In contrast to the various philosophies of human existence that base their assumptions mostly on discernment, insight, and intuition, neurobiology begins with observations acquired from the use of brain scans and various types of laboratory research. Researchers in the field have not answered all of their questions, but they have provided a window to look at the dynamics of the human organism.
Our survey of neurobiology follows two leaders in the field: Antonio Damasio and Daniel Siegel. Damasio begins his research on the relationships between the body/brain and the mind, especially in terms of emotions and feelings, and then expands to think of consciousness and the self (2003). Siegel begins his analysis with that he calls “interpersonal neurobiology,” which connects the triad of brain, mind, and relationships (2012). Although the two have quite different approaches, they also complement each other. Since I am not a professional in the field of neurobiology, I have relied on written texts, and conversations with my wife, Erdmut Brown, a psychotherapist, as a guide through this material. It is fair to say that I am limited to what people might call “picking the low hanging fruit.” We start with Damasio’s description of the dynamics of the human body.
3.4.1 Antonio Damasio’s Neurobiology
’s key terms are neurons, body, brain, emotions, feelings, mind, consciousness, and self (2010). Understanding these terms should not be a problem as long as we remember that they refer to complicated processes rather than naming “things.” When thinking in English, this takes some effort because words like “emotions” are nouns, which define a person, place, or thing. Processes are more like verbs than nouns. To understand the research of these authors, we need to remember that their terms, even terms like “self,” refer to a process or set of processes rather than a thing.
No doubt, the human body is a piece of work. Most of it goes on without notice, until it stops working. Some aspects of the human body, such as immune responses, and metabolic regulations or even drives and appetites are necessary to keep us going, but they do not say much about who we are. We come closer to understanding ourselves by looking at the nervous system, and especially the role of neurons in the orchestration of the body’s many different processes. In a sense, the activities of neurons make everything possible from the automatic blinking of an eye to reflecting on the idea of the individual. Damasio’s research on the function of neurons demonstrates the dynamic connections between the brain and the mind.
184.108.40.206 The Brain and the Mind
The electrical firing of neurons in the brain allows the brain to monitor the body’s reactions to stimuli and to represent these reactions. The representations occur through what Damasio calls “brain mapping.” One could think of brain mapping as creating pathways and patterns in the brain’s different sections or spheres. Damasio discovered that the activity of brain mapping creates mental images. He puts it this way:
The distinctive feature of brains such as the one we own is their uncanny ability to create maps . . . But when brains make maps, they are also creating images, the main currency of our minds. Ultimately, consciousness allows us to experience maps as images, to manipulate those images, and to apply reasoning to them (2010, p. 63).
This emergence of mental images out of the activity of brain mapping is central to the creation of consciousness and the self. It also gives us a way to think about the relationship between the body’s emotional responses to impacts on the body and its capacity to manage them.
Parallel to the distinction between brain and mind, Damasio distinguishes between emotions and feelings. He defines an emotion as “a complex collection of chemical and neural responses forming a distinctive pattern” (p. 53). Emotions, in other words, are our body’s response or reaction to things that impact it. The meaning of these emotional responses depends on the perception and appraisal of both internal and external changes in and to the human organism. This is the realm of feeling. As Damasio puts it: Emotions play out in the dynamics of the body, and feelings in the dynamics of the mind (2003, p. 28).
This distinction between emotions of the body and feelings of the mind should not be taken as indicating two separate spheres, but a method to better understand an integrated process. Damasio is quite clear that the mind arises from and depends on the brain and the body. “The entire fabric of a conscious mind is created from the same cloth—images generated by the brain’s mapmaking abilities” (2010, p. 188). For Damasio, the mind exists for the body in the sense that its function is “to optimize the life of the human organism” (p. 206). To further understand the processes involved here, we can turn to Damasio’s description of emotions.
220.127.116.11 Three Types of Emotions
Damasio distinguishes between three different types of emotions: background emotions, primary emotions, and social emotions (p. 43). He uses the idea of background emotions to refer to our more general condition, such as the difference between being enthusiastic or discouraged (p. 125). These emotions are not so much responses to specific stimuli as a more general way of being in the world. Background emotions seem similar to what one might call a person’s temperament or mood. The primary emotions, on the other hand, are specific responses to impacts on the body. The six basic emotions are: fear, anger, sadness, happiness, disgust, and surprise (p.123).
