The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

The Movie in The Mind

Damasio breaks the problem of consciousness into two parts: the "movie in the brain" kind of experience (how a number of sensory inputs are transformed into the continuous flow of sensations of the mind) and the self  (how the sense of "owning" that movie comes to be).

The "core" consciousness of the “movie in the brain” is essentially unchanged throughout a lifetime, and humans share it with many other species.

On the other hand, the "extended" consciousness of the self is refined over a lifetime: an "owner" and "observer" of the movie is created within the core consciousness, in such a way that it seems to be located outside the brain, while it is part of the brain's neural processes and part of the movie itself which those neural processes generate. The more developed the sense of the self, the stronger the impression that the movie in the mind is "my" experience of the world.

Distinct parts of the brain work in concert to represent sensory input. Brain cells represent events occurring somewhere else in the body. Brain cells are "intentional” (the philosophical “intendo”): they represent something else in the body. They are not only "maps" of the body: besides the topography, they also represent what is taking place in that topography.

Indirectly, the brain also represents whatever the organism is interacting with, since that interaction is affecting one or more organs (e.g., retina, tips of the fingers, ears), whose events are represented in brain cells.

These two “orders” of representation are crucial for the rise of consciousness.

The "movie in the mind" is a purely non-verbal process: language is not a prerequisite for this first level of consciousness. The "i" is a verbal process that arises from  a second-order narrative capacity.

The brain stem and hypothalamus are the organs that regulate "life", that control the balance of chemical activity required for living, i.e. the body's homeostasis. Consequently, they also represent the continuity of the same organism.

Damasio believes that the self originates from those biological processes: the brain is equipped with both a representation of the body, and a representation of the objects the body is interacting with. Thus it can discriminate self and non-self, and generate a "second order narrative" in which the self is interacting with the non-self (the external world). This second-order representation occurs mainly in the thalamus.

More precisely, the neural basis for the self resides in the continuous reactivation of 1. An individual's past experience (which provides the individual's sense of identity) and 2. A representation of the individual's body (which provides the individual's sense of a whole). An important corollary is that the self is continuously reconstructed.

From an evolutionary perspective, we can presume that the sense of the self is useful to induce purposeful action based on the "movie in the mind". The self provides a survival advantage because the "movie in the mind" acquires a first-person character, i.e. it acquires a meaning for that first person, i.e. it highlights what is good and bad for that first person, a first person which happens to be the body of the organism, disguised as a self.

This second-order narrative derives from the first-order narrative constructed from the sensory mappings. In other words, all of this is happening while the "movie" is playing. The sense of the self is created, while the movie is playing, by the movie itself. The thinker is created by thought. The spectator of the movie is part of the movie.

Consciousness is an internal narrative, due to those mappings. The "i" is not telling the story: the "i" is created by stories being told in the brain ("You are the music while the music lasts").


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