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The Metamorphosis of the Self

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم وصلى الله على سيدنا محمد وعلى ءاله وصحبه أجمعين وسلّم

Title: The Metamorphosis of the Self – A Neurobiology of Consciousness

Author: Dr Muhammad Jordi Dalmau

Publication date: 30 March 2013

Presented by: Abdalhamid Evans FFAS

Assalamu alaykum. Welcome to the Civilisation and Society Programme of the MFAS. This is the ninth of 12 sessions which make up the Technique and Science module. The lecture will last approximately 40 minutes during which time you should make a written note of any questions that may occur to you for clarification after the lecture. 


SYNOPSIS (Abstract)

When the neural architecture which supports consciousness is disrupted, as happens in a neurological lesion following a disease or accident that causes brain damage and selective brain dysfunction, the human being suffering it will develop impairments of mind and behaviour. 

The research on patients with neurological damage is called the “lesion method” and it is a way to observe consciousness in its absence, by going backwards from the breakdown of behaviour, and the alteration of the process of cognition (mental states), to the focal brain lesion. The research of Professor A. Damasio on the field of neurobiology and consciousness is based on the application of this particular method of exploration.

In our phenomenological approach to selfhood, this type of research becomes relevant because it permits us to observe and understand the relationship between the regulatory life supporting mechanisms and the capacity to achieve consciousness. From this research we can see that the process of consciousness is an extension of the innate basic regulatory process known as Homeostasis.

The main defining characteristic by which this life-regulating mechanism operates, is that it needs to have a complete and constant knowledge of the state of the organism and its surroundings. It is from this inherent “need to know” of the ongoing homeostatic process, that a sense of a ‘knower in the process of knowing’ will eventually unfold, in an ultimate effort of Intensification, a sense of a Self.

The immediate substrate of this process of knowing consists of neural mappings located in particular sensory regions of the brain, reflecting states of the organism and translated into mental patterns, that constitute the content of the perceptions we know as feelings. The feeling of a feeling brings consciousness and a sense of singularity to the owner of the feeling by allowing him to feel himself, from himself, as himself. Intrinsically, consciousness is a process of reflection, neurologically and existentially. 

In neurological terms it is a reflection because one part of mind represents another part of the mind through a meta-representation of our own mental process, as we will see later.

Existentially, it is also a process of a reflective nature because it is as if ‘I feel, therefore I am’. And I can only feel myself when I acknowledge a change from my previous state. The feeling reflecting that change brings with it a sense of ownership: it is happening to me, it is my feeling and it is me who is feeling it. The feeling becomes the mirror where I can see my reflection and recognize myself as being other than the other, giving me knowledge of a singular individuality. The ultimate goal of this reflecting process is to acquire knowledge of oneself (one’s Self). (…and the one who knows himself knows his Lord.) 

When I mentioned before that consciousness is eventually a process of homeostatic intensification, (Steigerung in German), I meant it in the pure Goethean sense, that is to say a metamorphosis of a single form, increasing progressively in “quality and specialization, delicacy and beauty”.


Any life form has an inherent, self-evident characteristic which is the urge to stay alive. The attribute of life is embedded in a living form, along with the knowledge of how to maintain the the life of that living form.

It all begins with a boundary.

All independent life begins with the establishment of boundaries, in order to separate what is INSIDE from what is OUTSIDE. Homeostasis is the mechanism set up and charged with maintaining those boundaries and keeping what is inside those boundaries alive.

In itself the organism is a “locus of existence”, literally a place from where we experience and engage life. As a physical place, it has a boundary, the skin, a selectively permeable wall, which marks the limits of the organic form, and separates the in from the out, the internal environment from the external environment.

The internal milieu is where our cells live immersed in the fluids of the body, the blood and the lymph. The blood stream and lymph stream (tissue fluid) work together to carry food, water and oxygen to any cell of any tissue of any organ, and discharge the debris of cellular activity through the lungs and the kidneys. The life of the organism is determined by the maintenance of constancy of the internal medium inside the boundary. That medium has a very narrow range of variability of internal states and striking instances of danger arise when the internal environment is markedly altered. Constancy is the requirement for free and independent life. 