These emotions have become widely accepted as basic body responses—responses that are expressed in different facial expressions (Ekman and Friesen 2003) The look of surprise, for example, is different from the look of anger or fear. Although there may be some slight cultural differences in expressing these emotions, they have become recognized as fairly universal basic human emotions. So, one of the things all humans share are these six common emotions, even though some communities have given much more attention to some of them than others.
Just to give one example: in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics
we find virtues for the emotional states of fear (courage), anger (good temper), joy (temperance), and disgust (righteous indignation), but not for surprise or sadness (Book II. 2014) Not so surprising, since Aristotle focused on the virtues for citizens of the city-state. Aristotle was clear that ethical decisions depended on our emotional reactions to concrete situations, and to the degree that we are out-of-touch with our emotions, we are limited in perceiving what we should do. This is not only true of our basic emotions, but of social emotions as well.
The social emotions are also bodily processes, but they occur in social relations. Damasio’s list of social emotions includes compassion, embarrassment, shame, guilt, contempt, jealousy, envy, pride, and admiration (2010, p. 125). The social emotions, like background and primary emotions, refer to neural and chemical changes in the body and the brain. These emotional responses, however, do not just happen without any meaning. Just the opposite! Along with these emotional responses come feelings about them, and these feeling bring with them a consciousness of our activity and the emergence of a self. Consciousness, in other words, refers not only to feeling something, but also someone feeling and this someone can be understood as a self. Damasio proposes that the best way to understand these body processes is to think about three different but related selves.
18.104.22.168 Damasio’s Different Selves
gives the following introduction to the three different human selves:
In the perspective of evolution and in the perspective of one’s life history, the knower came in steps; the protoself and its primordial feelings; the action-driven core self, and finally the autobiographical self, which incorporate social and spiritual dimensions (p. 10).
The protoself refers to something like a witness to the body processes of emotions and feelings (emoting and feeling). It witnesses the mental feelings and images that connect to the brain’s mapping of the body’s physical (emotional) responses to maintain a well-balanced organism. Damasio uses the analogy of an orchestra creating its conductor to describe the emergence of the self.
For all intents and purposes, a conductor is now leading the orchestra, although the performance has created the conductor—the self—not the other way around. The conductor is cobbled together by feelings and by a narrative brain device, although this fact does not make the conductor any less real (p. 22).
Damasio proposes that the product of the protoself is a “primordial feeling” that provides “a direct experience of one’s own living body, wordless, unadorned, and connected to nothing but sheer existence” (p. 21).
When this experience is raised to consciousness, we gain an awareness of being some-body in the literal sense of being our own living body. We feel ourselves from the inside as living now. What we have in common here is simply the experience of being alive and being worthwhile. Other primates probably have a similar experience. Our humanity becomes even more interesting at the level of the core self.
22.214.171.124.1 The Core Self
The next stage of self—the core self—has a more explicit awareness of patterns created and changed by the body’s response to the impact of external and internal objects. Still, this core self is wordless. It exists in the here and now. Damasio describes the core self as the process of relating the image of an object and the image of the protoself changed by the object (p. 22). The core self, in other words, emerges from the interaction between the body’s responses and what the body is responding to. The core self is more than a witness, however; it also engages in actions that influences mind-object relationships. Whereas the protoself is rooted in the brain stem and connects with the limbic region of the brain, the core self belongs more to the limbic brain and its emotional responses to mental images. This activity of the core self—experiencing and witnessing the purposefulness of being alive—gives us evidence for human dignity. As these experiences become embedded in social relations, the dignity of humanity can be acknowledged, denied, or violated. Our autobiographical consciousness recognizes such experiences.
126.96.36.199.2 The Autobiographical Self
In contrast to the consciousness of the core self, which focuses on the present moment, the autobiographical consciousness, or what Damasio calls “extended consciousness” brings into the present past memories and an anticipated future. In his book, The Feeling of What Happens, Damasio emphasizes that the narrative of autobiographical consciousness does not require language.
The brain inherently represents the structures and states of the organism, and in the course of regulating the organism as it is mandated to do, the brain naturally weaves wordless stories about what happens to an organism immersed in an environment (1999, p. 189).
Recognizing this dimension of the autobiographical self that is known without language confirms Damasio’s notion that we know ourselves through our feelings or consciousness. At the same time, our autobiographies do include our experiences of living in social worlds. Damasio seems to recognize this in his later work:
Autobiographies are made of personal memories, the sum total of our life experiences, including the experiences of the plans we have made for the future, specific and vague. . . . The social experiences of which we were a part, or wish we were, are included in that history, and so are memories that describe the most refined among our emotional experiences, namely those that might qualify as spiritual. (2010, p. 201).
The fact is that an autobiography contains different dimensions including references to self and to others. Although the specific details of one’s autobiography may vary according to one’s particular social group, language, and circumstances, one’s story does not exist in isolation and cannot be told without reference to others. An autobiography, then, is essentially a social story. This may sound strange to Western readers. Isn’t an autobiography a story of an individual? One way to answer this question is to make a distinction between a person and an individual. Before we turn to the works of Daniel Siegel, let’s try to clarify this distinction.
3.4.2 The Western Individual
In the Western tradition, the self is understood as an “individual,” which many take as the primary description of our humanity. We are individuals and should be treated as such. Most of us living in Western culture may not realize that for most of human history, and in most human communities, the individual, as understood in Western terms, does not exist. As Yuval Harari points out in his study of Western history: “Millions of years of evolution have designed us to live and think as community members. Within a mere two centuries we have become alienated individuals” (2004, p. 204). The theory of modern individualism, in other words, only emerged in the early modern period in Europe, and even more recently, has spread all over the world. Modern individualism ignores its historical context, especially in its libertarian mode. The modern individual, in other words, does not recognize himself (it is mostly a male identity) as a participant of the biosphere, in the family, or in social relations. The individual is seen as a self-contained actor who relates to others only when it is advantageous.
Larry Siedentop’s study of the origins of individualism traces its origin to the establishment of Christianity (2014), Before the introduction of Christianity, he argues, western society, like other human societies, was a society of families. The family was the religious, economic, and political center of human communities until the rise of cities, which provided a second identity besides one’s family identity—an identity as a citizen. Still, as Siedentop points out, the Greeks and Romans continued to see society as an “association of families” not of individuals (p. 17). This perspective changed dramatically, according to Siedentop, with the advent of Jesus’s story, especially as told by Paul.
For his [Paul’s] understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection introduced to the world a new picture of reality. It provided an ontological foundation for the ‘individual’ through the promise that humans have access to the deepest reality as individuals rather than merely as members of a group. Here we see the power of abstraction, which had previously led Hellenic philosophers to speculate about human nature prior to social conventions, being turned to a new moral use. The self can and must be reconstructed (p. 63).
This new reality did not take hold overnight, of course, but over time, Siedentop argues, Christian beliefs “destroyed the ancient family as a cult or religious association” and replaced it with a Christian association of individuals (p. 115). All people (men) were equal before the one god, and this one god was beyond any family or community relationships. And what was the consequence? Family and other social relations were discounted, and persons were seen as isolated, rather than as relational beings.
In terms of our interpretive framework of the Earth, our humanity, the social, and the civic, individualism isolates humanity from the other three parts. Individualism tends to deny that persons exist in and are held by natural and social relationships. Does this mean that we should view individualism, as it has been understood in the West, as a mistake? I think so. As the philosopher Michael J. Sandel has argued, the notion of the “unencumbered” self is an illusion (1984). Does this mean that we should limit ourselves to family and community relations? Well, no. As Harari points out, even though human communities were bound together by family and community for most of human history, this was not an ideal world that one would like to reinstate. As he says,
Life in the bosom of family and community was far from ideal. Families and communities could oppress their members no less brutally than do modern states and markets, and their internal dynamics were often fraught with tension and violence—yet people had little choice (p. 401).
