The Embodied Self as a Monitor of Affective States

Jaak Panksepp (1998a, 1998b), a psychobiologist who has devoted his career to the investigation of the neural correlates of emotion, has described a biological protoself that functions unconsciously and is of very ancient evolutionary origin. Panksepp believes that the neural correlates of the protoself are associated principally with one of the structures that Edelman has cited—the mesencephalic reticular formation. More specifically, Panksepp refers to an area identified as periaqueductal gray (PAG), which he believes is the site of origin of several basic emotional systems. This area of the midbrain is further characterized anatomically by the diffuseness and the extensiveness of its synaptic connections and the presence of cells that produce neuromodu-lators, such as dopamine and serotonin, that orchestrate global reactions in the individual (Nauta and Feirtag 1986). This area functions as a primitive center of homeostasis.

Panksepp suggests that this archaic mesencephalic area monitors the organism's holistic affective state and in this sense serves as a progenitor of a sense of self.1 This unconscious protoself is thought by Panksepp to be an internal point of reference that responds to and compares changes in the organism's affective states. Inasmuch as the midbrain made its appearance in the earliest vertebrates (Allman 1999), it seems highly probable that unconscious monitoring of the organism's holistic affective state occurred before the evolution of consciousness. We must then assume that emotions provided vital information to the individual animal without the need for consciousness. No one knows when consciousness made its appearance. Some believe that all vertebrates may have some form of consciousness. I believe that at least all mammals are conscious and would also attribute consciousness to intelligent birds, such as grey parrots. But it is reasonable to assume that those species lacking consciousness would unconsciously respond to changes in their emotional state. Parenthetically, this would provide a biological backing for the psychoanalyst's unquestioned belief in the existence of unconscious affects. For we share with other species an ancient midbrain.2 When an animal is endowed with consciousness, this unconscious protoself would then inform an unconscious affective core, the nucleus of a biological self. The term self is appropriate in that the biological self refers to state functions representative of the entire organism.

This unconscious affective core, to which consciousness has access, contributes not only to an awareness of self and other but also to a sense of the continuity of the self. If animals could speak, they would say, "I know that I am who I am." This concept of self as the monitor of the individual's holistic state has been elaborated by Antonio Damasio (1999) and described as the conscious "core" self,3 which in turn rests upon Panksepp's unconscious protoself.

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