We are free from the limitations imposed by internal or external conditions that could be disturbing, because the dispositional arrangement available to the body’s own structure can modify the inner workings of the organism in order to keep the internal milieu stable, meaning within the limits of what is physiologically viable. This arrangement ensures that any variations in the outer environment do not cause excessive change in the internal activity of the organism.

In order to understand how vital the process of homeostasis is, we have to consider the extreme instability of our bodily structure that in itself is not permanent, but is being continuously deconstructed, broken down by the wear and tear of action (catabolism), and continuously reconstructed again (anabolism) by mechanisms of repair. 

The organism is composed of material which is characterized by its utmost inconstancy; nevertheless it has its methods of maintaining steadiness in the presence of deeply adverse conditions. Therefore it maintains its stability only if it is able to be excitable and capable of modifying itself according to external stimuli and adjusting its response to that stimuli. In that sense it is stable because it is modifiable. The homeostasis design possesses in itself exhibits a remarkable degree of structural invariance capable of dispensing a continuity of reference across long periods of time. This singular and stable reference is a fundamental requirement for what we call the self.

Homeostasis only operates by constantly having full knowledge of the state of the organism in its most intricate detail. The homeostatic process does not end at the regulation of cells or organ profiles but it extends its regulatory mechanisms throughout the sensory system.

Consciousness is a fundamental human function needed to live a free and independent life. As a function, it goes through a process of development before it reaches its full completion. That development goes alongside our bodily development. In fact both are part of the same transformation which in itself implies a continuous intensification of an original form until it reaches its own maturity.

Homeostasis becomes the first expression of organic individuality, a pre-conscious one, a proto-self as it were, because it indicates that it has an inherent knowledge of the design of that living form. The proto-self is a coherent collection of neural patterns which map, moment by moment, the state of the physical structure of the organism in its many dimensions. Those neural patterns occur across a multiplicity of levels, from the brain stem to the cerebral cortex, in structures that are interconnected by neural pathways.

The body reconstructs the sense-of-self moment by moment: a continuity of structure and function that constitutes identity. Our sense-of-self is a state of our organism. The proto-self would be the pre-conscious biological precedent of the sense-of-self. At this stage that sense-of-self is brought about by needs and appetites, creating the experience of a state of ease when fulfilled, and unease when waiting to be fulfilled.

If we look at a child’s development, it reveals, in a chronological way, the unfolding of the self through progressive and intensifying phases. In rhythmic and alternating steps, the child grows in breadth and then in length, repeatedly expanding and contracting in set chronological patterns, with each step being a progressive amplification of the locus of selfhood. (Heidegger would call it Da-Sein-, the physical place, the thereness – Da, allocated to the self - Sein). 

This process, in each phase, expands the consciousness of the child’s presence in the world in a particular way, defined through the experiencing of his own feelings.

The metamorphosis of primordial proto-self leads to the creation of a more developed core self, a self with consciousness of the core, of the ‘here and now’ only, being in the world in present time, with no past and no future. Such is the way of being in the world of a toddler, he lives in awe of creation, engaged with the world with complete openness and trust, sensing with his emoting mechanisms the fleeting sense of self in the events. 

When memories begin to collect in the emotional past of experiences that can then be recollected as a source for the anticipation of the future, consciousness has extended again into the next step of the metamorphic process, the autobiographical self. This is a self with an extended consciousness beyond the borders of its own individuality, a social self with a sense of belonging to a group or community in which he shares a responsibility of caring for others, and for its wellbeing and justice. 

The final step in this process of metamorphosis would be the submitting self, the self that has realized, through reflection, that his existence is completely dependent on his Creator, he is not the plotter, he is himself plotted, in a intertwined destiny in which he is free and the same time utterly dependent, as he also is of his basic homeostatic regulation. As we can see the entire phenomenon is permeated by the original feature of homeostasis in its ultimate intensification.


Emotions are part of the bio-regulatory devices with which we come equipped in order to survive. Emotions are an extension of the process of sensing by the brain under its homeostasis mode, rooted in the brain’s representation of the body. As such emotions are aimed at the organism’s survival.

