What did consciousness contribute? (Damasio)

What did consciousness actually contribute? (from Self Comes to Mind, by Antonio Damasio, New York 2010) The answer is a large variety of apparent and not-so-apparent advantages in the management of life. Even at the simplest levels, consciousness helps the optimization of responses to environmental conditions. As processed in the conscious mind, images provide details about the environment, and those details can be used to increase the precision of a much-needed response, for example, the exact movement that will neutralize a threat or guarantee the capture of a prey. But image precision is only a part of the advantage of a conscious mind. The lion’s share of the advantage, I suspect, comes from the fact that in a conscious mind the processing of environmental images is oriented by a particular set of internal images, those of the subject’s living organism as represented in the self. The self focuses the mind process, it imbues the adventure of encountering other objects and events with a motivation, it infuses the exploration of the world outside the brain with a concern for the first and foremost problem facing the organism: the successful regulation of life. That concern is naturally generated by the self process, whose foundation lies in bodily feelings, primordial and modified. The spontaneously, intrinsically feeling self signals directly, as a result of the valence and intensity of its affecive states, the degree of concern and need that are present at every moment.

As the process of consciousness became more complex, and as co-evolved functions of memory, reasoning, and language were brought into play, further benefits of consciousness were introduced. Those benefits relate largely to planning and deliberation. The advantages here are legion. It became possible to survey the possible future and to either delay or inhibit automatic responses. An example of this evolutionarily novel capacity is delayed gratification, the calculated trading of something good now for something better later – or the forgoing of something good now when the survey of the future suggests that it will cause something bad as well. This is the trend of consciousness that brought us a finer management of basic homeostasis and, ultimately, the beginnings of sociocultuiral homeostasis (to which Damasio turns later in the book).

Plenty of conscious, highly successfuil behaviors are present in many nonhuman species with complex enough brains: the examples are evident all around us, most spectacularly in mammals. In humans, however, thanks to expanded memory, reasoning, and language, consciousness has reached its current peak. I suggest that the peak came from the strenghtening of the knower self and of its ability to reveal the predicaments and opportunities of the human condition. Some may say that in that revelation lies a tragic loss, of innocence no less, for all that the revelation tells us of the flaws of nature and of the drama we face, for all the temptations it lays down before human eyes, for all the evil it unmasks. Be that as it may, it is not for us to choose. Consciousness certainly has allowed the growth of knowledge and the development of science and technology, two ways in which we can attempt to manage the predicaments and opportunities laid bare by the human conscious state.