Harari’s point is well taken, even though he, like many others, confuses the “history of humankind” with the history of European/American development. As one who has shared in this development, I do not find the family and community of the late middle ages very appealing and have no desire to return to pre-modern social relationships.
Our task today is to find the right balance between our self and our social identity. We are some-body, and especially our autobiographical consciousness knows this. We witness ourselves as purposeful living beings, living in family and social relationships. We not only live our lives, but we also feel that our lives are worthy. This knowledge of ourselves provides an intuition of our human dignity.
To further explore the relationship between ourselves and others, let’s turn to the interpersonal neurobiology of Daniel Siegel. While Damasio tends to see the relationship between the biological and the social as an evolutionary process—from the more primitive protoself, to the core self, and finally the autobiographical self, Daniel Siegel connects the biological and social from the very beginning. For him there is really not a biological self that is not interpersonal.
3.4.3 Daniel Siegel’s Interpersonal Neurobiology
’s approach to neurobiology is more interdisciplinary than Damasio’s, which provides him with a different vocabulary. Siegel focuses much more on the relational dimensions of our humanity. In his recent book, mindsight, he uses his findings in neurobiology as a basis for his therapeutic work with clients. As the book’s title suggests, the therapy involves developing awareness of how the mind functions in integrating brain, mind, and relationships in the flow of energy and information (2010, p. 52). Energy and information are key terms here. Energy refers to the capacity to act and information refers to data about something. Energy would include motion, emotion, and motivation. Information includes observations, stories, and reflections.
Like a fish in water or a human in the biosphere, persons exist through participating in the “flow of energy and information.” Using Damasio’s terminology, we can say that energy comes from the brain’s chemical and neurological firings and information from the mind’s images of the brain’s mappings. This flow of energy and information integrates the brain, mind, and relationships in what Siegel calls “resonance circuits” (p. 62). As these circuits are integrated, they influence what Siegel calls the “triangle of well-being”:
Relationships, mind, and brain form the three mutually influencing points of the Triangle of Well-Being. Relationships are how energy and information are shared as we connect and communicate with one another. Brain refers to the physical mechanism through which this energy and information flows. Mind is a process that regulates the flow of energy and information (p. 267).
If we compare Siegel’s vocabulary with Damasio’s, it may seem like we are looking at very different parts of the elephant. Although they are both exploring the interactions between the brain and the mind, Siegel includes social relations much more than Damasio. Siegel also includes both the research on mirror neurons and attachment theory in his overall approach, which deepens his approach to relationships.
188.8.131.52 Mirror Neurons
Mirror neurons were first discovered in monkeys in the 1990s and were later found in humans as well. These neurons “mirror” the movements and states of others in us. Siegel describes their function this way: “our brains use sensory information to create representations of other’s minds, just as they use sensory input to create images of the physical world” (2010, p. 60). Actually, most of us have had such experiences. Who has not mimicked another’s movements, expressions, or even emotions? Someone’s sadness makes us sad. Someone’s joy brings us joy.
The capacity of mirror neurons to establish empathy is more complicated than one might expect. Their existence demonstrates that we are designed to have empathy for one another, but whether empathy occurs or not depends on several significant factors, including our prior experiences in connecting or not connecting with others. To provide a better understanding of these experiences, Siegel includes modern attachment theory in his interpretive framework.
184.108.40.206 The Primacy of Attachments
One of the founders of attachment theory, the psychologist John Bowlby, draws the following conclusion from his study of human and other primate infants:
Human infants, we can safely conclude, like infants of other species, are preprogrammed to develop in a socially cooperative way; whether they do so or not depends on how they are treated (1988, p. 9).
In contrast to the more pessimistic views of human nature, attachment theory holds that humans are not preprogrammed to be greedy or selfish. Instead, they are wired to develop in and through cooperative relationships. Siegel puts it this way:
We come into the world wired to make connections with one another, and the subsequent neural shaping of our brain, the very foundation of our sense of self, is built upon these intimate exchanges between the infant and her caregivers (2010, p. 10).
