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.

I was just going to ask you about that. Do cats have autobiographical selves that record the stories of their lives?

I think a very modest one. And dogs also have a modest, autobiographical self.

So they remember, “I went to the vet, and it sucked.”

Probably, they don’t picture it. [But] they will remember something.

If you try to put the cat in the carrier again, it’s not going to want to get in there.

Exactly. Even the fact that it has a special relationship to the owner means that there is an autobiographical relationship that only has been learned as part of the story of that particular animal. But how much they tell that story to themselves is a different problem. Whereas we clearly do. We constantly tell our story to ourselves and we create reinterpretations and we edit. (More on Time.com: Are Stoners Really Dumb, or Do They Just Think They Are?)

That’s very natural because we are born storytellers. But there’s something in that autobiographical self that I think should be emphasized, which is the fact that it’s not just about the past. It’s about the past and about the anticipated future. We are constantly caught in a present that is moving in time. Behind it is the lived past and in front of it are the things we have planned.

So when you ask me, well, do other species have feelings, I’d say, yes. But do other species have, for example, the same degree of suffering that we have when we have a loss? They probably have some, but our losses are amplified. If we lose somebody that we love, its not just losing there and then. It is losing that person in the perspective of the past and also the perspective of what you thought would happen in the future. That is a colossal difference.

Some people say that if you lived for centuries or forever, you wouldn’t really be the same self.

I think that that’s a different issue. Because I think actually it will be easier to find ways in which we could live forever than to find ways in which we could, say, download our self into a computer.

Would that not work because of emotions and the need for a body?

It may well be. First of all, the idea of making us live forever, I think is quite possible. It’s really a matter of how you do the reverse engineering of our biology enough to have the ability to control it. I think that’s a distinct possibility.

The downloading depends on how much detail we can get into the understanding of the signals that are going through and the incredible riches of brain circuitry. We could get potentially to a point where we would have something that you could transfer into another medium. I don’t think it’s impossible; I just find it extremely unlikely because of the complexity.

Now say you could have yourself downloaded into a computer. Would it be you or would it just think that it was you?

I don’t think it would be me, because the me is so tied to my body. (More on Time.com: Mind Reading: Terrorism Expert Jessica Stern on Her Own Terror and Trauma)

But it would think it was you.

Yeah, it might.

In terms of the anatomical construction of the self in the brain, the brainstem is important. What other key areas matter?

In the brainstem, [self-related regions include a] variety of nuclei — especially the nuclei that are related to our life regulation. In the cerebral cortex, there are certain regions that are very, very critical.

Especially in relation to consciousness, there are certain [regions called the] posteromedial cortices. We have every reason to believe that they play a very important role.

And how do we know that?

We know that through lesions. Also, for example, people with Alzheimer’s disease very late in the disease generally get to be almost vegetative in the way they look. [Their selves have been worn away.] We know that this is one of the areas where anesthetics work very powerfully. And we know that this is one of the areas in people in a vegetative state or coma, the ones that are lucky enough to wake up from that, this is the first region that recovers cerebral blood flow.

I once had a very strange experience at the dentist on nitrous oxide. It was like my self dissolved, and it was terrifying — I didn’t understand the concept of a dentist or where or what I was.

Interesting. It all has to do with the induction of the anesthetic effect, because a lot of the times if one goes through anesthesia, your — literally — your self goes. And you don’t know anything because the whole thing about consciousness is that it is our means of knowing. No consciousness, no knowledge — you don’t know that you are or who anybody else is, you don’t know that there’s a world. (More on Time.com: Is a Wandering Mind an Unhappy One?)

How do you think the Internet is affecting consciousness?

I think that there are certain things that the Internet is doing to our minds that have to do with the speed at which we process information — especially for children. They are developing and they are doing all this multitasking and we don’t know if that’s going to be good or bad. In a way it’s likely it to be good because it expands the speed of operation. The question is whether there will be a tradeoff in terms of what you remember.

Related Links:

Study: Some Autistic Brains Really Are Wired Differently

Mind Reading: Do Humans Prefer Free Love Over the Bonds of Nuclear Family?

New MRI Test May Be Best at Detecting Autism

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