We can define emotions as a collection of responses that are outwardly directed and public. Feelings, in contrast, are the private mental experiences of the emotions and are inwardly directed. This means that one can observe an emotion in another person, but not a feeling. Similarly, you can observe your own feeling that others cannot see, but some of the emotions that gave rise to that feeling will be observable to others. The impact of emotions on the human being depends on the feelings engendered by those emotions. Therefore emotions can have an impact on the mind through feelings, but to have a full lasting impact, feelings require consciousness. This means that feelings have to be known to the individual who is having them, and for that to occur, there must be the presence of a sense-of-self.

Emotions cannot be controlled by will. The innate set of brain devices which produce emotions are engaged automatically. They are part of the sensing of the engagement with life. Emotions can be caused by an ‘emotionally competent stimuli’ that comes from an outward event (e.g. something you see) or comes from an inward-image (e.g. a memory) or from the chemical profile of the internal medium (e.g. level of your blood sugar). 

In that sense emotions are “responses” to stimuli (emotion: in motion, it moves the organism to action) a complicated collection of chemical and neural responses with a regulatory role to assist the organism in maintaining life, by leading to the creation of circumstances advantageous to the organism. We have for every stimuli coming from the internal or external environment of the body a matching answer in the form of emotions. 

Emotion can most of the time be predicted when induced by a particular stimulus. The universality of emotional expression, such as facial expressions, body posture and gestures, makes them easily recognizable due to the stereotypical nature of the emotional reaction, regardless of the cultural variations among humans, indicating an automatic response and the regulatory purpose of the emotions. The biological machinery for emotions is largely pre-set, whereas the range of stimuli that can be competent to induce emotions is infinite. Emotions and the biological machinery underlying them are the obligatory accompaniment of behaviour, whether we are conscious of them or not.

Types of Emotions.

Background emotions: calm or tense, at ease or uneasy, pain or pleasure, well-being or malaise. Inducers of background emotions are usually internal (pain is a sensation consequence of a local dysfunction in a living tissue). Profiles of the internal milieu and viscera play the most important role as inducers of that emotional background response, coming from the innermost core of life. They will be reflected in subtle musculoskeletal changes expressed in the body posture.

In my view, given that an emotion is a reaction to an inducer (an emotionally competent stimulus or ECS) we need to take into account that chronologically, anxiety is the first ever human emotion experienced. It begins right after birth when the child encounters for the first time the sensation of coldness and a hungry empty stomach. The automatic response from the autonomic nervous system triggers the release of the chemicals that constitute anxiety, although there is no sense of self yet to acknowledge it, except for the barest homeostatic proto-self who visibly expresses distress to the uncomfortable experience. 

Anxiety is the first emotional imprint of threat from hostile conditions, and therefore is the one that will always be there, either present or in the background, even when we do not feel it, but it will never leave you. In fact we spend most of our life trying not to feel it, to avoid it, not to let anxiety take hold. We keep ourselves occupied, we indulge ourselves with all sorts of activities to be entertained, meaning being taken out of the sphere of anxiety, at least for a while. When anxiety is focused on an object, it becomes fear. When fear takes control of you, it then becomes panic and terror.

We can classify emotions as primary or universal emotions, such as happiness, sadness, fear, anger, anxiety, disgust, and secondary or social emotions, like embarrassment, shame, jealousy, envy, guilt, pride, gratitude, compassion, contempt, indignation, etc.

As emotions at their most basic level are part of the homeostatic regulatory mechanisms, and therefore a means to avoid loss of organic integrity and death, the biological function of emotion is to produce a reaction to a specific inducer, and at the same time to regulate the internal state of the organism in order to be prepared for that reaction. In this sense emotions are a high level component of the mechanisms of life regulation because they are in-between the most basic homeostatic life regulation with all its organic machinery and the devices of high reason that are expressed as behaviour-actions. 

The neural aspects of the mechanics of emotion explain why different emotions are produced by different brain systems. The number of sites in the brain where emotions are induced is quite small. Most of them are located in structures below the cerebral cortex, in the hypothalamus, the basal forebrain, and the brain stem. The induction sites in the cerebral cortex are located in the anterior cingulate pre-frontal region (ventromedial). During emotions, neurons located in these cortical or subcortical sites, release neurotransmitters like norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine (monoamines) in several regions of the brain, temporarily changing the workings of our neural systems and with it our sense of being in the world. 

For each emotion there is a different pattern of involvement of different brain sites: Sadness activates ventromedial pre-frontal cortex, hypothalamus and brain stem, but fear or anger do not. The emotion of fear has an even a more specific subcortical site, called amygdala, located in the depth of each temporal lobe which is fundamental for its perception and recognition.

The consequence of these emotions (a particular content of a mental process) that was activated by these neural sites, will be a set of neural commands, sent out via chemical molecules in the blood stream and electrochemical signals via neural pathways that will provoke a global change in the organism. The brain and the body proper will be largely modified, expressing the adaptation to the neural commands via the endocrine-visceral (hormonal changes, inducing functional organ variations) and musclo-skeletal modifications (relating to body posture, reflexes, movements, etc.) 

To summarise, in their mechanics, emotions are a collection of induced responses coming from the activation of certain regions of the brain that are part of a pre-set neural system related to emotion. These regions then send commands to other regions of the brain and to the rest of the body. The commands are sent via two routes. One route is the blood stream where the orders are sent in the form of chemical molecules that act on the receptors of the cells of the tissues of the organs. The other route is through neuron pathways where the commands are sent in the form of electrochemical signals which act on other neurons, on muscular fibres and on organs. These organs in turn can release chemicals of their own into the bloodstream. The result is a generalized change of the body state, although the source of the commands that so profoundly alter it are circumscribed to very small area of the brain which responds to a particular content of the mental process.


A feeling of an emotion is a perception of the body when it is perturbed by the emoting process. In the case of emotion the object to be known, to react to, comes from the outside world. In the case of feelings the object to be known comes from inside, from the body state. Feelings arise from any set of homeostatic reactions, not just from emotions proper. Feelings translate the ongoing life state in the language of the mind. Its perception as mental images is accompanied by certain mind states or thinking styles with particular themes of thought. 

Emotion is an exteroceptive sense, a perception of the exterior. Feeling is an interoceptive sense, a perception of the interior, the private. 

The same brain regions related with feelings are also the regions receiving signals related to pain states, body temperature, states of tension of the smooth muscle in blood vessels and other organs, Ph, glucose, osmolality (amount of salt inside cells), inflammatory markers, etc. In other words, these signals represent the content of feelings. The somatosensing regions of the brain, the ones sensing the body, in particular the insular cortex, appear to be paramount for the substrate of feelings. 

First, in order to feel a feeling we need the presence of a nervous system that is able to map body structures and body states and transform the neural patterns in those maps into mental patterns or images. Second, in the real sense of the term, feeling requires its contents to be known to the organism, meaning we need consciousness. Without the creation of a self, the knower, nothing can be known. At the same time, only through feeling comes the sense of self consciousness. Third, the brain maps that constitute the basic substrate of feelings have been executed under the command of other parts of the very same brain. That means that the brain of an organism that feels, creates the very body states that evoke feelings as it reacts to objects and events with emotions or appetites (drives). 

In a double action, the brain needs to provide the body mappings, but also needs to construct the particular emotional body state that ends up being mapped as feeling. Maps of certain configuration are the basis for the mental state we call joy and its variants, in a pleasure pattern; other maps are the basis for the mental state called sorrow, encompassing anguish, fear, guilt, despair, in a pain pattern. Feelings let our fleeting and narrow conscious self know about the current state of life in the organism for a brief period.

All feelings contain some aspect of pain or pleasure as a necessary ingredient. Empathy or antipathy, joy and sorrow, are mental revelations of the state of the life process, ideas of the body, as depicted in the brain’s body maps conformed in a certain pattern, with the overall purpose of manoeuvring itself into states of optimal survival. Positive or negative feelings are determined by the state of life regulation. The life governing processes are either fluid or strained, either expanding or contracting.

The neural maps associated with joy signify states of equilibrium for the organism, optimal physiological coordination, greater ease in the capacity to act, conducive to survival accompanied with a sense of well-being. There is greater perfection in the sense of greater functional harmony, increasing the power and freedom to act1.

The neural maps related to sorrow are reflective of states of functional disequilibrium, there is a pain of some kind, signs of some physiological discord indicating less than optimal coordination of life functions. Sorrow is associated with the transition of the organism to a state of lesser perfection. The ease of action is restricted. The power and freedom to act are diminished. The tendency for self-preservation is reduced.

There is no doubt that the integrity of emotion and feelings is necessary for human social behaviour that conforms to rules and laws. When normal human beings sustain damage to brain regions (in particular prefrontal cortex) necessary for the development of certain classes of emotions, like social emotion and feelings, their ability to run their lives in society is extremely disturbed. The defective reasoning that these patients show, a defect in the governance of life, is not due to a primarily cognitive problem, but rather to a defect in emotion and feeling. It is an impairment of the emotion-related signal failing to activate the emotion-related memory that would help them to choose more advantageous options. Emotion and feeling are indispensable players in the process of reasoning.



As a biological process, a state of emotion can be triggered and executed non-consciously and a state of feeling can be represented non-consciously. Emotion through feeling can influence the thought processes and enhance the organism’s ability to respond and to adapt. Consciousness must be present if feelings are to influence the subject having them, beyond the immediate here and now. Emotions automatically provide organisms with survival oriented behaviour, but consciousness, by allowing feelings to be known, will bring a higher level of regulation. Emotion and consciousness are part of the homeostatic regulation, both devoted to the survival of the organism.

In order for something to be known, there must be a knower, a self. In order to develop a self, there must be a process that leads to consciousness. The sense of self only comes when the contents of the feeling of what is happening to us are being made known to the organism. Consciousness is a requirement for a feeling to occur. We are not able to feel if we are not conscious. At the same time without the mechanisms of feelings we cannot develop a conscious self.

Because a feeling is a perception of a certain state of the body, in order to be perceived, it requires a set of mental patterns or images that can reflect the body’s state. The nervous system is fundamental in mapping our bodily structure and the body’s states and its modifications, and as mention before, it does it in the form of neural patterns, induced by emotions and internal body input. Those neural patterns are translated into mental patterns or images, which make the substrate for the feeling. Those brain maps that constitute the substrate of feelings reflecting patterns of the body’s state, have been created under the command of other parts of the very same brain. It is the brain that creates the actual body states that evoke feelings as it reacts to objects and events with emotions or appetites. When the feeling is felt, consciousness and the sense of self are present.

It is one thing to have a feeling, and another thing is to know that you have that feeling. Feelings cannot be known to the subject having them before the appearance of consciousness. We sense that we are having an emotion because a sense of a feeling-self is created in our mind. Emotion is then perceived as an object to be known by feeling it and the knowing that you are the one who is feeling it, is the consciousness of it. Feelings are the next homeostatic step (mediators) in the development of the sense of self necessary to achieve consciousness. 


Summarising, the neural substrate for the representation of emotion is a collection of inherent neural dispositions that exist as potential patterns of neural activity located in a number of brain regions. These dispositions can be activated by stimuli. The pattern of activation at the induction sites represents emotion in the brain as a neural object. This neural object generates explicit responses that modify the functioning of the brain and the body. These responses create an emotional state that can be appreciated by an external observer, and an internal feeling when the sense of the consequences of this activation become images in the mind. The neural process allows the organism to undergo an emotion, to exhibit it, and ‘image’ it, meaning to feel it. Consciousness is necessary to know that you are having the feeling, to feel the feeling and know that it is you who is the owner of it. 

In this respect, consciousness consists of constructing knowledge about two facts: namely, that the organism is involved in relating to some object, and that the object in the relation is causing a change in the organism. 

The images we have in our mind are the result of the interaction between us and the object that engaged our organism, mapped in neural patterns and constructed according to the organism’s design. The object is real, but the images are real too. Therefore the images we experience are brain constructions induced by an object, rather than being a simple mirrored reflection of the object we have encountered. 

