Q&A: How Humans — and Some Animals — Develop a Sense of Self

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Neuroscientist Dr. Antonio Damasio has taken on the big questions — of consciousness, of self and of the nature of the mind — both in experiments and in bold, unifying scientific theories.

His first non-specialist book, Descartes’ Error, which was published in 1994, was widely considered to revolutionize the understanding of the critical role emotion plays in human rationality and decision-making. His latest, Self Comes to Mind, explores the way humans — and some animals — develop a sense of self, and examines what this tells us about the nature of consciousness. Not surprisingly, Damasio says, emotion plays a big role. (More on Time.com: Why That Rich Guy is Being So Nice to You)

I had a fascinating and contemplative conversation with Damasio in his elegant mid-century modern Manhattan pied-a-terre, looking out on a balcony over the Upper East Side. Here’s what we discussed.

Why is emotion so important in developing and generating a self?

Because when you look at the self and when you look at emotions, you see that they have, in the end, the same reason to be — and that reason is to regulate life.

Emotion is one of the most perfect instruments that evolved to make life regulation better. It allows us to cope with threats and with opportunities. And it turns out that the role of self is exactly the same.

We have developed a mind in order to get a better picture of the world, which is useful for survival. The self is sort of a passport into a concern for the organism.

Why do you think that we have this long philosophical history that sees emotions as irrational, as not supporting life and as getting in our way?

You can have fear or joy totally triggered at the non-conscious level. You don’t need to think in order to get those emotions. But in order to decide where to go for dinner, you need to think. (More on Time.com: New Version of an Old Drug Could Treat Autism (and Addiction Too))

But, as you showed, you need to feel, too.

Exactly. [So] why did people fall into that error? Because it seemed on the surface that reason was something different and something better. It was time to get rid of things that made us not rational. [However], little by little, one tumbles to the fact that emotions have their own reasons and that’s where evolution comes in handy.

If you don’t have a perspective that is evolutionary, you don’t know why on earth you have emotions: why fear, why have compassion? Well, when you start looking through the lens of evolution you realize that all those things have prevailed over all this long, history precisely because they are valuable.

Obviously, if you are going to be threatened by something right now, if you automatically engage a program to get you away from here, that is as rational as one can get. Emotions have their reasons, reasons have their reasons, and it turns out reason generally works better when it is aided by emotion.

You’ve looked at this in terms of brain lesions, with people who had damage to regions associated with emotion.

Correct. What brain lesions show very clearly is that in certain circumstances if people are deprived of all they have learned emotionally over a lifetime, they actually are not very good with their rationality alone.

So Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock would actually be either a sociopath or…?

He would not be fit by today’s standards. To use the same analogy, when you have to decide where you’re going to go out to dinner, it will come in handy to have guidelines acquired by your experience of going to restaurants. That is going to make you reason through the problem faster and more accurately. The emotion is aiding your rationality. (More on Time.com: ‘Love Hormone’ Oxytocin Enhances Men’s Memories of Mom — Good or Bad)

And this is why when you’re depressed, it becomes impossible to decide what to do because you can’t tell whether anything is good or bad.

Yes, everything is neutral. Everything is equalized. [And then you have to] rely on making lists and finding out what’s the teeny difference between this and that, which is of course very tedious.

[However], the fact that emotion is so valuable in rational decision-making does not mean that emotion is always good. If you have to decide something in an emergency and you start screaming bloody murder, you may not be able to think through the problem. That’s where this whole idea of emotion being bad came from.

So, how do emotions help you generate a self?

In the new book, I have this whole discussion about the notion of primordial feelings. [These] are feelings generated at low levels in the brain, in the brainstem, telling you this very simple truth: I am alive, there is a body here.

And that primordial feeling is in the background of all consciousness?

It’s in the background. It doesn’t need to be engaged by another object. The object is your own organism, your own life in that organism. Primordial feelings are very important because they’re the first step into [having a] self.

So I feel, therefore I am?

Exactly. If the first step of consciousness is having a feeling that you have your own body and are alive, the second step is having the feeling that your body has been changed by an interaction with an object.

So let’s take something like a cat. The cat has maps of its body in its brain. The cat can also have emotions. But can a cat have feelings — the conscious perception of the experience of emotion?

Oh, yes, of course. The next question should be how do you know? The answer to that is a little bit by triangulation. Look at the cat or the dog and ask yourself the following question, do they behave in some circumstances the way we would? Yes. (More on Time.com: The Lab Rat: Can a Simple Writing Exercise Close the Gender Gap?)

Do they have a brain that resembles ours in its organization? They do. Then, I think you have to venture the possibility that they have minds, with feelings, in fact they have a self. With the dog its very easy, and with cats too.

When you look at human beings, we have something that is totally distinctive and it’s not just language. Language is an easy target. But the other distinctions for me happen at the level of [what I call] the autobiographical self.

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