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Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain Hardcover – Deckle Edge, November 9, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
As he has done previously, USC neuroscientist Damasio (Descartes' Error) explores the process that leads to consciousness. And as he has also done previously, he alternates between some exquisite passages that represent the best popular science has to offer and some technical verbiage that few will be able to follow. He draws meaningful distinctions among points on the continuum from brain to mind, consciousness to self, constantly attempting to understand the evolutionary reasons why each arose and attempting to tie each to an underlying physical reality. Damasio goes to great lengths to explain that many species, such as social insects, have minds, but humans are distinguished by the "autobiographical self," which adds flexibility and creativity, and has led to the development of culture, a "radical novelty" in natural history. Damasio ends with a speculative chapter on the evolutionary process by which mind developed and then gave rise to self. In the Pleistocene, he suggests, humans developed emotive responses to shapes and sounds that helped lead to the development of the arts. Readers fascinated from both a philosophical and scientific perspective with the question of the relationships among brain, mind, and self will be rewarded for making the effort to follow Damasio's arguments. (Nov.) (c)
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"Exquisite…Readers fascinated from both a philosophical and scientific perspective with the question of the relationship among brain, mind, and self will be rewarded."
"The marvel of reading Damasio's book is to be convinced one can follow the brain at work as it makes the private reality that is the deepest self."
—V.S. Naipaul, Nobel Laureate and author of A Bend in the River and the Enigma of Arrival
“Damasio makes a grand transition from higher-brain views of emotions to deeply evolutionary, lower-brain contributions to emotional, sensory and homeostatic experiences. He affirms that the roots of consciousness are affective and shared by our fellow animals. Damasio's creative vision leads relentlessly toward a natural understanding of the very font of being.”
—Jaak Panksepp, author of Affective Neuroscience and Baily Endowed Professor of Animal Well-Being Science, Washington State University
“I was totally captivated by Self Comes to Mind. In this work Antonio Damasio presents his seminal discoveries in the field of neuroscience in the broader contexts of evolutionary biology and cultural development. This trailblazing book gives us a new way of thinking about ourselves, our history, and the importance of culture in shaping our common future.”
—Yo-Yo Ma, musician
“The epicenter of Self Comes to Mind concerns the neurological basis for cognition and the issue of the superposition of a “self’ onto the construct which we address as reality. In very characteristic style, Antonio is both eloquent and scholarly. His command of the themes he approaches is impressive, as is the vigor with which he tackles such recondite issues as the elusive “self,” inside the head. A wonderful read, and a recommended one!”
—Rodolfo R. Llinás, Chair and Professor of Physiology and Neuroscience, New York University
“In this astonishing work, Antonio Damasio puts his years of investigation into the processes of the brain to open the impenetrable mysteries of self and mind, where all the contradictions of human experience unite in the ultimate unknown, consciousness.”
—Peter Brook, theater and film director and author of The Empty Space and Threads of Time
“Awareness may be mostly mystery, but Damasio shapes its hints and glimmerings into an imaginative, informed narrative.”
“A thoughtful work.”
—Scientific American Book Club
“A very interesting book…cogent, painstaking, imaginative, knowledgeable, honest, and persuasive…Damasio’s quest is both thorough and comprehensive”
—New York Journal of Books
“Ambitious…a lucid and important work.” –Wired.com
“Self Comes to Mind is a Big Idea book penned by a luminous thinker…The result is this beautifully sprawling and marvelous work.” –The Dallas Morning News
“[Damasio] writes with such flair and confidence that it is almost as if he makes the mystery dissolve into knowledge before our eyes…a compelling picture, once one sets aside the power of the unconscious, and of grasping, other-hating, defensive, anxious, ideologically-motivated consciousness…what one has to applaud is the imaginative vision Damasio brings to the task.” –Barnes and Noble Review
“Intriguing…introduces some novel ideas.” –New Scientist
“An important and impressive study.” –The Magonia Blog and Magonia Review of Books
“I found Self Comes to Mind a delight…an intellectual journey well worth the effort.” –Wilson Quarterly
“Breathtakingly original.” –Financial Times
Top customer reviews
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Marshall Shumsky, PhD
The book is filled anatomical terms that mean nothing to the lay reader.
