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Observations placeholder

Damasio, Professor Antonio - Will and Command



Type of Spiritual Experience


Will and the command and control system share a lot of functions and may in many senses be thought of as being the same for the purposes of producing outputs – both functions serve to give us our goals and objectives.  The Command and Control function uses perceptions to direct behaviour – sweat, flee, run, laugh, - action in other words.  So does the will based function, but ‘will’ has an additional input – the input from dreams and visions.  In effect, the will directs us into doing things other than survival functions. The command and control system simply directs actions of survival, will based functions direct the actions of dreams and visions – what we’d like to do as opposed to what we have to do.  ‘I have a dream’….

One of the oddest proofs of this is the condition called an ‘absence seizure’.  In an absence seizure, the function of  ‘Will’ is suspended, but the Command and Control function carries on working.

In an absence seizure the functions enabling the person to perform survival type actions such as drinking or walking are fully functional.  The biological functions are thus working.  The nervous system and 5 senses system are also functional and feeding directly into the command and control system.   But, and this is key, the function of Will has ceased.   Furthermore,  the functions associated with memory and learning also cease.

And it would appear that emotion has ceased “his face remains a blank, with no sign of a decipherable expression” .

In effect, the seizure reduces the person to the ‘core’ functions in my model of the mind, perception, the sensory functions, and command and control,  'consciousness' has probably transferred to the composer.

A description of the experience

Professor Antonio Damasio – The Feeling of What Happens

If you were talking to someone prone to absence seizures and absence automatisms, here is what might happen if an episode were to begin. 

Suddenly, while having a perfectly sensible conversation, the patient would interrupt himself in mid sentence, freeze whatever other movement he was performing and stare blankly, his eyes focused on nothing, his face devoid of any expression – a meaningless mask. 

The patient would remain awake.  The muscular tone would be preserved.  The patient would not fall, or have convulsions, or drop whatever he was holding in his hand.  This state of suspended animation might last for as little as three seconds – a far longer time than you imagine when you are watching it – and for as long as tens of seconds.  The longer it lasts, the more likely it is that absence proper will be followed by absence automatism, which once again, can take a few seconds or many. 

As the automatism starts, the events become even more intriguing.  The situation is not unlike the unfreezing of film images when you release a freeze frame control or when the jammed projector in a movie house gets to be unjammed.  The show goes on. 

As the patient unfreezes he looks about, perhaps not at you but at something nearby, his face remains a blank, with no sign of a decipherable expression, he drinks from the glass on the table, smacks his lips, fumbles with his clothes, gets up, turns round, moves towards the door, opens it, hesitates just outside the threshold, then walks down the hallway.  By this time you would have got up and followed him so that you might witness the end of the episode. 

One of several scenarios might unfold.  In the most likely scenario, the patient might stop and stand somewhere in the hallway, appearing confused; or he might sit on a bench, if there were one.  But the patient might possibly enter another room or continue walking.  In the most extreme variety of such episodes, in what is known as an epileptic fugue, the patient might even get out of the building and walk about in a street.  To a good observer he would have looked strange and confuse, but he might get by without any harm coming to him................

Along the trajectory of any of these scenarios, most frequently within seconds, more rarely within a few minutes, the automatism episode would come to an end and the patient would look bewildered, wherever he would be at that moment.  Consciousness would have returned as suddenly as it had disappeared and you would have to be there to explain the situation to him and bring him back to where the two of you were before the episode began.

The patient would have no recollection whatsoever of the intervening time.  The patient would not know then and not know ever what his organism had been doing during the episode.  After an episode ends, such patients have no recollection of what went on during the seizure or during the extension seizure in the automatism period.  They do remember what went on before the seizure and can retrieve those contents from memory, a clear indication that their learning mechanisms were intact prior to seizure.  They immediately learn what goes on after the seizure ends, a sign that the seizure did not produce a permanent impairment of learning.  But the events that occurred during the period of seizure have not been committed to memory or are not retrievable if they have...................

Let me conclude by commenting that emotion was missing throughout this episode.  The suspension of emotion is an important sign in absence seizure and in absence automatisms.....................

Were you to have interrupted the patient at any point during the episode, he would have looked at you in utter bewilderment or perhaps with indifference.  He would not know who he was or what he was doing and he might have simply kept you away with a vague gesture, hardly looking at you….. He would have remained awake and attentive enough to process the object that came next into his perceptual purview, but inasmuch as we can deduce form the situation, that is all that would go on in the mind.  There would have been no plan, no forethought, no sense of an individual organism wishing, wanting, considering, believing.  ………….

In such circumstances, the presence of an object promotes the next action and that action may be adequate within the microcontext of the moment – drinking a glass, opening a door.  But that action, and other actions, will not be adequate in the broader context of circumstances in which the patient is operating.  As one watches actions unfold, one realises they are devoid of ultimate purpose and are inappropriate for an individual in that situation 

The source of the experience

Damasio, Professor Antonio

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Brain damage