Archivo de la etiqueta: Antonio Damasio

The logical ballerinas: “Brain”.



“Brain”. It is supposed to be the crucial but also imaginary organ of this famous sculpture of Rodin, and also the ‘place’ from where Philosophy emerges.

As physical, tangible reality, the brain is said to be the most sophisticated and dazzling object of the known universe. I have one of those inside me. And you, by the very fact that you are reading these words, have another one. Another one of such amazing living diamonds. Do we own such a jewel or are we owned by it? 

“Brain”. The purpose of this philosophical dictionary is not to give meanings to words, is not to confine their semantics, but to calibrate their spell power: their power to configure contents of consciousness. Worlds.

Let’s go now into a fabulous labyrinth of mirrors. One first step: Who or what wants to study, to see, to consider, to measure, to transform into a model, the so-called “human brain”? Who or what wants to create in its own brain an image, an idea, a map, of its own brain? Can the brain simultaneously be object and subject of knowledge?

It was while reading the great Schopenhauer when I was dazzled for the first time by what is called “the brain paradox”. It can be stated as follows: the brain, as a thing between things, is part of the world (like trees or snails or cars or stars). Seen this way, as a particular cut of the visual impact of the world, it appears as something three-dimensional, tiny, vulnerable, and apparently created, configured and also pitiless submitted by the so called ‘laws of Nature’.

But, on the other hand, according to Schopenhauer (who was a lover of Kant´s Philosophy), it is precisely inside the brain, and only there, where occurs that what we call “world”, or “universe” (with all possible physical brains inside). 

If we do not philosophize (if we are not conscious of our thinking) we will not notice that the theories of a neurophysiologist (if we accept and follow those same theories) are phenomena within the electrical and viscous inner-cosmos of their own galaxies of neurones.

It could be said, from the current scientistic materialism, that the brain is one of the things that can be contemplated inside the brain if the brain works properly (inside that magic box can also happen an Autumn breeze that bristles the skin of memory). And from that materialism, it can also be said that we will be more connoisseurs of the brain the closer we get to a certain neuronal connexions-path, to a certain form, or dance if you want, in the matter of our brain: the precise one that propitiates a suitable representation of what the brain is itself.

Let’s look at what is behind the word “brain”. Let’s do it with the infinite and dazzling eyes of the Goddess Philosophy, which, according to neuroscience, is just a cerebral activity (the cerebral activity modelling itself, looking at itself… From where?).  The word “brain” (that powerful logical ballerina) is going to give us a wonderful opportunity to philosophize seriously, powerfully: without laziness, with extreme courage but also rigor, ready to swim in the sacred ocean of the infinite, of the nearly unbearable (but unbearable, sometimes, because of its extreme beauty).

The great intellectual ecstasy of Philosophy begins. And I truly believe that our philosophising can receive an extremely fertile rain if we look at what is said about the brain from the current models of neurophysiology (from these determined configurations of the chemistry of our brain, if we accept and follow those very models). 

But what do those models say? 

I will focus on the human brain. As far as I know, it is said that the brain is a concrete part of the human body, an organ which is considered the centre of the nervous system. It contains billions of a special type of cells called “neurones”, which, amazingly, connect with each other, or not, creating, or not, clusters of connexions, or associations (let’s say societies). I have read that the neurones can cooperate in societies of millions of members and that it is still uncovered the mystery of the way that cooperation really works. It is also said that the brain tissue produces energy, electricity indeed (like a small, organic nuclear power station), which, if many neurones work together, can be powerful enough to get out of the skull (the box of the brain) and be measured outside. That organ, that crucial ‘machine’ [See “Machine”], is comparable with a computer. Actually, some current models of neuroscience use that comparison to improve their insight of the brain. And they do it on the grounds that the brain is a centre of perception and processing of data. The scope of such perception, as far as it is commonly accepted in today’s science, is quite amazing: light, sound, chemical composition of the atmosphere, temperature, head orientation, limb position, chemical composition of the bloodstream… The hypothalamus, which is one part of the brain, can even check the sodium level, the glucose level, and the blood oxygen level, and send some of those outputs to the pituitary gland, which reacts introducing hormones into the bloodstream that are capable to change cellular activity.

It is also said that learning and memory are core activities of the brain. Santiago Ramon y Cajal explained such capacities asserting that they were just changes in the synaptic connexions between neurones. Such theory is said to be fully proved by a stream of investigations triggered by a paper of Tim Bliss and Terje Lømo published in 1966 in Journal of Physiology. The key discovery of that paper was the so-called “long-term potentiation”: the strengthening of the synapsis between neurones caused by recent activity. There is also the opposite: the “long-term depression”. Both phenomena might be showing what is now called “synaptic plasticity”, which implies that the connexions between neurones can strengthen or weaken depending on their activity. Thousands of millions of neurones willing to connect among each other… What might occur if that total inner-connexion takes place? The brain (that mighty mystery) being completely conscious of itself? Of its unfathomable reality? And the very Philosophy, viewed from the current models of neurophysiology, could be therefore described as a bomb of conscious thoughts set inside those galaxies of neurones in order make possible its final, ecstatic connexion: the infinite synaptic plasticity.

The strict scientific models of reality I have just shown are the framework of some amazing projects that I would like to mention (and to thank too): 

  • . On the webpage of this institute (which was founded by Paul Allen, one of the founders of Microsoft along with Bill Gates) we are said what follows: “The human brain is the most complex piece of organized matter in the known universe. We use our singular approach to uncover its mysteries and share valuable resources with the global community of neuroscientists”.

It seems that our civilisation is now fascinated with the human brains: with those complex pieces of organised matter [See “Matter”]. Inside those cosmic jewels might be the key to everything.

Neuroscience. Philosophy. Let’s see what the following individual thinkers (individual brains) say about the brain:

1.- Schopenhauer. The paradox of the brain. Let’s go back to it:  the brain, as thing of the physical universe, is in space, but space (the continent, the ‘box’ of the physical universe) is only in the brain (Pararega and Paralipomena II, p. 48, according to the classic edition of Arthur Hübscher, revised by his wife Angelika, and published in Mannheim in 1988). The philosophical system of Schopenhauer overcomes such paradox placing the physical brain as part of the created world, as a kind of tool used by our deepest I in order to contemplate our own creation.    The brain might be our tool. One of them. But “we” would not really be humans: humans might be our creations (our sacred tools).

2.- Humberto Maturana. Biology of Cognition (Biological Computer Laboratory Research Report BCL 9.0. Urbana IL: University of Illinois, 1970). Maturana is one of the three creators of the concept “autopoiesis”, which refers to the alleged capacity of self-generating and self-maintaining of the so-called “living systems”. (It is said that the other two creators of such concept are Francisco Varela and Ricardo B. Uribe). The brain: Maturana says the frog cannot see all the animals (it does not see those that are especially large and slow). The activity of the brain is the result of the demands of the living system that nourishes it. Reality is indeed fabricated by living systems in order to enhance their survival possibilities. So … Is it also the very theory that generates the brain of Maturana something (let’s say bio-artificial) that nurtures and guards the living system that owes him? How can that theory be true if it is generated by a biologically enslaved brain whose sole purpose is to nourish something called “living system”? It deserves to be read the schematic study on the thought of Humberto Maturana offered by John Lechte in this work: Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers: From Structuralism to Postmodernity (Routledge, London 1994).

3.- The computational functionalism of Hilary Putnam as solution for the mind/brain problem (the mind is the software; the brain is the hardware). The criticism of John Searle in his paper “The Chinese room argument” (“Minds, Brains, and Programs”, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1980): A computer can behave as if it could understand Chinese, but it would nevertheless not be a mind, because it cannot think, be conscious of its own behaviour. Searle does focus its criticism on digital computers. But what kind of machines are still to be created? Schopenhauer, as I said before, already considered the brain as our most sophisticated artificial creation. Because, indeed, we would not be “human beings”…

4.- Antonio Damasio: Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, 1994. This neuroscientist asserts that such alleged error was to believe that the most refined operations of the mind are separated from the structure and functioning of the biological organism. The brain and the rest of the body constitute an inseparable organism composed of biochemical and neural regulatory circuits that relate to the environment; and mental activity arises from that interaction. So …  Does our brain have the size of the whole physical universe? Do we think with all that or in that all? By the way: How big and deep is the so called “physical universe”?

5.- Richard Dawkins: The God delusion, 2006. In this book there is a chapter entitled “The mother of all the burkas”. And from the groove of his own burqa, and always through the kaleidoscopic lens of his radical scientist bio-materialism, Dawkins states that what we see of the real world is not the real world, but a model of the real world, regulated and adjusted by sense data (a model that is constructed in such a way that it is useful to deal with the real world). Dawkins also states that the nature of that model depends on the type of animal we are. According to that theory we could ask: Is not that very theory (the model of reality that Richard Dawkins exposes) just something useful that his brain (his body, his matter) needs in order to deal with the real world? Do brains reflect reality or create it? Does the survival of the system require ‘reality’ reflected cerebrally or just fantasy capable of triggering will to live? Is there a “world” out there? How can we go out of our brains to see it?

Now I will try to convey what seem to be my own thoughts (the products of my own brain) about the mystery of the brain:

1.- “Brain” is a word. Nothing else. Nothing less… It can also be said that it is the result of applying a certain system of cuts in the visual reality of the so-called “universe”. I can see no brain beyond a certain mental software (if we use the metaphor of Hilary Putnam), beyond a certain way of cutting the reality into individuals.

2.- We are always bewitched by language, by The Word: Vak in Sanskrit [See]. If you want to (momentarily) scape from such paramount, almighty Goddess, you should to be able to think and feel that “atom”, “neuron”, “science”, “virus” or “brain” are words: artificial fruits of mental models: secretions of something ineffable that, given that I am now inside a phrase, I have no choice but to name it “brain”. In fact, it is possible that in a very close future a new model of ‘brain’ might emerge. For example, a model that affirms the identity between what we now name “brain” and what we now name “biosphere” or even “universe”.

3.- The logical ballerina “Brain” usually dances together with another: “Mind”. It is said that from the last third of the twentieth century the philosophy of the mind is acquiring an increasingly privileged place in what we call philosophical reflection. But the leading ideology nowadays is the one which asserts the pure material dimension of the brain. [See “Matter”]. Okay. But every physical object, according to current Physics (M-Theory), is supposed to have eleven dimensions, not only three. Therefore, the current models (the draws) of the brain are mutilated: the ‘brain in itself’ (even considered as a pure physical object) is impossible to draw. Impossible to see. Even impossible to imagine.

7.- The brain… I don’t really know what that is, but, if I close my eyes, I can feel it, ‘there’, like a huge magical, infinite diamond. And I can also send it calm, silence, even love… That is something really astonishing I do almost every day. Believe me: after no more than one minute, that mysterious, unsayable ‘thing’ we call brain seems to be born again, ready to go on loving life, producing worlds if you want. 

The wild philosophical question is:

From where do I feel and bless and vivify my own brain in such magical moments? Where am I really located? And, above all: What am I? What are you, dear reader?

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Pensadores vivos: Antonio Damasio



Hace un mes tuve la ocasión de charlar con un neurocirujano español, joven, inteligente. Me dijo que después de mucho operar cerebros no había visto el alma. Se me ocurrió sugerirle que tampoco habría visto materia. La materia no se ve. La materia es una palabra que pretende designar algo que nadie sabe lo que es. Y, además, eso que los físicos entienden hoy por “materia” supera con mucho lo que muchos teístas entienden por “Dios”. La materia sería hoy más poderosa, mágica, profunda, incomprensible, desconcertante y fascinante de lo muchos grandes pensadores fueron nunca capaces de pensar cuando creían estar pensado en Dios. [Véase aquí mi bailarina lógica “Materia”].

Cerebro. Materia. Dios.

Antonio Damasio (Lisboa, 1944) es un médico. Hemos de suponer (desde Paracelso) que se trata de un ser humano al que le mueve un especial amor hacia el ser humano, que lucha por la felicidad de este animal tan singular, que combate su dolor. Obtuvo Antonio Damasio su doctorado, junto con su mujer Hanna, en la universidad de Lisboa. En 1974 recibió la pareja el encargo de crear un departamento de investigación en la Nueva Universidad de Lisboa, pero no pudieron seguir adelante con este proyecto por falta de financiación. Recordemos a Marcuse [Véase] señalando que el capitalismo (indestructible) debe ponerse al servicio de proyectos culturales, elevadores. El dinero puede ser magia. El caso es que Antonio Damasio y su mujer Hanna emigraron a los EE.UU. En concreto a la universidad de Iowa (1976-2005). Y desde 2005 es Antonio Damasio profesor de neurología y psicología en la University of Southern California. Allí dirige el Brain and Creativity Institute.

