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Consciousness and the Underpinnings of Social Behavior

Antonio Damasio: You know it’s very often the case that people tell the story of consciousness as the sort of late development of this property which tends to be seen largely as human, but of course as we know it cannot be human only.  It’s very widespread and this process of consciousness is the process that allows us to run our lives personally and in society the way we do.  It’s the thing that gives us access to high thinking and high decision-making and very high qualities of reasoning. And that is sort of a late development in evolution and in the brain, and of course of the mind processes. And I think that this is entirely wrong and what I think is that the processes of running life and organizing life have been set from very early on in very simple life forms.  In fact, in cells that are as simple as bacterial cells, which when you look at them have the most amazing capacities—they have capacities for example of organizing socially.  They have capacity of thinning off individually for themselves and maintaining life and struggling for their existence and in fact they even have the possibility of organizing themselves to the point of doing what is now called by biologists working with bacteria is quorum sensing.  They will be able, they the bacteria, without a brain, without a nervous system of any kind, they will be able to sense how many of them are there.  “Is this enough to do what we need to do in this process?”  “How can we fight for territory?”

Siri Hustvedt: But this is fascinating because it’s not self-reflective self-consciousness, but it has all the underpinnings of human social behavior.

Antonio Damasio:  Exactly. And so what I think is happening with us is that little by little we have evolved the ability with our high brains and very complex organization of the nervous system we have evolved the ability to discover that these things exist and they’ve existed all along and to then project the process of consciousness into a completely different dimension, which instead of just running the basic homeostasis, just running the basic life regulation, which largely has been given by our genome, we can now invent something new, which his running what I like to call socio-cultural homeostasis; one in which we can create.  We can deal with solutions, but I think the very interesting idea is that those solutions have as a blueprint the solutions that nature gave us, that they allow us to do something different from what nature, which fundamentally is indifferent and callous, ordained us to have and so this allows...  I like to when people say, “Well what is social cultural homeostasis?”  And I say, “Well do you know about the Supreme Court?” the U.S. Supreme Court is a cauldron for development of socio-culture.

Siri Hustvedt:  Absolutely, the balance of powers, homeostasis.

Antonio Damasio:  And the organization of financial systems is another such example and the appearance of the arts, the appearance of medicine, the appearance of technology.  All of those are developments that have at their root exactly the same origin and the same cause and the same effect.  They are related to the homeostatic impulse that can be broken when you are at a loss and they have as a purpose the restoring of lost homeostatic powers and you do that by laws, by moral systems, by medicine, by technology and by the arts to start with.

Siri Hustvedt: Yes and it’s true, but we could not have those things if we didn’t have this relational, this self conscious relational you know I, you or I, it that is represented to ourselves in some kind of symbolic system, so that is the highest result of this homeostatic impulse that is built into the most primitive animals or life forms.

Antonio Damasio: 
Yeah, so we need to represent something that has to do with the self as organizer of life and the self as knower.

Recorded July 2, 2010

"The process of consciousness is the process that allows us to run our lives personally and in society the way we do," says Damasio. "It’s the thing that gives us access to high thinking and high decision making and very high qualities of reasoning."

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