As one ventures into the work of Antonio Damasio, they might unknowingly wander into a world that at its surface is inconceivable: the ethereal delineations of brain, mind, and consciousness. Certainly, the first of these is a tangible object of which is known by fact to exist. Yet as one ventures into inquiries about mind and consciousness, terrain is being entered that can be too easily described as ineffable. Damasio refuses to allow this description, can be considered to hold it in contempt, and moves past the tangible brain to demystify the perplexing lines of brain, mind, and consciousness.
Specifically, what one may find most interesting about Damasio’s endeavor is that he consciously ties his explanation with storytelling. He writes, “Reality could afford to be implausible, but fiction could not. And so the narrative of mind and consciousness that I am presenting here does not conform to the requirements of fiction. It is actually counterintuitive. It upsets traditional human storytelling. It repeatedly denies long-held assumptions and not a few expectations.” Yes, Damasio’s implying that mind and consciousness defies the normal paradigm of fiction, holding more credence to a belief of Mark Twain “that the big difference between fiction and reality was that fiction had to be believable.” Nonetheless, Damasio does refer to mind and consciousness in the form of narrative, evident when he insists that consciousness can only be divined when put into the context of historical evolution.
In Damasio’s eyes consciousness is a story that has been told since the first single-cell organism showed signs of acting of its own volition to survive. In the present, he purports that what makes human consciousness so particular is what he calls the “autobiographical self,” meaning the ability for an individual’s conscious to construct a conception of past, present, and future. Damasio’s “proto-self” is responsible for the immediate present, the basic emotions that an organism has in relation to a object creating what he terms as an image of that moment. The autobiographical self, which appears to be among the highest level of human consciousness as Damasio deems it, is responsible for compiling these images and creating a narrative; the organism not only can relate to the object in an instant, but can have preconceived notions of an object and, in addition, can conceive of future relations with said object. Thus, consciousness is the storytelling ability of one’s own conception, an owned subjective universe akin to William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo, or the mind of Septimus Warren Smith so carefully and tragically crafted by Virginia Woolf.
Consciousness is the greatest story teller that ever existed because it is universally believed by its audience. It may be true that a human being has control over his or her own perception, but there is no doubt that one is vulnerable to the carefully woven tales of one’s own mind. More astounding, and in a sense comical, is the fact that one’s consciousness is not tangible, that it is not a person appearing before an audience that one can recognize as storyteller. Its elusiveness, the temptation to deem it ineffable, allow consciousness to be a great writer because many cannot recognize it as such. Damasio is a neuroscientist simply prodding the surface and, in his words, “elucidating” consciousness, while consciousness goes on telling its tale.