¿Puede una porción de la materia ser creativa? ¿Cómo es eso posible? ¿Puede saltarse esa ley unificada que parece tenerlo todo tomado y crear, libremente, algo no previsto por esa ley radical?

La obra de Antonio Damasio que intentaré analizar en este artículo lleva por título El error de Descartes. He utilizado la edición de bolsillo de Crítica (Barcelona, 2003; traducción de Juandomènec Ros). Las citas se referirán siempre a esta edición.

El título de esta obra lo justifica Antonio Damasio porque considera que Descartes creó un error cuyas consecuencias todavía se están padeciendo, incluso entre los modernos investigadores del cerebro. Descartes, según Damasio, proclamó un dualismo que no corresponde con la realidad: el dualismo cuerpo-mente. El cuerpo sería pura materia (lugar sin vida, sin alma, esquematizable matemáticamente). Y la mente (o alma, o esencia eterna, inespacial e intemporal del ser humano) sería el lugar del pensamiento, de la razón.

Yo tengo la sensación (acrecentada a partir de mi re-lectura de Damasio) de que eso que ahora los científicos llaman “materia” supera en magia, sacralidad y “espiritualidad” eso que Descartes llamaba “mente”.

Y desde Damasio, desde su Poesía científica, brota una deliciosa sacralización del ser humano como finito, delicadísimo, casi delicuescente prodigio en el todo matemáticamente ordenado -pero también puntualmente emocionado- que es para él el universo (el cosmos):

“Sin embargo, la mente completamente integrada en el cuerpo que yo concibo no renuncia a sus niveles de operación más refinados, los que constituyen su alma y su espíritu. Desde mi perspectiva, es sólo que alma y espíritu, con toda su dignidad y escala humanas, son ahora estados complejos y únicos de un organismo. Quizás la cosa más indispensable que podemos hacer como seres humanos, cada día de nuestra vida, es recordarnos a nosotros mismos y a los demás como seres complejos, frágiles, finitos y únicos. Y esta es, desde luego, la tarea difícil: desplazar el espíritu de su pedestal en ninguna parte hasta un lugar concreto, al tiempo que se conserva su dignidad y su importancia: reconocer su humilde origen y su vulnerabilidad, pero seguir dirigiendo una llamada a su gobierno” (pp. 231-232).

Hemos brotado por tanto de “la humilde materia”. ¿Por qué humilde? ¿No es eso un eco del dualismo (al menos jerárquico- que se quiere erradicar? Veo ecos del Samkya indio: Prakriti y Purusa. El Purusa sería nuestro verdadero ser, lo grande, lo puro, caído misteriosamente en la Prakriti: el mundo material, engañoso, corruptible, no puro. Quizás podemos pensar que esas “materias” o “mundos” en los que nos perdemos no son sino las narraciones-mundos que en las que nos cobijamos para no desintegrarnos en la belleza extrema de lo que en realidad hay.

“Humilde materia”. Cerebro. Sugiero la lectura de  esta bailarina lógica desde [Aquí].

Pero volvamos al pensamiento de Damasio. Ofrezco a continuación algunos otros momentos de su obra El error de Descartes:

1.- Los sentimientos como resultado de la actividad de sistemas cerebrales. Suena frío, hiper-materialista. Pero Damasio sublima esa presunta frialdad así: “Descubrir que un determinado sentimiento depende de la actividad de varios sistemas cerebrales específicos que interactúan con varios órganos del cuerpo no disminuye la condición de dicho sentimiento en tanto que fenómeno humano. Ni la angustia ni la exaltación que el amor o el arte pueden proporcionar resultan devaluadas al conocer algunos de los innumerables procesos biológicos que los hacen tal como son. Precisamente, debería ser al revés: nuestra capacidad de maravillarnos debería aumentar ante los intrincados mecanismos que hacen que tal magia sea posible. Los sentimientos forman la base de lo que los seres humanos han descrito durante milenios como el alma o el espíritu humanos” (p.13). Sí, Antonio Damasio: nos maravillamos ante lo que la palabra puede llegar a decir. No sabemos qué son lo sentimientos, ni el alma, ni eso de los “mecanismos”. Pero es igual: estamos maravillados. Y ese es el sentido de la existencia.

