Following Oliver Sacks, Antonio Damasio may be the neuroscientist whose popular books have done the most to inform readers about the biological machinery in our heads, how it generates thoughts and emotions, creates a self to cling to, and a sense of transcendence to escape by. But since he published Descartes’ Error in 1994, Damasio has been concerned that a central thesis in his books, that brains don’t define us, has been muted by research that states how much they do. To Damasio’s dismay, the view of the human brain as a computer, the command center of the body, has become lodged in popular culture.
In his new book, The Strange Order of Things, Damasio, a professor of neuroscience and the director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, mounts his boldest argument yet for the egalitarian role of the brain. In “Why Your Biology Runs on Feelings,” another article in this chapter of Nautilus, drawn from his new book, Damasio tells us “mind and brain influence the body proper just as much as the body proper can influence the brain and the mind. They are merely two aspects of the very same being.”
The Strange Order of Things offers a sharp and uncommon focus on feelings, on how their biological evolution fueled our prosperity as a species, spurred science and medicine, religion and art. “When I look back on Descartes’ Error, it was completely timid compared to what I’m saying now,” Damasio says. He knows his new book may rile believers in the brain as emperor of all. “I was entirely open with my ideas,” he says. “If people don’t like it, they don’t like it. They can criticize it, of course, which is fair, but I want to tell them, because it’s so interesting, this is why you have feelings.”
In this interview with Nautilus, Damasio, in high spirits, explains why feelings deserve a starring role in human culture, what the real problem with consciousness studies are, and why Shakespeare is the finest cognitive scientist of them all.
One thing I like about The Strange Order of Things is it counters the idea that we are just our brains.
Oh, that idea is absolutely wrong.
Not long ago I was watching a PBS series on the brain, in which host and neurologist David Eagleman, referring to our brain, declares, “What we feel, what matters to us, our beliefs and our hopes, everything we are happens in here.”
That’s not the whole story. Of course, we couldn’t have minds with all of their enormous complexity without nervous systems. That goes without saying. But minds are not the result of nervous systems alone. The statement you quote reminds me of Francis Crick, someone whom I admired immensely and was a great friend. Francis was quite opposed to my views on this issue. We would have huge discussions because he was the one who said that everything you are, your thoughts, your feelings, your mental this and that, are nothing but your neurons. This is a big mistake, in my view, because we are mentally and behaviorally far more than our neurons. We cannot have feelings arising from neurons alone. The nervous systems are in constant interaction and cooperation with the rest of the organism. The reason why nervous systems exist in the first place is to assist the rest of the organism. That fact is constantly missed.
The concept of “homeostasis” is critical in your new book. What is homeostasis?
It’s the fundamental property of life that governs everything that living cells do, whether they’re living cells alone, or living cells as part of a tissue or an organ, or a complex system such as ourselves. Most of the time, when people hear the word homeostasis, they think of balance, they think of equilibrium. That is incorrect because if we ever were in “equilibrium,” we would be dead. Thermodynamically, equilibrium means zero thermal differences and death. Equilibrium is the last thing that nature aims for.
The importance of feeling is that it makes you critically aware of what you are doing in moral terms.
What we must have is efficient functioning of a variety of components of an organism. We procure energy so that the organism can be perpetuated, but then we do something very important and almost always missed, which is hoard energy. We need to maintain positive energy balances, something that goes beyond what we need right now because that’s what ensures the future. What’s so beautiful about homeostasis is that it’s not just about sustaining life at the moment, but about having a sort of guarantee that it will continue into the future. Without those positive energy balances, we court death.
What’s a good example of homeostasis?
If you are at the edge of your energy reserves and you’re sick with the flu, you can easily tip over and die. That’s one of the reasons why there’s fat accumulation in our bodies. We need to maintain the possibility of meeting the extra needs that come from stress, in the broad sense of the term. I poetically describe this as a desire for permanence, but it’s not just poetic. I believe it’s reality.
You write homeostasis is maintained in complex creatures like us through a constant interplay of pleasure and pain. Are you giving a biological basis to Freud’s pleasure principle—life is governed by a drive for pleasure and avoidance of pain?
Yes, to a great extent. What’s so interesting is that for most of the existence of life on earth, all organisms have had this effective, automated machinery that operates for the purpose of maintenance and continuation of life. I like to call the organisms that only have that form of regulation, “living automata.” They can fight. They can cooperate. They can segregate. But there’s no evidence that they know that they’re doing so. There’s no evidence of anything we might call a mind. Obviously we have more than automatic regulation. We can control regulation in part, if we wish to. How did that come about?
