Self Comes to Mind explores the roots of consciousness

Dana Alliance Member Antonio Damasio, M.D. Ph.D., has a new book coming out tomorrow, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain.

In it, Damasio explores the roots of consciousness, arguing that it stems from a biological process tied to one of the oldest parts of the brain, the brain stem, rather than from the newer cerebral cortex. You don’t have to wait for the book to come out to begin examining his views: He discusses topics in the book in a series of videos and on BigThink.com.

Southern California’s Public Radio program AirTalk featured an interview with Damasio last week, which can be heard here.

Today, Jonah Lehrer posted an interview with Damasio on his blog, The Frontal Cortex. Here’s a highlight:

LEHRER: I think many readers will be surprised that, in your attempt to explain the mystery of consciousness, you begin with discussions of the body. Why, as you write, is “the body the foundation of the conscious mind”? And why does the brain stem, this most ancient of brain areas, play such an important role in consciousness?

DAMASIO: That is where having an evolutionary perspective comes in handy. Why do we have a brain in the first place? Not to write books, articles, or plays; not to do science or play music. Brains develop because they are an expedient way of managing life in a body. And why do we, by now, have brains that make minds with selves — conscious minds? Because minds and selves increase the management power of brains; because they permit a better adaptation of a complex organism to complex environments. In other words, organisms equipped with brains, minds and self were selected by evolution because such organisms had better chances of survival, and, eventually, chances of survival with well-being.

The emphasis on the brain stem is closely related to the star role that the body plays in my account of minds and selves. The brain stem nuclei hold the principles and the rules required to manage life in our bodies. The cerebral cortex, on the other hand, ends up helping the organism manage life, according to those principles. That is the heart of the matter, really!

–Johanna Goldberg

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