William H. Calvin, "Introducing Antonio Damasio" at the University Book Store series in Seattle. (4 December 2000).  See also

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This 'tree' is really a pyramidal neuron of cerebral cortex.  The axon exiting at bottom goes long distances, eventually splitting up into 10,000 small branchlets to make synapses with other brain cells.
William H. Calvin

University of Washington
Seattle WA 98195-1800 USA

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The C word has been much in evidence in the last decade, with several new journals and many new books devoted to consciousness.  But in most of the century since William James wrote about consciousness, not too much more was said on the subject because of behaviorism’s emphasis on avoiding what you couldn’t study in the overt behavior of rats and pigeons. 

If you were curious, however, and went and asked the experts, you got answers about consciousness that really led nowhere beyond their local applications, they weren’t roads.  Actually, they seemed like roads but they led you down a garden path.  Let me give several examples. 

Ask a working neuroscientist about consciousness, and we’d start talking about directing attention.  Now attention is indeed one of about a dozen connotations of the C word that you’ll find in an English dictionary, but there surely isn’t just one unitary mechanism behind all of them – be careful about the reification fallacy, making a thing out of a word – and indeed these dozen connotations would be sorted into somewhat different words in a French or German dictionary.   

But however useful and appropriate the emphasis on attention, it nonetheless led us down the following garden path.  Surely dogs are conscious, people said, and even a bacterium will “pay attention” if you poke it, and so some people could imagine all living things having irritability would have some form of consciousness.  And if this dilution of the C concept wasn’t bad enough, just try striking two rocks together and watch the sparks fly.  See, they too are irritable!  Even rocks have consciousness!  So much for that garden path.

So we turn to the other experts, the neurologists and neurosurgeons who deal with unconscious patients all the time.  They don’t necessarily talk about consciousness; they talk about arousibility and alertness and being oriented to time and place, except switching to use the C word when responding to a relative’s question.  Their practical concern is with whether a brainstem injury is getting better or worse, and sleep and wakefulness are dramatically influenced by brainstem projections to cerebral cortex.  So some people say that the brainstem is the “seat of consciousness.”  And others, like Walter Freeman, quip that this is confusing the light switch with the light.  Like attention, important in and of itself, the brainstem is but another garden path for anyone wanting bigger answers about consciousness.

I’m reminded of the famous quip of Francis Crick about what science will eventually do with the consciousness concept.  Crick reminds us of fifty years ago, when the big debate seemed to be about the boundary between the living and the nonliving:  Just what properties did it take to be rated “alive”?  Observe, said Crick, that this boundary disappeared into just so much molecular biology.  Nobody much worries about the living-nonliving boundary anymore, just about complicated replication schemes that molecules and cells have.  Well, Crick quipped, the same thing is going to happen to consciousness, that it will disappear into so much neurobiology.  I don’t take this as a reductionist putdown.  Just as “living” is still a useful word, so the C word will remain useful, but Crick is telling us that we will have a much more nuanced set of notions about what constitutes consciousness and what the mechanisms are.

The problem is, how to talk about the varieties of consciousness in such a way as to avoid the beginners’ mistakes like the “little person inside” watching a theater supplied by the sense organs.  Dan Dennett did a nice demolition job in his 1991 book, but we really needed a nice creative job by someone really knowledgeable about the neural substrates.  I had tried my hand at contemplative neural circuitry using Darwinian processes, in my Cerebral Code book, but it was about a working-memory superstructure and I became acutely aware that my proposed mechanism needed a better foundation in the old memories that we amalgamate as feelings and leanings, those six-on-a-scale-of-ten ratings we give our impressions.

So when the New York Times sent me Damasio’s new book to review, I was immediately taken by it.  It filled the foundational gap that I had inarticulately sensed a few years earlier.  The Feeling of What Happens is a title that really highlights the key point, but even better, it is exactly such a nuanced view of the varieties of things we call consciousness.  This is clearly a must-read book for anyone wanting a neurologist's perspective on one of the ways in which our consciousness exceeds that of the other apes. 

Tony Damasio is the Portuguese-educated professor of neurology at the University of Iowa.  Within the field, he is known as the person who best combines the older techniques of carefully studying stroke and brain-tumor patients for what they can and can’t do, with the newer functional imaging techniques.  But he is more widely known – and to a half-million readers -- as the author of Descartes' Error.


Copyright ©2000 by William H. Calvin, University of Washington, Seattle (

Related books and their links:

William H. Calvin, The Cerebral Code (1996)

William H. Calvin and Derek Bickerton,
  Lingua ex Machina: Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain  
(MIT Press, 2000).

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