"Consciousness" Is How We Know We Exist

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. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

The mind allows us to understand what the world is like, but it is consciousness that gives us the subjective vantage to say "I am here, I exist, I have a life and there are things around me that refer to me."

Why the ocean you know and love won’t exist in 50 years

Can sensitive coral reefs survive another human generation?

Videos
  • Coral reefs may not be able to survive another human decade because of the environmental stress we have placed on them, says author David Wallace-Wells. He posits that without meaningful changes to policies, the trend of them dying out, even in light of recent advances, will continue.
  • The World Wildlife Fund says that 60 percent of all vertebrate mammals have died since just 1970. On top of this, recent studies suggest that insect populations may have fallen by as much as 75 percent over the last few decades.
  • If it were not for our oceans, the planet would probably be already several degrees warmer than it is today due to the emissions we've expelled into the atmosphere.
Keep reading Show less

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Health care: Information tech must catch up to medical marvels

Michael Dowling, Northwell Health's CEO, believes we're entering the age of smart medicine.

Photo: Tom Werner / Getty Images
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • The United States health care system has much room for improvement, and big tech may be laying the foundation for those improvements.
  • Technological progress in medicine is coming from two fronts: medical technology and information technology.
  • As information technology develops, patients will become active participants in their health care, and value-based care may become a reality.
Keep reading Show less