When we see an object, no picture of the object is being transferred optically from the retina to the visual cortex. Optics stops at the retina. Beyond that there are physical transformations that occur in continuity from the retina to the cerebral cortex. This is because there is a set of correspondences between the physical characteristics of the object independent of us, and the menu of possible responses that the organism has in store. The neural patterns are ‘a priori’ components selected and assembled by the brain to construct a representation of the object. In essence what happens is that a specialised part of the body is being modified and the result of the modification is transferred to the central nervous system, creating a neural pattern that becomes a mental image.

Consciousness is the knowing of the feeling of what is happening to us when we encounter the world. When consciousness is available, feelings have their maximum impact and individuals are able to reflect and plan. We have a means to control the pervasive tyranny of emotion with reason, but the engines of reason themselves still require emotion.

In the absence of consciousness we know for certain that life cannot be properly managed, even in a temporary absence. The mere suspension of the self-component of consciousness entails a disruption of life management and returns the human being to a state of dependence comparable to that of a toddler. Fundamentally, the sense of self brings orientation. 

Within the mental level of processing, the sense of self introduces the notion that all the current activities represented in the brain and mind pertain to a single organism whose auto-preservation needs are the basic cause of most the events currently represented. The sense of self orients the mental planning process toward the satisfaction of those needs. Orientation is only possible, because feelings are integral to the group of operations that constitute the sense of self, and because feelings are continuously generating, within the mind, a concern for the organism. Without a sense of self and without feelings that integrate it, there is no possibility of becoming a singular and independent being.

In any case, to be precise, all the phenomena just described are themselves only the structural organic machinery for consciousness to occur and bring about a sense of self. It is that sense that creates an in-between area, as a locus, an existential platform from where we look at the world and recognise it; we call it persona, or mask in Greek. 

This is an existential zone of encounter between an organism with a sophisticated machinery capable of producing these sensory perceptions and the main inhabitant of it, the spiritual being endowed with reflective capacity called Ruh. The Ruh has the organism as its dwelling; it is on loan from his Creator for a fixed period of time, created to match the specifications of the nomos, of the place of existence and its conditions, in this case, the planet Earth. But the Ruh needs to master the tool that his Creator has given him, it needs to know how it all works, realising its functions, needs and capacities.

When it comes to mastering the organism, we can now realise that it is most fortunate that the dwelling itself comes already prepared with an innate sense of individuality, of being one. Even though it is made from an extraordinary number of parts, it has from the start a sense of one single operational unity. The self is a construction necessary for our creative engagement with life. The attributes come embedded in the Ruh but it needs the self in order to express them.

There cannot be two selves in one organism, two owners giving orders; that only occurs in insanity. In Schizophrenia, for example, there is a crack in the self and two senses of self are experienced, two wills are engaging life and the result is extreme disorientation. There is somehow a malfunction regarding the machinery of perception. The translation of reality is distorted because “he feels he is another”. 

We know from quantum physics that the organic structure is sustained by the invisible dynamics of energetic patterns in the subatomic realm. The rules of that world are the opposite to the rules of the visible world. The source of what we call reality is the dynamic world of pre-set energy patterns ordered in forms by the One who knows the ordering of all forms. 

The capacity for grasping this is called intellect. 

I want to end with a quote from a scientist with intellect, from long before quantum mechanics were formulated. Dr. S Hahnemann (1884) who discovered Homeopathy and was contemporary with Goethe wrote: “… the immaterial vital force, maintains the sensations and activities of all the parts of the living organism in a harmony that obliges wonderment. The spiritual being endowed with reason that inhabits the organism can thus freely use this healthy living instrument to achieve the highest possibilities of his existence”.

That brings us to the end of today’s lecture. Recommend further reading is the Feeling of What Happens by Antonio Damasio. The subject of our next lecture is Money and the Markets recommended reading for which is The Problem with Interest by Tarek El Diwany. Thank you for your attention. Assalamu alaykum.

1 see Goethe’s essay on “Beauty as perfection with freedom”