Book Review: Antonio Damasio “Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain”
Anyone who has seen Damasio’s lectures, or read some of his work, will I’m sure have been struck by what a remarkable man this is. One of the most respected authorities on consciousness, and cognition in general; Damasio has a wealth of life-changing insight which he blends with his excellent taste and rich life experiences to produce an engaging masterpiece of literary achievement, rather than just a scientific feat alone. If Damasio goes on to write a more accomplished book we can only wait with excitement as to what mysteries he will trace with his relentlessly fair, wise and rational analysis.
Like every brilliant scientist Damasio follows the evidence he has as far as it will take him and no further. It is not enough for him to explain and harmonise the different experimental observations made; Damasio qualifies every theory or hypothesis in the context of evolutionary pressure (of functional significance) – why would an organism with this trait outperform one with that? What value was there to an autobiographical self that meant it prevailed? He addresses, throughout the book, many questions with a haunting relevance to our lives; our plights; our well-being – our happiness.
I have not read another book as challenging as this one. Einstein once observed that things “should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Damasio achieves this here, but the subject matter is complex, or perhaps simply abstract compared to lines we have drawn ourselves about the nature of our consciousness. After an introduction that discusses why brains were an evolutionarily successful trait; what came before brains; and how they improved from their inception, Damasio goes on to tackle the task of communicating the mechanisms we believe contribute to our consciousness of today. He rattles off, chapter by chapter, explanations detailing the workings of the various compartments of the brain considered to have a role, leading or not, in the eventual spectacle of contemplative, autobiographical consciousness. These are complicated chapters. Damasio teaches, though, with excellent skill. After explaining concepts in the simplest terms he can, which may not be simple at all, he then recruits the most elegant metaphors that paint perfectly the picture of what it is you must understand to move on. This style is continuous, so even when you are pressing through the most complicated sections, solace can be taken that it will soon be put in context for you effortlessly. After passing over each important contributor to the consciousness process, Damasio rounds off the book with a collection of concluding chapters that cover, in exquisite fashion, the various products of consciousness such as language, economics, moral codes, written records, poetry, politics, and, finally, art.
If on the one hand this book is an achievement because it is communicating the acclaimed work of a great thinker, then on the other it is animated by Damasio’s style, wit and taste.