The major factor that determines an infant’s well-being, in other words, is not so much the infant’s particular constitution as the quality of the relationship, or relationships, in which the infant develops. While the first relationships establish a person’s relational or attachment style; later significant relationships throughout one’s life may change it. Every significant relationship has the possibility of becoming a “secure base” that would facilitate a person’s flourishing. As Bowlby suggests: “Although the capacity for developmental change is diminished with age, change continues throughout the life cycle so that changes for better or for worse are always possible” (p. 16).
Susan Johnson, a couples and family therapist, has written extensively on the application of Bowlby’s attachment theory to understanding relationships among couples. Her approach begins with the assumption that “Dependency is an innate part of being human, rather than a childhood trait that we grow out of as we mature” (2004, p. 25f).
What we have in common, in other words, is our dependency on meaningful relationships. Johnson and others have documented the repetition of specific behavioral patterns as people move from one significant relationship to another. When one’s behavior indicates a pattern of avoidance of close relationships, for example, that may be a sign of one’s past relational experiences. Revisiting these past relational experiences can change their meaning and thereby open up new possibilities for future relationships. It’s about changing relationships. Not unlike other primates, humans are relational beings.
Attachment theory reveals our common desire for secure relationships and our dependence on others for establishing a “secure base.” When such security is missing, as it is for some, then we see other types of attachment behavior, such as withdrawing from relationships or, on the other hand, anxiously pursuing others. Most of us have multiple attachment experiences that result in the emergence of what Siegel calls “myself.”
220.127.116.11 The Emergence of “Myself”
For Siegel, the different attachment styles provide different capacities for engaging in the flow of energy and information available in our interpersonal relationships.
With any activity, we can be receptive, or we can be reactive. These qualities of receptivity or reactivity can appear in any state, whether it’s helping a child with homework, giving a speech, shopping for clothes, or making love. Each of these activities, if repeated, pulls together feelings, skills, memories, behaviors, and beliefs into a cohesive whole. Some states are engaged frequently enough to help define the individual, the so-called self-states combined to create our personality. These are the many selves, receptive or reactive, that make up the person we call “myself” (2010, p. 199).
’s use here of the concepts of “individual” and “person” may have caught your attention. He writes that the various states of the self “define the individual,” that “create our personality,” that make up the “person we call myself.” Why do we “define” the individual, “create” a personality, and “make up” a person? Do we see here the difference between the notion of the individual as separate from social relations and the person as a composite of all relations—body, mind, and other? I think that for both Siegel and Damasio, one can say that the person is a composite of multiple selves.
Remember that in Damasio, even though the word “self” is taken as a noun, it actually refers to a process of awareness and consciousness. The core self is not a thing. The autobiographical self is a narrative, and an awareness of one’s narrative. This is self-consciousness. Siegel’s “self” is not that much different. Siegel does emphasize how mindful awareness of one’s own processes can actually change the brain. The brain can change because of its “neuroplasticity,” which means that different mental activities can bring about different brain activities (2010, p. 5). If the brain can change, then obviously so can any process we would call “myself.”
As our body/brain changes, we not only experience these changes, but also can influence them. This capacity to influence is not something external to the flow of energy and information, but a creation of the flow. The “self” belongs to all these flows and cannot be separated from them. In a deep sense, I belong to these processes more than they belong to me. At the same time, there is “someone” that I witness as “myself.” This “myself” depends on others. It is not a self-contained individual. Neurobiology is clear about that. Human dignity, therefore, belongs to this self we call a person, which is not an isolated thing, but rather lives from and with others. The Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, has aptly captured the social dimension of a person’s dignity: “The essence of dignity that is unique to humanity is manifested through the relations of one human being to another, one human being to the family, the clan, or community, in the relations between one collectivity and another, however defined, including race relationships” (2004, p. 97).
This is what we have been searching for: conceiving of human dignity as an integral part of social relations. Like Damasio’s analogy of the conductor of an orchestra, where the orchestra creates the conductor, it’s human interactions that allow the emergence of human dignity. Personal pronouns are not for nothing. They are references to us; to our dignity as persons.