There is a functional region deep within the core of the mammalian (and possibly most vertebrate) brains that may give rise one of the most basic forms of awareness that has been described as the primal self. This is an area where a variety of sensory inputs and reactionary responses are blended to create a deep, visceral sense of self.
In humans, peeling away the layered complexities of higher cognitive forms of consciousness eventually reveals a primordial self awareness a step above simply reactive neural responses. Based on the precursors of emotions these responses are integrated with sensory inputs to create “intent”, that is a proactive disposition. Jaak Pankepp (Affective Neuroscience) notes “The rudiments of consciousness were probably built upon neural systems that symbolize biological values- the basic motivational and emotional systems of the brain that inform organisms how they are faring in the game of survival.”
These neural networks are concentrated in the primitive midline brainstem regions, near the ventricles, and extend into critical areas of the limbic system. Where these networks converge could be thought of as the source from where core feelings of self arise. This is a core self more profound than a higher self- it is that gut awareness of body.
Among the more dense and ancient midbrain neural convergences, the periaqueductal gray region (PAG) is rich in visceral sensations that stimulate behavioral emotional responses. The PAG also has a multitude of connections to other brain regions that allows other brain/mind (i.e.; other levels of consciousness) to coordinate with emotional responses. Interestingly, when this area is damaged in animals, they lose their sense of conscious “presence” with the world around them.
The PAG is strategically located close to areas that integrate vision, touch, and hearing- a region known as the four twins (the four protuberances along the back of the brainstem identified as the superior and inferior colliculi) as well as other motor regions. The general effect is an integration of internal sensory and motor “mapping” of the body providing appropriate emotionally tagged responses to external stimuli.
It is this functional interaction that provides the dynamic basis for primordial gut awareness. Pankepp concludes “These closely integrated areas appear to neuro-symbolically represent the organism as a coherent living creature and may constitute a core SELF for each organism- a Simple Ego-type Life Force, which provides an archetypal homuncular form, a primal soul if you will- upon which innumerable brain complexities were built.”
Carter, Rita. Exploring consciousness. Univ of CA press. California.2002.
Panksepp, Jaak. Affective neuroscience: the foundations of human and animal evolution.