Big Think Interview With Antonio Damasio

Professor of Neuroscience and Director of Brain and Creativity Institute, USC
A conversation with the behavioral neurobiologist.
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: What is consciousness?

Antonio Damasio: If I use the word consciousness, in our lab, in our institute, what we mean is the special quality of mind, the special features that exist in the mind, that permit us to know, for example, that we, ourselves, exist, and that things exist around us.

And that is something more than just mind.  You know, mind allows us to portray in different sensory modalities, visual, auditory, olfactory, you name it, what we are like and what the world is like.  But this very, very important quality of subjectivity, this quality that allows us to take a distant view and say, “I am here, I exist, I have a life and there are things around me that refer to me.”  That me-ness, M-E-hyphen, that is what really constitutes consciousness.  In the heart of consciousness is subjectivity, this sense of having a self that observes one’s own organism and the world around that organism.  That is really the heart of consciousness.

And it’s very interesting to think about the distinction with mind, which I just made in very general terms, but it can be made more profound when we think that there are many species, many creatures on earth that are very likely to have a mind, but are very unlikely to have a consciousness in the sense that you and I have.  That is a self that is very robust, that has many, many levels of organization, from simple to complex, and that functions as a sort of witness to what is going on in our organisms.  That kind of process is very interesting because I believe that it is made out of the same cloth of mind, but it is an add-on, it was something that was specialized to create what we call the self.  And it exists for very special purposes and it has very special, and I think by and large good consequences, although not only good consequences.

Question: Do all people have the same experience of consciousness?

Antonio Damasio:  Well, I think it’s possible to a certain extent to make those comparisons.  The problem is the detail with which the comparison can be made.  Of course, the first place to make such a comparison would be to ask for a testimony from different people and have people report on what they experience.  Now, of course, if the report is going to be about the quality of sound that one and another have, it’s going to be pretty tough to just go on report, even the descriptions are very precise, you really can’t go very far.  

Now, there are ways in which you can make that distinction objective to a certain degree.  For example, by looking at responses that could be generated in the brain to exactly the same stimulus and there could be differences there.  But there, we remove ourselves from the experience itself to a surrogate of the experience, which is whatever measure you take from the brain, be it the electroencephalogram or magnet encephalography or say functional magnetic resonance.  So it’s pretty tough to make those comparisons.  One thing that is for sure, though is that when you look at people that say, from the same culture, roughly the same age, and not very difference intelligence, and you make a lot of detailed questions about the experiences of say colors, situations, and so on, you’ll get very similar answers.  So I think it’s reasonable to say that even thought, in all likelihood, we have slightly different experiences of reality, they are similar enough to us not to clash.  In other words, I’m not, it’s very unlikely, in fact, let’s say impossible, for you to say the situation in which you and I are in right now, relative to the machinery that is capturing this.  We’re seeing it the same way, we’re hearing the same way, we have the same conception of the situation.  And so, for all purposes, we are operating with a very similar perception.  

Question: Are some people more conscious than others?

Antonio Damasio:  Not so much more conscious, you have different degrees of acuteness of the experience.  And that has to do with the amount of concentration, amount of focus that you have on a particular object or event that you’re being conscious of.  And that varies a lot.  So, for example, you can be highly concentrated on a person, on a problem, and be so good at excluding all other material that that becomes not just the focus of your experience, but practically the sole content of your experience, everything else falling by the wayside.

And you can achieve that, by the way, you can achieve that by exercising that prerogative and I think that people who are great thinkers, in science or in art, people who are great performers, have to have that kind of capacity.  Without that kind of capacity, it’s extremely difficult to manage a high level of performance because you’re going to get a lot of extraneous material chipping away at the finery of your thinking or the finery of your motor execution.  So I think in that sense, yes, we can be more or less conscious when you create grades of focus on a subject that is flowing in our stream of consciousness.

Question: How do our brains construct coherent personal narrative out of our memories of experiences?

Antonio Damasio:  You do it in very interesting ways.  A first way is by taking the story as it happens.  You know, our biographies happened one part at a time.  There is a sequence of events in our lives and so there’s a temporal aspect to our experience that brings by itself, sense into the story.  In other words, you were not walking before you were born and you were not doing X and Y before you did something else first.  So there’s a sequencing of events that imposes a certain structure to the story.

