The Autobiographical Self


This post continues themes in the last one. Antonio Damasio uses this phrase to describe, in part, how the brain works. In his several books, including his latest, Self Comes to Mind, he develops arguments to explain how emotions feelings, and other seemingly tangible products of cognitive activity come to be. He sees them all as products of neuronal processes. Damasio importantly, unlike Descartes, defines both mind and self as descriptions of neural activity or processes, not as material entities. He carefully describes the mind as not being some entity,

“The term mind, as I use it in this book, encompasses both conscious and unconscious operations. It refers to a process, not a thing. What we know as mind, with the help of consciousness, is a continuous flow of mental patterns, many of which turn out to be logically interrelated. The flow moves forward in time… (Damasio, A. R. (2000). The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. Boston: Mariner Books. fn 7, p. 12.)

He divides self into three parts: proto-self, core self, and autobiographical self. Proto-self corresponds to activities in the parts of the evolutionary-derived brain we have inherited from creatures like reptiles, and is the seat of instinctual emotions. The core self is the self of the present. It springs from neural action in other parts of the brain. The core self is a representation of the current state of the body. It is the self that is aware of the bodily state of the present moment and signals the body to maintain itself. The third self, the autobiographical self, is the most germane to this discussion. This is the self of the past and future, constituted by those portions of the brain that have been modified through living. It stores memories of the past, including dispositions or “instructions” about what to do when called upon. It is the self that envisions a future moment and calls on the brain to enact it intentionally. It is historically, not genetically determined, a key point.

The primary function of the brain, Damasio writes, is to maintain the body in a homeostatic condition, not straying into conditions that would produce a pathology or even death. Both the proto-self and core self are involved in maintaining the homeostasis. Biological, genetic “essence” lies here. If there were no cultural or autobiographical self, as in most other living species, that would be the end, but human’s self has a critically important additional part, the part that arises out of one’s existence amidst other selves and the rest of the world. It is here where existence precedes essence and choices lie. Neither nature (essence) or nurture (experiential learning) reigns supreme as previous models of self generally argue. Our intentional, as opposed to automatic, actions arise in a dialectical process actions in which the already present structure is modified by immediate experience to produce new structure that is subject to the same dialect when new experience acts on that same part of the brain.

Our species has successfully evolved by paying attention to the world and developing coping responses that are embodied in this tripartite cognitive self. Instinctual, pre-linguistic responses to the natural world, like fear, are part of the evolutionary proto-self; meaningful actions, mediated through language, are part of the auto-biographical self. Language itself embodies the cultural history of successful coping. Martin Heidegger argues further that, since language is historically created by giving words to observations made in the course of everyday life, it incorporates a sense of intentionality or caring about the world. Given our sublime consciousness and language, humans exist as caring creatures, a trait suppressed by the power of modernity.

Care, as a process of paying attention to and acting on the surrounding world to create a future, implies a consciousness of being connected to it, absent in the mind/body split of Descartes. Humans, by bracketing their current cultural beliefs and values, have the possibility of intentionally acting from a foundation of worldly care that can be distributed among three non-overlapping categories: self, other humans, and the non-human world. This form of care is existential or ontological, different from the affective care we feel about people and things. While care for Heidegger is an ontological notion, its in-the-world presence shows up through our concerns and associated intentions, resulting in our actions toward the world we exist in. Everyday actions, like working, eating, loving, meditating, or planting, are all modes of concern in which humans interact with the world of phenomena.

It should begin to be clear that this view of human existence, let me call it the autobiographical self to avoid confusion, leads to several critical differences from those springing from the modern, essentialist view. In that view, each autonomous individual stands, unconnected, outside of and separated from the world. Legitimation and justification for human agency can be thrown off to some outside entity or mechanical engine. God, as the master agent, has been replaced by some universal machine. On the way towards the autobiographical self, postmodern thinkers reversed the source from some essential human nature to culture as the source. The self was seen to socially constructed and shaped by the culture. Hans-George Gadamer, the German philosopher wrote:

[L]ong before we understand ourselves through the process of’ self -examination, we understand ourselves in a self-evident way in the family, society, and state in which we live. For this reason I, the focus of subjectivity is a distorting mirror. The self-awareness of’ the individual is only a flickering in the closed circuits of [social and historical life. (Truth and Method, 2nd ed., New York: Crossroad, 1989, p. 276)

A serious problem arose with this model; agency, or the responsibility of the actor for whatever actions were performed, was very hard to pin down. Was there any “I” there to hold accountable or was society as a whole the entity to hold accountable? The more nuanced view of Heidegger and the existentialists that followed combined this process of acculturation with a positive step of choosing and owning the resultant self. Individuals who owned up to their identity as “mine” lived an “authentic” life in which they became responsible agents. The autobiographical model of Damasio is consistent with these philosophically derived views. Responsibility for the world comes home because humans are free to choice who they are in the world and what kind of agent they will be. The consciousness of connectedness and caring that accompanies this way of being instills a moral sense in the individual.

The autobiographical model by itself is no more than a story that seems to be better grounded than those that preceded it. But the story is full of meaning about how to cope with the problems of the world we face. Being the result of a dialectical process, the self or agent can learn new ways to address and act in the world. The essentialist, modern model leaves us in a dilemma where the best, maybe the only, outcome is to keep applying fixes to the unintended consequences that keep showing up. The postmodern, socially constructed model requires deep-seated cultural changes, primarily in the belief structure, before human behavior can or will change. But the autobiographical model supports learning both at the individual level and at the cultural level. The two reinforce each other. Victor Hugo’s loosely translated aphorism, “Nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come.” and Malcolm Gladwell’s notion of a tipping point combine to make the idea of care as a basic human way of acting a hopeful way toward a future of flourishing and a world one would want to sustain.