Three levels of consciousness

The paper I am writing for this module definitely follows the 80-20 rule: The 20% being the Knowledge and Information Review. I can’t believe how long 1000 words took to write as I couldn’t nail down what I was actually trying to conclude. I had numerous concepts swirling in my head which luckily lent itself to doing a cluster diagram. That crystallised out the heart of what I was trying to say from everything I could say. I finally cracked it one night between 11.30pm and 1.30am – which is far too student-like but my brain woke up and having struggled for three days there was no way I was going to put it off until the morning. Then the real fun started as I remembered far more than I’d “meticulously recorded”. Yes I know, earlier I’d been so pleased about how organised I was but it wasn’t thorough enough. Although I didn’t have to re-read everything, I did spend three days locating and re-reading loads of sections to find the one little bit that underpinned my thinking. It’s a real balance between the pleasure of reading and the interruption of note taking. Hence a few upgrades on the organisational front: Firstly after reading or watching anything, no matter how small, I need to log it and write a summary about it. Secondly, I need to ‘cite it’ at the point I find it as I spent hours re-finding where I’d got stuff from and how to reference it properly.

Therefore on a joyous January 5th I completed the first draft and sent it off for comments. Having learned from my first submission, I was much better at hitting the word count: At least that’s one improvement. I think it was easier as when I read it and thought about the questions I could get asked, I soon removed sentences I didn’t feel confident about. Consequently the feedback was generally much better and I felt relief-cum-satisfaction after that amount of effort. Furthermore I also have guidance on how to write the claim for ‘being a capable researcher’ (2000 words) – so now only 5000 words to go – gosh that’s depressing having just written that. This needs to be in before May which seemed a long way off but it’s not feeling like that at this moment.

Now I can read books again! With eight books stacked up I have been more regimented about reading time. 60 pages a day is a struggle as that’s about three hours with note taking. I did well with Damasio’s book, ‘The feelings of what happens’, which took just over a week. It is about emotions, levels of consciousness and the self. He starts by talking about how we look to maintain homeostasis (regulation of body functions within the narrow range required for survival). For him, an emotion is the response when homeostasis is lost so that the organism regains it. Emotions are chemical and neural responses which create biological changes, eg, increased heat rate, for the response of running away in fear. He believes “emotions are generated in few brain regions, most being sub-cortical, as in the Brainstem, hypothalamus and basal forebrain. Also the Periaqueductal gray (PAG) is a major coordinator of emotional responses. These regions process different emotions to varying degrees with each emotion having a distinctive pattern.”

From this he talks about consciousness and three types of self. At the basic homeostasis level he has the Proto Self, which is a representation of the state of the organism. We form non-conscious biases before we consciously realise it and these are built on doing more pleasant things and avoiding unpleasant things.

Then there is a Core Self which relies on moment to moment consciousness with only some mental ‘images’ being made conscious (having special attention). Our Core Consciousness is constantly changing as different ‘images’ intrude and we become aware of them. Therefore our Core Self is transient, changing from moment to moment. He discusses cases where people are reduced to their Core Self for a while. These people can pick up a coffee cup and drink, go out the door, etc but have no idea as to what or why they are doing things. They also seem emotionless. Although Core Consciousness “gives us enhanced wakefulness and focussed attention”, if left alone in our world they would not survive very long.

However, experiences are laid down as autobiographical memories and it is this that gives rise to Extended Consciousness which creates a timeframe and larger context. We can have purpose to our actions above and beyond just responding in the moment which creates the Autobiographical Self. The Autobiographical Self is steadier and changes over a longer timeframe as we store different memories. He advocates that extended consciousness increases survival rates and therefore that consciousness is useful to us.

Throughout he connects his theories to parts of the brain wherever he can.

  • Lots of brainstem activity for sadness and anger. Little activity for happiness.
  • Significant disruption of core consciousness often correlates to damaged sites near the brain’s midline.
  • Commas come from minuscule brainstem damage. The PAG is one of the areas damaged. ‘Sleep’ and ‘wakefulness’ periods are controlled by the brainstem.
  • Apparently blinking and up/down eye movement happen via the back of the brainstem and all other movements happen via the front. Sometimes the back of the brainstem is undamaged and these people are paralysed except for blinking and up/down eye movement. From communicating in that limited way, we can learn a lot about their thinking.
  • ‘Locked In syndrome’ patients are much calmer than you’d expect. Maybe as the body is in a calm state and registers nothing, the brain reads this as ‘calmness’.
  • People with ‘face amnesia’ do not consciously recognize friends and family but their skin conductance changes so their brain recognises them and reacts.

Damasio’s 2012 book looks interesting. Also the BBC’s magazine FOCUS is good and often has a summary article of many new neuroscience developments.