable, he states that: "the brain and the mind are not a monolith: they have multiple structural levels, and the highest of those levels creates instruments that permit the observation of the other levels". If so, and assuming that such observation is purposeful i.e. that consequent change in the "lower" levels is possible, then that functioning inter-relationship implies ultimate wholeness, and validates introspection as a method of investigation. This is important because if this process of innate introspection is fundamental to our survival at a physical level, then it at least permits the possibility that it will be crucial, too, in the psychological realm, since regulation of both states occurs within the same organ, namely the brain.
Damasio briefly outlines the most recent developments in our understanding of brain processes and emphasizes in particular that the brain "uses discrete systems for different types of learning ... a close correspondence exists between the appearance of a mental state or behaviour and the activity of selected brain regions". He proposes that the "conundrum of the mind" has two distinct parts. One is the sensory and other input that he refers to as "the movie in the brain". The other is the sense of ownership of that i.e. the conscious "self". He then claims that a hypothesis now exists to explain the origin of this "self". Put as simply as I can, it is that the brain's cells are uniquely designed to be representational i.e. unlike the cells in any other part of the body, they are there only to map what happens elsewhere (in the body, or beyond it through the senses). Further, they contain the devices necessary to regulate and optimally maintain the organism's life force. These devices must be able to "represent" the organism as a whole in order to be able to regulate it effectively. Relying thereafter on the evidence and arguments from his book (reviewed above), he goes on to claim that the brain then creates from moment to moment what he calls "second order representations" which include the distinction between the organism and whatever objects are affecting it at that time through the senses i.e. the observer and the observed at a physical level. He sees this distinction i.e. awareness of "self" as opposed to "other", as an essential mechanism for evolutionary survival.
So far, so similar to the thesis in his book. What is, perhaps, different, is the conclusion he is now willing to draw, namely,that the sense of self "emerges within the movie" itself. In other words, that "self-awareness is actually part of the movie". While he does not extend this to mean that such self-awareness arises only from moment to moment in particular relation to what the brain is making sense of there and then, that does seem to be a logical step. If that is so then there is unlikely to be any form of ongoing, fixed entity with "invariant" characteristics that we can identify as a "self". Rather, it is an essential and ongoing working hypothesis to enable the brain to make sense of its varied input. We may conjecture that it arises with such rapidity and consistency that it gives the impression of constancy. This is likely to be emphasized, too, by the way we mostly access only a relatively small number of particular memories when creating this "self" during our normal day-to-day lives. But the important thing is that that apparent constancy is not necessarily a fact. I must emphasize here that these are my comments and speculations, not the author's.
Damasio doesn't proceed, as he does in his book, to examine what might constitute this momentary "self", but presumably the constituent bits (at least of the non-physical self ) would be accessed in some form from memory. It seems unlikely that he perceives any contradiction between this sense of self arising "within the movie" and an "invariant ...biography", but, at the very least, "invariance", either biographical or systemic, would now seem to be a debatable proposition. Further, the possibility of a distinction between the physical and the psychological "selves" begins to assume greater importance, as the information available for the production of an endless succession of selves has significantly different origins in each case.
If Damasio is right in his hypothesis and if the consequences as I have outlined them here are more or less appropriate, then the implications are potentially enormous. Firstly, the argument as to whether the "I" exists or not is superceded. It both does and doesn't, depending on context. Also, the idea that a person has fixed and more or less permanent aspects to his/her "self" is not necessarily so. And it would follow that K's (and others') insights to the effect that observation into these processes within oneself enables "change" or, at the very least,the possibility of stepping away from unnecessary or unsuitable reactions based on past "self-arisings" (my phrase) are based on fact. Incidentally, to essay a very large leap indeed, it may well be that the downstream day-to-day social implications are similarly significant. All systems based on the idea of a fixed and clearly identifiable "self", such as the law, could be rendered inappropriate. How will we judge now, and who or what are we judging in fact?