Then there’s something that intervenes and is very important which has to do with value.  Value in the true biological sense, which is that contrary to what many people seem to think, taking it at face value—sorry for the pun—we do not give the same amount of emotional significance to every event. So there are things in our lives that take up an enormous importance and that become very dominant effects in our biography.  And that comes out of a variety of reasons, but fundamentally comes out of how that particular experience connects with your effective systems of response.  So if something produces an undue amount of pleasure or undue amount of displeasure, it’s going to be judged differently and it’s going to be introduced in your narrative with a different size, with a different development.  And so that is the next element to superimpose on the sequencing element.  And in fact, that element is so powerful that very often it can trump the sequencing event, that the sequencing aspect.  So something may have happened before, and yet this thing that happened just after may be so important that you don’t even know about the thing that happened before and when you tell your story to yourself, or to someone else, it’s going to be told not on the basis necessarily of the time course, but rather on the basis of how it was valued by you.

And that value, by the way, does not need to be conscious.  You know, you’re not deciding, "Aha, this is very good, X-value." No, you’re assigning value naturally as life unfolds and that’s this very important element for the construction of one’s narrative.  And the other thing that is very important is that narratives are not fixed.  We change our narratives for ourselves and we change them not necessarily deliberately. In other words, some people do, some people will constantly reconstruct their biography for external purposes, it’s a very interesting political ploy, you know.  But whether we want to do it because we want to have people to have a different idea of who we are or not, we do it naturally.  So the way we construct our narrative is different from the way we constructed it a year ago.  The difference is maybe very small or it may be huge.

And they’re constantly as a result of events that happen in your life.  You’re not the same after, say, an incredible love affair that went very well or a love affair that went bad. Or something that happens to your health, or something that happened to somebody else’s health, that is close to you.  Or something that happens professionally.  All of those things sort of rearrange the way your story gets constructed.

Question: Does constructing these stories change our brains?

Antonio Damasio:  Well, of course it happens, first of all, in the brain, and it's affecting the brain because it sort of changes the weights with which memories are recalled.  So I know we had a chance of talking on another occasion about the architecture of convergence and divergence. All of that is constantly operating when you not only learn, but when you recall.  But as you recall in a different light, the weights with which something is more probably going to be or not recalled on the next instance, are going to be changed.  So you’re constantly changing the way, for instance, synapses are going to fire very easily or not so easily.  There’s that effect that is very physical, very down there at the synaptic level, which really means microscopic cellular level, but also molecular level, because all of those structures are operating on an electrochemical basis and so the changes there are very important.

Question: What is happening in our brain when we feel an emotion?

Antonio Damasio:  Feeling of an emotion is a process that is distinct from having the emotion in the first place.  So it helps to understand what is an emotion, what is a feeling, we need to understand what is an emotion.  And the emotion is the execution of a very complex program of actions.  Some actions that are actually movements, like movement that you can do, change your face for example, in fear, or movements that are internal, that happen in your heart or in your gut, and movements that are actually not muscular movements, but rather, releases of molecules.  Say, for example, in the endocrine system into the blood stream, but it’s movement and action in the broad sense of the term.

And an emotion consists of a very well orchestrated set of alterations in the body that has, as a general purpose, making life more survivable by taking care of a danger, of taking care of an opportunity, either/or, or something in between.  And it’s something that is set in our genome and that we all have with a certain programmed nature that is modified by our experience so individually we have variations on the pattern.  But in essence, your emotion of joy and mine are going to be extremely similar.  We may express them physically slightly differently, and it’s of course graded depending on the circumstance, but the essence of the process is going to be the same, unless one of us is not quite well put together and is missing something, otherwise it’s going to be the same.

And it’s going to be the same across even other species.  You know, there’s a, you know, we may smile and the dog may wag the tail, but in essence, we have a set program and those programs are similar across individuals in the species.

Then the feeling is actually a portrayal of what is going on in the organs when you are having an emotion.  So it’s really the next thing that happens.  If you have just an emotion, you would not necessarily feel it.  To feel an emotion, you need to represent in the brain in structures that are actually different from the structures that lead to the emotion, what is going on in the organs when you’re having the emotion.  So, you can define it very simply as the process of perceiving what is going on in the organs when you are in the throws of an emotion, and that is achieved by a collection of structures, some of which are in the brain stem, and some of which are in the cerebral cortex, namely the insular cortex, which I like to mention not because I think it’s the most important, it’s not.  I actually don’t think it’s the number one structure controlling our feelings, but I like to mention because it’s something that people didn’t really know about and many years ago, which probably now are going close to 20 years ago, I thought that the insular would be an important platform for feelings, that’s where I started.  And it was a hypothesis and it turns out that the hypothesis is perfectly correct.  And 10 years ago, we had the first experiments that showed that it was indeed so, and since then, countless studies have shown that when you’re having feelings of an emotion or feelings of a variety of other things, the insular is active, but it doesn’t mean that it’s the only thing that is active and there are other structures that are very important as well.

Question: How does emotion affect the way we respond to the world?

