How Much Can We Really Control Our Minds?

Professor of Neuroscience and Director of Brain and Creativity Institute, USC
Our main mode of control has to do with our degree of knowledge and our understanding of the world. As we change what we know about the world, we change the way we control our perception.
  • Transcript


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.

Recorded on August 10, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman