Antonio Damasio's Protoself, as introduced in Part 1, produces feelings about the internal environment of the body. As discussed, the Protoself is like a very smart automatic car that takes care of many matters on its own. When it can't manage the homeostasis of that internal environment it needs to communicate those feelings to other aspects of self that can do something about it. Those two other aspects are the subject of this post.
So it's first the Core Self that gets into the car and looks at the the dashboard of the Protoself (sensations the Protoself needs known about) and also looks out the car windows to monitor for anything notable in the world outside.
Neuroscientists use the word salient for these notable things. They are notable because they have some relevance to the internal environment of the organism.
Its thus the role of the Core Self to put these two sets of internal and external images together.
The Core Self then creates a new feeling in the brain which readjusts the Protoself. When your Protoself is emoting fear from a looming truck you need to continually reinterpret that emotion in relation to salient behavioural features of the external world. It might be relief when you realise the threatening truck has pulled off the road. Or if the truck is getting close it might be flight (accelerate) or freeze (perhaps not the best option on the highway). Flight literally sends more blood to the legs where as freeze slows the breathing. We thus adjust the body chemistry and behaviour based on the updated feeling.
I'm getting a bit excited here but perhaps we can also say that the Core Self is very good at updating the Behaviour Associated Molecular Patterns (BAMPs) I introduced in Part 1?
The Core Self I'm calling the semi-automatic but this is a learned practice over time. For human actions to become semi-automatic, like those involved in driving a car on a highway, quite a lot of sensory and motor control information needs to be integrated.
Last, but not least, we have have the great Autobiographical Self. It decides where to drive to, with whom, and why. It also decides what type of petrol to put in, and how to treat the Proto Self.
This is the self we normally think of when we think of ourselves. It is the me that has a a past and a future; a plethora of images and narratives that make me up and give me desires for the future. The images of the Autobiographical Self are visual but also language itself, how else can we tell our own story to ourselves and others?
As you might imagine our Autobiographical Self can be a blessing or a bit of a troublemaker for the Core and Proto Selves. Whilst we are driving in semi-auto, Core Self, mode we are free to think about our life plans or stories from the past. We can play with narratives, but when the full presence of the Core Self is required to manage a complex situation we need to be able to let the stories go.
Further, pain scientists are discovering that the Autobiographical Self has profound effects on the state of the Protoself. The thought images, including the words you use to describe your body, effect the biochemistry and resultant sensations in the Protoself.
Could this be the action of a Cognition Associated Pattern or CAMP? If you hurt your back and are then told by your trusted doctor that your lower back is vulnerable, that becomes part of your story. Persistent lower back pain can ensue and its not until you let that story go will you overcome that trapped sensation. Driving alone does not cause persistent lower back pain.
So its not quite as simple as releasing trapped emotions, we need to be attentive to what’s going into the Protoself and what’s coming out.
When emotions get stuck in the body it's because the Proto Self is holding a memory of an AMP: a pathogen, behaviour, substance, way of thinking. It has become sensitised to that AMP and when it encounters that AMP again it is prone to over-reacting for safety's sake.
Altering that ingrained automatic response to an AMP is not always simple. It can take a concerted and sustained effort to update that sensitisation in the body. This is where mindfulness can play an important role.
The Buddha taught us to be aware of the primary sensation and to be aware of the form that sensation takes in the mind. In addition he taught the meditator to be aware of an internal formation that is produced by the combination of those two things. We can get pedantic, but the Buddha is talking about three highly comparable states of Self to those of Damasio’s neuroscience observations.
Whilst being able to discern the precise coming-and-goings of the first aspects of Self (Auto and Core) is important, one should be even more vigilant to letting go of formations by the Autobiographical Self:
‘He (sic) is aware of the birth of a new internal formation and is aware of abandoning an already produced internal formation, and he is aware when an already abandoned internal formation will not rise again.’ (in Nhất Hạnh 2002, pg 100)
The Buddha often emphasises this last state, the sustained awareness of the ongoing absence of an unworkable or no longer neccessary internal formation. Now there’s a goal the Proto Self will appreciate.
Standby for Post No 3: Know thy Protoself
In the next post I look in more detail at some of the ancient arts and modern neuro-immune applications that build resilience and adaptability in the body / Protoself. A key idea I will unpack is hormetic or stress response: whereby a safe experience of a stress-inducing substance or activity prompts molecular adaptation, and a lowering of sensitisation in the body.
Damasio, A. R. 2012. Self comes to mind: Constructing the conscious brain. New York: Pantheon Books.
Moseley, L and Butler, D. 2017. Explain Pain Supercharged. Noigroup Publications. Adelaide.
Thich Nhất Hạnh, 2002. Transformation and Healing: Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness. Parralax Press.