Antonio Damasio:  Well, you see, emotion operates, very often when you think about how you react to the world, you know, something is happening to you, you’re simply going along and you’re being confronted by different things, not necessarily very important or significance for your ultimate life, but you are constantly reacting to the world.  You’re thinking about the world and you’re acting on the world.  And emotions are engaged when the stakes outside of your organism are fairly high in positive or negative directions.  And this, of course, comes from ancient times in biology when you were constantly being subject to potential threats and to potential opportunities.  The threats were obvious, for example, predation, or inclement weather, or physical environments where you would be like setting a precipice, or a hole on the ground.  The opportunities are also very easy to see, they would have fundamentally to do with food and with sex. 

And so the emotions were placed there in evolution as incredibly smart devices that rather than having you think through the problem, would deliver a solution and make sure that you would act right.  It’s in a way, a contribution to a sort of our auto pilots that we inherited through all these millions of years of evolution.

So if there is an opportunity, emotion is going to make sure that you, at some level, know that it’s there and that you’re going to have the tendency to act on it.  And if there is a threat, you’re going to be alerted to it and even before you’re alerted to the threat as such, you’re going to be placed in circumstances that are likely to make you either freeze or run away from the danger.  Okay?  So this is a level of response to the world that is automated, it’s largely non-conscious, and I mean, non-conscious, then you take consciousness of it, because once it’s happening, once you start feeling what is happening and connecting the feeling to what you’re perceiving, then you realize, ah-ha, there’s the danger, or ah-ha, here’s the next lunch.  And so there’s a level in which you have a way in which the entire process then is made conscious and enters your mind flow.

And even at this level, you can see that the influence on one’s behavior is astounding and it’s by and large extremely useful.  It has, of course, its downsides, because you may be responding to things that you better not respond to, either or on the negative or positive side, that you should not take the bait.  You should not, for example, fall for every opportunity and you should not allow yourself to be made angry, for example, or fearful, when there is no cause for it.  But there is a way in which by and large the influence is very positive.

And then it, the experiences of emotion also have a way of modeling what you’re going to do next, because unlike, say, a squirrel, who is not going to think much about his or her experiences of emotion, we do.  And we have, because we have feelings, because those feelings can actually stay in memory, in terms of the elaborations that we make about the feelings, for example, using language, then we have a possibility of using feelings of certain emotions for future planning, and that makes a huge difference.  So, for a little animal that doesn’t have much mind, and no advance planning, it’s a way of keeping alive for animals like us, it’s a way of keeping alive sometimes, but an even better way of constructing a view of the world and making sure that that view is taken into consideration when we plan future events.

Question: How does the mind connect with the body, neurologically?

Antonio Damasio: We have a brain for a very interesting reason. We have a brain because with a brain we can run the economy of the body in a better way.  Throughout evolution you have organisms that are bodies without brains—and they do a pretty good job of running their economy and running their life.  However, with a brain, you have a better chance of running that life better and why do you do it better?  Well, you do it better because with neural-signaling, you have the possibility of making representations, which are rather abstract, of what you can do in certain situations.  And then when you come to the point of having a mind, you enter something which is completely new in brain evolution, which is the possibility of creating maps, first of your own organism, and then of the outside world.

And so the idea of mind and body comes from that very peculiar relationship. Mind is not something disembodied, it’s something that is, in total, essential, intrinsic ways, embodied.  There would not be a mind if you did not have in the brain the possibility of constructing maps of our own organism.  And of course, those maps exist for a very simple reason, you need the maps in order to portray the structure of the body, portray the state of the body, so that the brain can construct a response that is adequate to the structure and state and generate some kind of corrective action.

Intrinsically, no mystery here, you need to deliver to the brain images of the body and the brain needs to use those images in order to make corrections.  So as a result of this, there’s a very tight bond between body and brain, and that tight bond occurs at a number of structures in the brain and what I am defending these days and is very, very intrinsic to my thinking now, is the kind of bond that you generate at the level of the brain stem, which have been by and large ignored, certainly ignored a good part of cognitive neuroscience. So a lot of the work that has dealt with, say the mind/body problem, has dealt with it as if the mind were strictly something that happens in the cerebral cortex, and the rest is stuff that happens in the brain stem, not being very important, you know, sort of animal stuff. And I think this is completely wrong.  I think that where the most seminal contributions come from is from the brainstem, which is indeed very old and very animal because we basically have a got a brainstem that is designed in the model of reptiles. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important, on the contrary.  It’s very, very important.  But that’s where it starts.

