"Consciousness" Is How We Know We Exist

Professor of Neuroscience and Director of Brain and Creativity Institute, USC

Dr. Antonio Damasio is a renowned neuroscientist who direct's the USC Brain and Creativity Institute. Before that he was the Head of Neurology at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. His research focuses on the neurobiology of mind and behavior, with an emphasis on emotion, decision-making, memory, communication, and creativity. His research has helped describe the neurological origins of emotions and has shown how emotions affect cognition and decision-making.  He is the author of a number of books, including "Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain," which will be published in November, 2010. Dr. Damasio is also the 2010 winner of the Honda Prize, one of the most important international awards for scientific achievement.

Dr. Damasio is a Big Think Delphi Fellow.

  • 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. 

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