Resolving the "Mind-body" Problem through Mental Cartography
A review of Antonio Damasio's book: When Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain
Professor Damasio begins this incredible story using evolution as the centerpiece and backdrop of a theoretical odyssey that is as intimate as it is cogent and thorough.
For the author, the theory of how the mind becomes "self" is a labor of love, surely one of his professional life quests: the last remaining riddle of the universe, now finally solved by his own life work.
It is told so carefully, so cogently, and with such clarity and depth that it amounts to a convincing scientific love story that will simply take the reader's breath away. This book is sure to be one of the finalists in the National Science Book of the year Award. And it certainly gets my vote.
At the center of this author's theory is the ever-evolving cell, that powerful "active" (but much underrated) building block of all living systems.
With the evolution of the cell, which importantly, has, since its inception, always had the capacity to be a "stand-along unit of life," a "purposefully surviving" functional living system: a stand-along "proto-animal."
The cell brings intrinsically into being the functional aspects of an "intentional life." The mind is simply one of the latest evolutionary adaptations of this exquisite carefully balanced living piece of biological architecture called life.
One of the key remaining unanswered properties of a cell is that it comes with the "will to survive" built-in.
How it does this, the author does not touch with a ten-foot pole; and thus this remains the only flaw in his design as the research leaves unanswered, and thus begs this most important of questions. But more about that later.
As Professor D'amasio demonstrates so elegantly, having a "proto-animal" as the functional building block of life is no small matter. It is qualitatively different than say having a dead (or passive) object like a brick as the building block of a system. For, as the cell has evolved, it's inherent (and unexplained) but powerful and purposeful "will to survive" has also evolved to promote much more specialized and infinitely more complex survival requirements, components and imperatives.
This increased specialization and complexity, combined with the unexplained need for a cell to survive, alone appear to be the key elements explaining human motivation, the economics of value, "intention," "anticipation," the ability to predict, the need to reason and plan, as well as "will" itself.
Arguably, it is these unexplained aspects of the cell that drive the machinery of life, self, and the life of the mind.
With it, the cell (as well as the body as it's host), is motivated to adapt in order to live, and as a result of this built in imperative, has "learned" over eons, how to coalesce and combine with other cells to form "colonies," which over those years have also evolved into specialized sub-components (such as organs of the body, etc.) and ultimately into organisms and other larger living eco-systems themselves -- all engineered and controlled by the DNA of the genes in the case of biology; or mimes, in the case of culture.
It is the members of these specialized groups of cells, the neuron in particular, that is the protagonist and hero of this story, one that in my view finally gets the mystery of consciousness, the self, emotions and feelings, out into the open.
The neuron is not just a cell, but a "micro system of life" at the cellular level, that through its signaling, mapping, imaging and messenger roles, is pretty much responsible for sculpting, and controlling the activity of the larger macro-system called the body, or organism.
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