2.- Mente/cerebro. “[…] el cuerpo, tal como está representado en el cerebro, puede constituir el marco de referencia indispensable para los procesos neurales que experimentamos como mente; que nuestro mismo organismo, y no alguna realidad externa absoluta, es utilizado como referencia de base para las interpretaciones que hacemos del mundo que nos rodea y para la interpretación del sentido de subjetividad siempre presente que es parte esencial de nuestras experiencias; que nuestros pensamientos más refinados y nuestras mejores acciones, nuestras mayores alegrías y nuestras más profundas penas utilizar el cuerpo como vara de medir” (p. 13). El problema, en mi opinión, reside en que ese “cuerpo” (que hemos de suponer plenamente material desde la narrativa desde la que Damasio esquematiza el infinito) está, por así decirlo, abierto por dentro hacia un “exterior” que puede ser una realidad “absoluta”, más abisal, que el propio Dios: los abismos de la materia.

3.- “¿Cuál fue, pues, el error de Descartes? O, mejor todavía, ¿qué error de Descartes quiero destacar, de manera poco amable y desagradecida? Se podría empezar con una queja, y reprocharle el haber convencido a los biólogos para que adoptaran, hasta el día de hoy, mecanismos de relojería como modelo para los procesos biológicos. Pero esto quizá no sería muy honesto, de modo que podríamos continuar con “Pienso luego existo”. La afirmación, quizás la más famosa de la historia de la filosofía. […] Tomada en sentido literal, la afirmación ilustra precisamente lo contrario de lo que creo que es cierto acerca de los orígenes de la mente y acerca de la relación entre mente y cuerpo. Sugiere que pensar, y la consciencia de pensar, son los sustratos reales del ser. Y puesto que sabemos que Descartes imaginó que el pensar es una actividad muy separada del cuerpo, celebra la separación de la mente, la “cosa pensante” (res cogitans), del cuerpo no pensante, el que tiene extensión y partes mecánicas (res extensa). Pero mucho antes del alba de la humanidad, los seres eran seres. En algún punto de la evolución, comenzó una consciencia elemental. Con esta consciencia elemental vino una mente simple; con una mayor complejidad de a mente vino la posibilidad de pensar y, aun más tarde, de utilizar el lenguaje para comunicar y organizar mejor el pensamiento. Así, pues, para nosotros en el principio fue el ser, y sólo mas tarde fue el pensar. […] Somos, y después pensamos y sólo pensamos en la medida que somos, puesto que el pensamiento está en realidad causado por las estructuras y las operaciones del ser” (p.229).

Es crucial que analicemos con sosiego filosófico estas últimas frases de Antonio Damasio. Y es que ha hablado de “ser”, de lo que en realidad “es”. Y ese ser parece hacerlo equivalente a la narrativa cientista de la que él dispone, una narrativa muy bella, muy eficaz, pero que nunca debe ser confundida con la “realidad en sí”: algo capaz, parece, de sacar de sí mismo modelos sobre sí mismo. Pero podría ser que surgiera un modelo, una teoría, una narrativa sobre eso que ahora llamamos “cuerpo” que fuera absolutamente diferente de la que considera Antonio Damasio.

Si aceptamos esta posibilidad, nos vemos obligados a afirmar que lo que Antonio Damasio entiende por “ser” es el fruto de un pensamiento, no la causa del mismo: el fruto de un pensamiento movido desde no sabemos dónde, por no sabemos qué.

La Filosofía debe contemplar esos misteriosos “seres” que son los modelos científicos: porque ocurren, porque son, porque brotan de no se sabe bien dónde.

Se dice que los cerebros humanos son el lugar de donde brotan los modelos de universo, o de cuerpo, o de árbol. Y se dice también que esos cerebros son materia sometida a las leyes de la Física (quizás a una sola). Sería fabuloso que alguien se atreviera a integrar la aparición de una teoría sobre el universo en un cerebro humano (por tanto en un lugar de la materia) como hecho de esa misma teoría, como suceso previsto por la misma.

La Filosofía se empeña en abrir ventanas en cualquier habitación, por muy confortable y bella que sea; y por muy inquietante (o inexistente) que parezca el exterior. Porque lo que entra desde ahí fuera tiene un olor sublime y un efecto vivificador.

Ese abrir ventanas no impide, creo yo, el estupor maravillado ante las fugaces -y utilísimas- maravillas que va viendo y creando la Ciencia.

David López


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