I'm sure neuroscientist will find it engaging but, again, any lay reader will be at a loss way before the middle of the book.
The book starts by asking the reader to take a fresh look at consciousness, not asking them to throw away all knowledge, but to try and step back and observe it from a new angle. This was very important for me because it had been ages since I truly took a fresh look at neuroscience and psychology. I had become so complacent in learning the areas, functions, pathways etc. of the brain, that the request to take a fresh look was a wake up call for me. It drove me to re-ask the questions that originally lead me to study neuroscience and to ask how little things play into the big picture. From this comes the fundamental discussion of how to go about studying the objective mind in a subjective manner. Damasio uses the working hypothesis that mental states and brain states are essentially equivalent. This allows for him to tie philosophy, psychology and neuroscience together.
From here he discuses what goes in to making the mind conscious and the creation of perception. His idea of perception is not only defined as what our senses take in but also how we interpret that data. This processing is taking place throughout the brain, but many process can be isolated to certain areas with the help of modern day technology. This specialization of brain areas allows us to get glimpse into the processes of the brain. He then discusses what neuropathways and brain structures aid us in being conscious. He also talks about the evolution and development of the human brain to what it is today. However this part of the book is very dry although very necessary for the full understanding of the rest of the book. There is almost no way around this section because it plays a crucial part in his conclusions. However I wish he had tried to make it more reader friendly and less like a textbook. Despite my reluctance to pick the book back up after leaving off in the middle of this portion, it is not terribly long and I did learn a great deal.
This then leads into discussions of the workings of emotions and memories and their effects on perception and behavior. He discusses how emotions are a very basic reaction of the body to regain homeostasis and are present in all animals to some degree. However along with our increased neural complexity comes increased emotional complexity. From this we get many sub emotions that go beyond basic emotions and their drive to sustain homeostasis. Emotions also play into humans being social creatures and can serve to connect a population. Emotions have also served to define us and our consciousness and separate us from lesser developed animals. I love how he keeps bringing his discussion back to the evolution of the modern day consciousness. I enjoy how he brings everything back to evolution. This idea is important to me because it is easy get a sense of where he is going. There is a feeling that he is leading up to solid, well supported conclusion.
In exploring the consciousness he leads the reader into the evolutionary past of the mind and discusses non-human minds. His idea is that we continued to develop neural complexity to succeed and excel in our environment. When this complexity reached a certain point we began to become self aware. This development was intertwined with social living that also lead to our current complexity. From this he discussed how everything we are today can be traced back to our social and evolutionary roots. He elaborated upon this by discussing studies of non-human consciousness such as that of our close ape relatives. He then closes the chapter by discussing the biological necessity for consciousness and why we have kept consciousness as an adaptation.
He beautifully ends the book with his philosophical and introspective conclusion on what it means to live with consciousness and why we have kept consciousness as an evolutionary trait. This conclusion covers the triumphs and challenges of consciousness. Although I will not spoil the end for those who wish to read the book themselves I will say that the poetic end answers few questions and raises more. The ending drove me to question the evolutionary reasoning behind even the most mundane human actions.
I strongly believe that this book deserves a four out of five stars. Damasio did an excellent job of combining philosophical ideas, with those of modern psychology and neuroscience. Through his writing it is easy to see the wealth of knowledge and experience that Damasio has in the field. However I cannot give this book a full five star rating because I felt that at points he was speaking too philosophically and was making too many generalizations about the consciousness of non-humans. Also this book was occasionally dry and long winded at some points such as the section on the protoself and non-human consciousness. He had a tendency to get too in depth about specific neuronal pathways mentioning far too many neural structures for an average person to keep track of. At times this kept the book from flowing as smoothly as it could have. This was increased by the necessity to take frequent trips to the book's lengthy appendix. However despite being a difficult read this book was extremely informative and thought provoking. I would recommend this as a supplement to any neuroscience, psychology, or philosophy class. This book is a wonderful narrative on the development of the self from a true leader in the field of neuroscience.