The Biological Basis of Body-Indentification

I see what you too could see, here and now, but for the wrong focus of attention … Bring yourself into focus, become aware of your own existence. See how you function, watch the motives and the results of your actions. Study the prison you have built around yourself, by inadvertence.


prison break
photo credit: tchola

The first step toward genuinely creative evolution is to get to know the machine that carries our awareness from place to place. Without this critical understanding, we are like prisoners who have no idea we are in prison at all. In that condition, are we ever likely to escape? Nope.

The prison we all find ourselves in is the deepest, most ancient feeling we’ve ever had: that I am this body. This fundamental feeling drives everything that is mechanical about us and lulls us to sleep at the wheel every chance it gets. But where did this feeling come from? Do you ever remember not feeling this way?

The purpose of this article is to explore the possibility that this assumption that you are your body is firmly rooted in the biological evolution of the human species.

We begin this exploration with the supposition that the human being is among the most complex biological organisms in the known universe. The significance of this complexity is most clearly illustrated by our unique experience of human self-awareness, or what Antonio Damasio calls extended consciousness. This particular brand of consciousness is coincident with, and dependent upon, a finite number of physical structures in the human brain. These structures form an ascending line of life-regulating structural-phenomenal developments (along which human consciousness is the apex).

If we go back in evolutionary time and look for the beginning of this line, we will find some basic structures in the lower brain charged mainly with keeping the organism alive. In order to do this, these structures contain within their circuitry a hard-wired map of the organism itself. We might call this a sensory or visceral map. This type of map exists even within the simplest, single-cell organisms. It is continuously monitoring local changes as they happen, and it relays information about changes (hormonal and otherwise) occurring within the organism, information about the boundaries of the organism, and information about changes occurring around the ogranism. This data collection process is all happening, of course, in an ongoing effort to maintain the relatively narrow range of conditions that sustain the life of the organism.

As we move forward in evolutionary time, we see some new structures emerge. These new structures are built on top of the lower structures just discussed and are responsible for organizing and regulating emotions. Emotions, in this sense are specific behavior patterns that have proven to bring about positive outcomes under certain conditions. Generally speaking, emotions occur automatically, and they have externally observable characteristics, such as changes in heart rate, body temperature, or blood pressure, the appearance of tears, or the flushing of your face.

The way this works is that as the sensory map registers particular changes within and around the organism, these changes or events are assigned what we might call emotional value relative to how they help or hinder survival. When current conditions, as measured by the sensory mapping process, present sufficient emotional value, the assigned behaviors are triggered. This is what we mean by emotional response.

At this point in evolutionary time, the whole process is fairly straight-forward. Dangerous conditions are labeled dangerous, and appropriate behaviors are assigned. Extremely lucky situations are labeled extremely lucky, and appropriate behaviors are assigned. Et cetera. All of this, once again, is happening as a function of the three evolutionary drives — sexual reproduction, injury avoidance, and appearing important in front of others — and since the emotional technology is built on top of and based on the structures lower in the brain, it inherits unknowingly the data set provided by the visceral map.

As our evolutionary story continues, we see certain technology come along that creates a kind of re-cognition or re-presentation of emotional responses within the organism. These internal images are what we call feelings, and this is really the point when the experience of consciousness comes into the picture. This is what Damasio calls core consciousness, or core self. It is an ongoing, moment-to-moment felt experience of happenings within and around the organism. This is a big step forward at this point, but it is not yet at the level of complexity of human consciousness. Again, this feeling technology is built upon the basic life-regulating technologies lower in the brain. Therefore, the map of the organism and its boundaries, along with an ongoing picture of changes within and immediately surrounding the organism, is always present and inherent throughout the system.

So, continuing our story, still newer technologies arise in the neocortex of the human brain. These structures are largely involved in memory storage and retrieval. We can now collect various felt experiences and store them in a database for future use. Now we are prepared to establish ourselves as the most dominant species on Earth, thanks to this newest technology, which is of course also built upon and viscerally connected to the sensory map with which we began.

We have now reached the crux of this exercise. The picture we have drawn starts with a sensory mapping process that monitors changes in the world. From this information, emotional responses are developed, which lead to felt experiences, which are then recorded in memory. Somewhere toward the end of this line, the big bad human brain does something really wild. It pre-supposes an answer to a question you never really asked: To whom or what is all this happening? The answer, of course, is a foregone conclusion — it’s you, your self, experienced as an independent, long-lasting, separate entity, identified specifically with a particular human body.

You just open your eyes one day, in the midst of all this happening, and you feel as if it all must be happening to you, trapped as you are inside this fleshy machine. Damasio calls this the “hint half-hinted.” He describes the process beautifully in his essay, “How the Brain Creates the Mind,”

“Objective brain processes knit the subjectivity of the conscious mind out of the cloth of sensory mapping. And because the most fundamental sensory mapping pertains to body states and is imaged as feelings, the sense of self in the act of knowing emerges as a special kind of feeling — the feeling of what happens in an organism caught in the act of interacting with an object.”

Armed with this deepest of all feelings, we set about creating vast empires of wealth, passing on complicated social, cultural, and religious systems, and completely stressing ourselves out generation after generation, all in a futile attempt to avoid the inevitable: the decay and demise of the precious human body with which we are inexorably identified.

We’d now like to ask you a few questions.

Could it be true that the uniquely human feeling of having a past, a family, and a personality, all tied to a particular human body is really just the bi-product of biological evolution — just a highly-complex survival technology? If so, might it also be true that there is some other, greater technology around the corner? Could this reflective self-awareness have radical transformative power beyond the basic drive to survive? And might our sublime human struggle against our own mortality actually have some hidden divine meaning?

We contend the answer to all these questions is yes, and that human consciousness is the only thing in the known universe that can drive creative, or spiritual evolution. But it can only do so if it is freed from the endless distractions of mechanical behavior. That’s why knowing the machine is so important. Understanding your mechanical behavior and being able to spot it as it happens is the first step toward actually doing something on purpose.

In our next introductory article, we are going to examine the mechanics of feelings and emotions a bit more closely.