Now, how you actually end up mapping the outside world is actually via mapping of the body.  So, you know, one tends to think, for example, about our eyes or our ears as if they are just outposts of the brain that are picking up on signals from the outer world.  Well, it’s not quite the case.  There are, in fact, parts of the body just like the rest and they are inserted in the body at critical junctures and so the best when, for example, when I’m looking at a reflection of you, in the camera, and I could, of course, look around and see my surroundings and what is being mapped visually in my cortices  First in my retina, then in my cortices, is not just a result of what is in the retina or what is in primary visual cortex, but also a result of lots of things that my body would be doing.  For example, moving my head or moving my eyes or having the very complex system of focusing of the image so that I really get it in the retina in the appropriate place.  All of these things are actions, they are motor actions and they are being done with the body.

So, what is happening is that the body itself is being the border and the translation service that will allow the outside world to come into the brain.  So we do not get the outside world coming into our brain, which really means coming into our mind directly, there’s no such thing.  The outside world comes into your mind via your body.  The body is constantly being the broker, it’s in between.  And so there’s this beautiful way in which the brain through its mind operation creates maps of its own organism, some of which are so complex they will actually be mapping the outside world that is peripheral to that organism.

Question: How much can we actually control the way we perceive things?

Antonio Damasio:  Well, we have a variety of controls, of course, the main mode of control has to do with our degree of knowledge and our understanding of the world.  As you change how you, what you know about the world, you change how you’re going to control your perception, for example.  And you also learn about what you want to pay attention to and what you don’t, so that those are very important, very important aspects and you can create techniques that sort of—technique is probably a little bit too much—but you create strategies that allow you to filter things that you don’t want.  For example, right now, in order to pay attention to what you’re asking me and to pay attention to what is going on in my mind, I’m trying to filter out things that are happening around me that have to do with the lights, that have to do with the technicians and so on.  And that’s part of the control.

And then there’s a level of control that I would, that I like to describe with the word "deliberation," and which has to do with something that you don’t do online, you do actually offline, when you, rather than perceiving the outside world, you sort of step into yourself, into your mind-space and you imagine what is, I mean, you re-imagine what is happening, you consider a problem, you analyze how the problem can be solved, you think about options and so on.  Everything that we normally describe as higher-level reasoning, decision making, and creativity.  You know, these are processes that cannot be done online, they are done offline, but of course, have an enormous influence on how the brain is going to work.

Now, to have an influence directly on how the brain is firing neurons right now, that’s a very different story, of course, there are ways of influencing it with states of altered perception, some that are under your control, like say, different kinds of meditation and some that are under the control of say, medications, drugs, whatever.  But that’s really about it.  So in other words, the control is considerable when you think about, say, long-term goals, the way you react to the world, you can construct guidelines for how you would desire to operate, how you think it’s ideal and try to institute that.  And then you have ways in which are sort of probably less effective and which are just controlled, what is happening on the moment, like trying to curb excessive emotional reaction or something of this sort.

Question: How does the brain achieve coordination of the body's functions?

Antonio Damasio:  I don’t know if I like the word "coordination," to deal with it.  I think that... For example, one of the things that the brain needs to do is regulate a variety of aspects of our metabolism.  So, for example, it’s absolutely essential that the PH of our internal milieu be maintained, in the very tight borders above which and below which we cannot operate, we simply die.  There are certain levels of certain molecules that have to be maintained tightly within certain values and you have sensors in structures, for example, like they hypothalamus, that are constantly measuring the level and if the level that is currently occurring in your internal milieu is getting dangerously close to the limit, then the brain immediately generates a response that is going to be corrective.

Take, for example, what happens if the level of water is diminishing, because, for example, you took a meal that is very salty. You will, very rapidly, develop a thing called thirst.  Now, thirst is a very conscious of the fact that there are sensors going like crazy saying, “Water too low!  Water too low!  Water too low, make a correction.”  And then you go and drink.  And of course, in, go back to the squirrel, the squirrel is not going to have very conscious notion of thirst, "I need water," let alone expressing it in words. The squirrel is going to have that feeling of thirst and is going to make the correction by starting to search for water.  Even if the squirrel doesn’t do it deliberately, he’s not thinking: "Now, I’m going to need to look for a river or a lake." That’s not likely to happen—although I’ve never been inside a squirrel’s mind.  But that is there that there’s the detection of the wrong set point and the shooting off of an order to generate a response.  And the response is going to be in the form of a yearning for water.  And in our case, not only do we feel it, but then we start translating all of that in very complex concepts and words and we will, for example, if you’re in the middle of a street and you start thinking, “Where am I going to get water?  Am I going to go into a restaurant, is there a water fountain?” or whatever.

So that’s a very complex way of dealing with that, but basically at the core, the responses are being operated. You used the word "coordinate," but I don’t think the word coordinate is right, it’s really a way of creating a response for what is a detected imbalance.  It’s a detected imbalance, by the way, of a function that is called homeostasis.  So, you need to maintain homeostasis, that’s critical and it operates exactly the same way for a signal cell or a multi-cellular organism like we are.

Recorded on August 10, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman