Damasio's theory of consciousness

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Developed in his (1999) book, The Feeling of What Happens, Antonio Damasio's three layered theory of consciousness is based on a hierarchy of stages, with each stage building upon the last. The most basic representation of the organism is referred to as the Protoself, next is Core Consciousness, and finally, Extended Consciousness. Damasio, who is an internationally recognized leader in neuroscience, was educated at the University of Lisbon and currently directs the University of Southern California Brain and Creativity Institute.[1] Damasio's approach to explaining the development of consciousness relies on three notions: emotion, feeling, and feeling a feeling. Emotions are a collection of unconscious neural responses that give rise to feelings. Emotions are complex reactions to stimuli that cause observable external changes in the organism. A feeling arises when the organism becomes aware of the changes it is experiencing as a result of external or internal stimuli.[2]


Our most basic representation of self, as Damasio dubs it, is the Protoself. A non conscious state, this level of self is shared by many species. This is the most basic level of awareness signified by a collection of neural patterns that are representative of the body's internal state. The function of this 'self' is to constantly detect and record, moment by moment, the internal physical changes that affect the homeostasis of the organism.[3] Protoself does not represent a traditional sense of self; rather, it is a pre-conscious state, which provides a reference for the core self and autobiographical self to build from. As Damasio puts it, "Protoself is a coherent collection of neural patterns, which map moment-by-moment the state of the physical structure of the organism" (Damasio 1999).[2]

Multiple brain areas are required for the Protoself to function. Namely, the hypothalamus, which controls the general homeostasis of the organism, the brain stem, whose nuclei map body signals, and the insular cortex whose function is linked to emotion. These brain areas work together to keep up with the constant process of collecting neural patterns to map the current status of the body's responses to environmental changes. The Protoself does not require language in order to function; moreover, it is a direct report of one's experience.

In this state, emotion begins to manifest itself as second-order neural patterns located in subcortical areas of the brain.[2] Emotion acts as a neural object, from which a physical reaction can be drawn. This reaction causes the organism to become aware of the changes that are affecting it. From this realization, springs Damasio's notion of “feeling”. This occurs when the patterns contributing to emotion manifest as mental images, or brain movies. When the body is modified by these neural objects, the second layer of self emerges.[2] This is known as core consciousness.

Core consciousness[edit]

Sufficiently more evolved is the second layer of Damasio's theory, Core Consciousness. This emergent process occurs when an organism becomes consciously aware of feelings associated with changes occurring to its internal bodily state; it is able to recognize that its thoughts are its own, and that they are formulated in its own perspective.[2] It develops a momentary sense of self, as the brain continuously builds representative images, based on communications received from the Protoself.[2] This level of consciousness is not exclusive to human beings and remains consistent and stable throughout the lifetime of the organism[4] The image is a result of mental patterns which are caused by an interaction with internal or external stimulus. A relationship is established, between the organism and the object it is observing as the brain continuously creates images to represent the organism's experience of qualia.

Damasio's definition of emotion is that of an unconscious reaction to any internal or external stimulus which activates neural patterns in the brain.[2] ‘Feeling’ emerges as a still unconscious state which simply senses the changes affecting the Protoself due to the emotional state. These patterns develop into mental images, which then float into the organism's awareness. Put simply, consciousness is the feeling of knowing a feeling. When the organism becomes aware of the feeling that its bodily state (Protoself) is being affected by its experiences, or response to emotion, Core Consciousness is born. The brain continues to present nonverbal narrative sequence of images in the mind of the organism, based on its relationship to objects. An object in this context can be anything from a person, to a melody, to a neural image. Core consciousness is concerned only with the present moment, here and now. It does not require language or memory, nor can it reflect on past experiences or project itself into the future.

Extended consciousness[edit]

When consciousness moves beyond the here and now, Damasio's third and final layer emerges as Extended Consciousness. This level could not exist without its predecessors, and, unlike them, requires a vast use of conventional memory. Therefore, an injury to a person's memory center can cause damage to their extended consciousness, without hurting the other layers. The autobiographical self draws on memory of past experiences which involves use of higher thought.[5] This autobiographical layer of self is developed gradually over time. Working memory is necessary for an extensive display of items to be recalled and referenced. Linguistic areas of the brain are activated to enhance the organism's experience, however, contrary to the language of thought hypothesis, language is not necessarily required.


Formalistic Elements[edit]

Theories of emotion currently fall into four main categories which follow one another in a historical series: evolutionary (ethological), physiological, neurological, and cognitive.

  1. Evolutionary theories derive from Darwin's 'Emotions in man and the animals'.
  2. Physiological theories suggest that responses within the body are responsible for emotions.
  3. Neurological theories propose that activity within the brain leads to emotional responses.
  4. Cognitive theories argue that thoughts and other mental activity play an essential role in forming emotions.

Note that no current theory of emotion falls strictly within a single category, rather each theory uses one approach to form its core premises from which it is then able to extend its main postulates.

Damasio's tri-level view of the human mind, which posits that we share the two lowest levels with other animals, has been suggested before. For example, see Dyer ( www.conscious-computation.webnode.com ).

Dyer's triune expansion is compared to Damasio's-

1. sensorimotor stage (c.f. Damasio's Protoself)

2. spatiotemporal stage (Core-Consciousness)

3. cognolinguistic stage (Extended Consciousness)

An important feature of Damasio's theory (one that it shares with Dyer's theory) is the key role played by mental images, consciously mediating the information exchange between endocrine and cognitive.

Ledoux and Brown have a different view of how emotion is connected to general cognition. They place emotionality on a similar level as that of other cognitive states. (In fairness, both Dyer's and Damasio's models concur on this point, ie that emotionality is not isolated to a particular layer within the tri-level framework).

Earlier less sophisticated models placed the emotions strictly within the Limbic circuits, where their primary role was to consciously respond to, as well as cause responses within, the hypothalamus, the interface between intentional mind states and metabolic (endocrine) body states.

Emotionality is demonstrably a global mind state, just like consciousness. For example, we can be simultaneously aware of (low-level) a pain (low-level) in our body, and an idea (high level) that enters our imagination (working memory). Likewise, our (low-level) emotional reaction to a painful workplace injury (fear, threat to well-being) can coexist with our (high-level) feeling of anger and indignation at the co-worker who failed to follow safety guidelines.

Substantive Process[edit]

A careful reading of Damasio's work reveals that he distinguishes his theories from those of his predecessors, in how the formalistic elements interact with each other in a dynamically integrated system. E.g, the suggestion of a dynamic neural map ultimately posits that we are the instantaneous configuration of a neural state in the present moment, rather than the supporting biological construct. I.e., our conscious identity is the software, not the hardware, even though our unique hardware constrains how we operate as the software.

Need for consciousness and qualia[edit]

A common criticism stems from the fact that both knowing and feeling can be processed with equal success without conscious awareness, as machines, for instance, do, and those models do not explain the need for consciousness and qualia.


  1. ^ "USC Neuroscience: Antonio Damasio." USC Neuroscience: Antonio Damasio. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Nov. 2013.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Bosse, Tibor; Jonker, Catholijn M.; Treur, Jan (2008). "Formalisation of Damasio's Theory of Emotion, Feeling and Core Consciousness". Consciousness and Cognition. 17 (1): 94–113. CiteSeerX doi:10.1016/j.concog.2007.06.006. PMID 17689980.
  3. ^ Parvizi, Josef; Damasio, Antonio (2001). "Consciousness and the Brainstem". Cognition. 79 (1–2): 135–60. doi:10.1016/S0010-0277(00)00127-X. PMID 11164026.
  4. ^ Damasio, Antonio R. "Stepping into the Light." Introduction. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999. N. pag. Print.
  5. ^ ^ Damasio, Antonio, and Kasper Meyer. "Consciousness: An Overview of the Phenomenon and of Its Possible Neural Basis." THE NEUROLOGY OF CONSCIOUSNESS: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuropathology. N.p.: Academic, n.d. 4-12. Google Books. Web.7 Oct. 2013.