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.
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.
Recorded on August 10, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman