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Science & Technology

ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Une biologie cérébrale de la conscience de soi

by Patrick Dupouey, philosopher

A Cerebral Biology of Consciousness of the Self

Translated Tuesday 16 November 2010, by Henry Crapo and reviewed by Isabelle Métral


Antonio Damasio figures out the evolutive process that fashions the architecture and the functioning of the human brain, even up to its most complex productions.

We review his book "The Other Me: New Charts of the Brain, of Consciousness and Emotions", published [1] this year by Éditions Odile Jacob.

A new"Damasio" is always an event in the neurosciences literature for a general public. Readers of The Feeling Itself, of the Self [2] or of Spinoza Was Right [3] will find again the same clarity of exposition and richness of theoretical research nourished by therapeutical practice in neurology. Without repetition, because this book follows the evolution of the author’s conceptual framework, which has led him for some fifteen years already to shift the center of gravity of personal identity and consciousness from the cortex toward other zones of the nervous system: the cerebral trunk situated above the spinal cord.

These are not things, or substances, says the philosopher, but processes based in the entire body and in its evolutionary history. For this reason, even if the brain works in a differentiated fashion (cerebral localizations are not a myth), no particular zone is dedicated exclusively to the self or to consciousness. These features preceded the complex interaction between neural networks, being dynamical structures of neurons, the construction of which accompanies the interaction of the brain with all that is not itself: the external world, but also the body itself. Then also because the brain, together with all psychic activity: the spirit, emotions, feelings, construction of identity, inherit from a long evolutive history, that of a slow perfection of homeostasis, that is, a coordination of functions in a sense that leads to preservation of life.

This history began with single-celled organisms carrying in their genetic program certain elementary adaptive mechanisms. It continued with the development of neural circuits devoid of spirit, and ended up with a conscious human spirit with a self and a social and cultural homeostasis.

The reader’s enjoyment is conditional upon a capacity to assimilate certain meanings, somewhat inhabitual for a French reader, terms like spirit, image, or emotion. This book is more didactical and less immediately accessible than its predecessors. But to a reader accepting these preconditions, it offers a fascinating voyage into cerebral architecture, and equally, especially since it is really the same thing, into the universe of mental functioning from the most elementary level (a basic state of awareness) all the way to the most elaborate cultural constructs. And we’re not going to start talking about reductionism. Damasio only explains what we know in order better to explain what we do not know. The complexity of the latter masks the likelihood that neither science nor philosophy has been able to take its measure.

[1L’autre moi-même, les nouvelles cartes de cerveau, de la conscience et des emotions, d’Antonio Damasio, Éditions Odile Jacob, 2010, 416 pages, 24,90€.

[2Sentiment même du soi

[3Spinoza avait raison

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