Very late in the game of life there’s the appearance of nervous systems. Now you have the possibility of mapping the inside and outside world. When you map the inside world, guess what you get? You get feelings. Of necessity, the machinery of life is either in a state of reasonable efficiency or in a state of inefficiency, which is most often the case. Organisms with nervous systems can image these states. And when you start having imagery, you start having minds. Now you begin to have the possibility of responding in a way that you could call “knowledgeable.” That happens when organisms make images. A bad internal state would have been imaged as the first pains, the first malaises, the first sufferings. Now the organism has the possibility of knowingly avoiding whatever caused the pain or prefer a place or a thing or another animal that causes the opposite of that, which is well-being and pleasure.
Why would feelings have evolved?
Feelings triumphed in evolution because they were so helpful to the organisms that first had them. It’s important to understand that nervous systems serve the organism and not the other way around. We do not have brains controlling the entire operation. Brains adjust controls. They are the servants of a living organism. Brains triumphed because they provided something useful: coordination. Once organisms got to the point of being so complex that they had an endocrine system, immune system, circulation, and central metabolism, they needed a device to coordinate all that activity. They needed to have something that would simultaneously act on point A and point Z, across the entire organism, so that the parts would not be working at cross purposes. That’s what nervous systems first achieve: making things run smoothly.
Now, in the process of doing that, over millions of years, we have developed nervous systems that do plenty of other things that do not necessarily result in coordination of the organism’s interior, but happen to be very good at coordinating the internal world in relation to the outside world. This is what the higher reaches of our nervous system, namely the cerebral cortex, does. It gives us the possibilities of perceiving, of memorizing, of reasoning over the knowledge that we memorize, of manipulating all of that and even translating it into language. That is all very beautiful, and it is also homeostatic, in the sense that all of it is convenient to maintain life. It if were not, it would just have been discarded by evolution.
How does your thesis square with the hard problem of consciousness, how the physical tissue in our heads produces immaterial sensations?
Some philosophers of mind will say, “Well, we face this gigantic problem. How does consciousness emerge out of these nerve cells?” Well, it doesn’t. You’re not dealing with the brain alone. You have to think in terms of the whole organism. And you have to think in evolutionary terms.
The critical problem of consciousness is subjectivity. You need to have a “subject.” You can call it an I or a self. Not only are you aware right now that you are listening to my words, which are in the panorama of your consciousness, but you are aware of being alive, you realize that you’re there, you’re ticking. We are so distracted by what is going on around us that we forget sometimes that we are, A-R-E in capitals. But actually you are watching what you are, and so you need to have a mechanism in the brain that allows you to fabricate that part of the mind that is the watcher.
You do that with a number of devices that have to do, for example, with mapping the movements of your eyes, the position of your head, and the musculature of your body. This allows you to literally construct images of yourself making images. And you also have a layer of consciousness that is made by your perception of the outside world; and another layer that is made of appreciating the feelings that are being generated inside of you. Once you have this stack of processes, you have a fighting chance of creating consciousness.
Why do you object to comparing the brain to a computer?
In the early days of neuroscience, one of our mentors was Warren McCulloch. He was a gigantic figure of neuroscience, one of the originators of what is today computational neuroscience. When you go back to the ’40s and ’50s, you find this amazing discovery that neurons can be either active or inactive, in a way that can be described mathematically as zeroes and ones. Combine that with Alan Turing and you get this idea that the brain is like a computer and that it produces minds using that same simple method.
Religions have been one of the great causes of violence throughout history. But you can’t blame Christ for it.
That has been a very useful idea. And true enough, it explains a good part of the complex operations, that our brains produce such as language. Those operations require a lot of precision and are being carried out by cerebral cortex, with enormous detail, and probably in a basic computational mode. All the great successes of artificial intelligence used this idea and have been concerned with high-level reasoning. That is why A.I. has been so successful with games such as chess or Go. They use large memories and powerful reasoning.
Are you saying neural codes or algorithms don’t blend with living systems?
Well, they match very well with things that are high on the scale of the mental operations and behaviors, such as those we require for our conversation. But they don’t match well with the basic systems that organize life, that regulate, for example, the degree of mental energy and excitation or with how you emote and feel. The reason is that the operations of the nervous system responsible for such regulation relies less on synaptic signaling, the one that can be described in terms of zeroes and ones, and far more on non-synaptic messaging, which lends itself less to a rigid all or none operation.
Perhaps more importantly, computers are machines invented by us, made of durable materials. None of those materials has the vulnerability of the cells in our body, all of which are at risk of defective homeostasis, disease, and death. In fact, computers lack most of the characteristics that are key to a living system. A living system is maintained in operation, against all odds, thanks to a complicated mechanism that can fall apart as a result of minimal amounts of malfunction. We are extremely vulnerable creatures. People often forget that. Which is one of the reasons why our culture, or Western cultures in general, are a bit too calm and complacent about the threats to our lives. I think we are becoming less sensitive to the idea that life is what dictates what we should do or not do with ourselves and with others.
What is love for?
To protect, to cause flourishing, to give and receive pleasure, to procreate, to soothe. Endless great uses, as you can see.
How do emotions such as anger or sadness serve homeostasis?
At individual levels, both anger and sadness are protective. Anger lets your adversary know that you mean business and that there may be costs to attacking you. These days anger is an expression of sociopolitical conflicts. It is overused and has largely become ineffectual. Sadness is a prelude to mental hibernation. It lets you retreat and lick your wounds. It lets you plan a strategy of response to the cause of the wounds.
You say feelings spurred the creation of cultures. How so?
Before I started The Strange Order of Things, I was asking friends and colleagues how they thought cultures had begun. Invariably what people said was, “Oh, we’re so smart. We’re so intellectually powerful. We have all this reasoning ability. On top of it all, we have language—and there you are.” To which I say, “Fine, that’s true. How would you invent anything if you were stupid?” You would not. But the issue is to recognize the motive behind what you do. Why is it that you did it in the first place? Why did Moses come down from the mountain with Ten Commandments? Well, the Ten Commandments are representative of homeostasis because they tell you not to kill, not to steal, not to lie, not to do a lot of bad things. It sounds trivial but it’s not. We fail to think about motivation and so we do not factor it into the process of invention. We do not factor in the motives behind science or technology or governance or religion.
How does consciousness emerge out of nerve cells? Well, it doesn’t. You’re not dealing with the brain alone.
And there’s one more thing: The importance of feeling is that it makes you critically aware of what you are doing in moral terms. It forces you to look back and realize that what people were doing historically, at the outset, at the moment of invention of a cultural instrument or a cultural practice, was an attempt to reduce the amount of suffering and to maximize the amount of wellbeing not only for the inventor, but for the community around them. One person alone can invent a painting or a musical composition, but it is not meant for that person alone. And you do not invent a moral system or a government system alone or for yourself alone. It requires a society, a community.
The assertion that intellect is governed by feelings can sound New Age-y. It seems to undermine the powers of reason. How should we understand reason if it’s always motivated by subjective feelings?
Subjective simply means that it has a personal point of view, that it pertains to the self. It is compatible with “objective” facts and with truth. It is not about relativism. The fact that feelings motivate the use of knowledge and reason do not make the knowledge and the reason any less truthful or valid. Feelings are simply a call to action.
If humans formed societies and cultures to avoid suffering and pain, why do we have violence and wars?
Your question is very important. Take developments of political systems. On the face of it, when you look at Marxist ideas, you say, “This is obviously homeostatic.” What Marx and others were trying to do in the 19th century is confront and modify a social arrangement that was not equitable, that had some people suffering too much and some profiting too much. So having a system that produced equality made a lot of sense. In a way that is something that biological systems have been trying to do, quite naturally, for a long time. And when the natural systems do not succeed at improved regulation, guess what? They are weeded out by evolution because they promote illness.
Biological evolution, through genetic selection, eliminates those mechanisms. At the cultural level something comparable occurs. Seen in retrospect, Marxism as applied in Russia resulted in one of the worst tragedies of humankind. But Russian communism was ultimately weeded out by cultural selection. It took around 70 years to do it, but cultural selection did operate in a homeostatic way. It led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet empire. It was a homeostatic correction achieved by social means.
The same reasoning applies to religions. For example, we can claim that religions have been one of the great causes of violence throughout history. But you certainly can’t blame Christ for that violence. He preached compassion, and the pardoning of enemies, and love. It does not follow that good recommendations can be implemented correctly and always produce good results. These facts in no way deny the homeostatic intent of religions.
You write, “The increasing knowledge of biology from molecules to systems reinforces the humanist project.” How so?
This knowledge gives us a broader picture of who we are and where we are in the history of life on earth. We had modest beginnings, and we have incorporated an incredible amount of living wisdom that comes from as far down as bacteria. There are characteristics of our personal and cultural behavior that can be found in single-cell organisms or in social insects. They clearly do not have the kind of highly developed brains that we have. In some cases, they don’t have any brain at all. But by analyzing this strange order of developments we are confronted with the spectacle of life processes that are complex and rich in spite of their apparent modesty, so complex and rich that they can deliver the high level of behaviors that we normally, quite pretentiously, attribute only to our great human smarts. We should be far more humble. That’s one of my main messages. In general, connecting cultures to the life process makes apparent a link that we have ignored for far too long.
What would you be if you weren’t a scientist?
When I was an adolescent, I often thought that I might become a philosopher or perhaps a playwright or filmmaker. That’s because I so admired what philosophers and storytellers had found about the human mind. Today when people ask me, “Who’s your most admired cognitive scientist?” I say Shakespeare. He knew it all and knew it with enormous precision. He didn’t have the nice fMRI scanner and electrophysiology techniques we have in our Institute. But he knew human beings. Watch a good performance of Hamlet, King Lear, or Othello. All of our psychology is there, richly analyzed, ready for us to experience and appreciate.