The Evolving Minds Of Humans

Why do humans have consciousness? In his new book, Self Comes To Mind, neurologist Antonio Damasio argues that consciousness gave humans an evolutionary advantage. Damasio describes the differences between self and mind, and traces the evolutionary path of the human brain.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

Up next this hour, a look at consciousness: defining consciousness, figuring out how it evolved, where it resides in the brain that may make quantum entanglement seem easy, in retrospect. Why do we have the ability to think about the past or to plan for the future? Where do we get the ability to create works of art, to be moved by a piece of beautiful music or to feel bad when someone says something hurtful?

All of these things are possible because of, yeah, consciousness. But knowing that doesn't explain why we have consciousness or how it evolved or what purpose it serves. My next guest has been tackling these questions for 30 years, and he says in his new book he has grown dissatisfied even with his own account of the problem. He's written a new book of telling us why, and he's here to tell us about his thinking on consciousness and why it has changed.

And here it is, he is my guest, Antonio Damasio. His new book is called "Self Comes to Mind: Deconstructing the Conscious Brain." [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The book's title is "Self Comes to Mind: CONSTRUCTING the Conscious Brain."]

He is the Dornsife professor of neuroscience at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, also director of the Brain and Creativity Institute there. He joins us in our studio here in New York.

Always a pleasure to have you back.

Professor ANTONIO DAMASIO (Neuroscience, University of Southern California): Always a pleasure to be back.

FLATOW: So what happened? What happened that you had to write - what happened in your consciousness that you decided what you knew about consciousness was wrong?

Prof. DAMASIO: Well, a mixture of two things. First, new facts, and second, a lot of reflection on old formulations and on the new facts. That's the way science works. And basically, there were new things to add to the kind of machinery we have in our brain with which we construct the self, which is really the essential part to the making of a conscious mind. And there was also a great dissatisfaction with the fact that I had not, even to myself, been entirely convinced that feeling was playing the role that, in fact, I think it is playing today.

So I think that to deal with the problem that, in order to be conscious, we need to feel our representations, and that plays a key role in the construction of the self, I wrote this book, which is really a putting together of a variety of those new findings, especially over the last decade.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255, if you'd like to talk with Antonio Damasio about consciousness. Feeling - there was not enough in it, in consciousness, you're saying?

Prof. DAMASIO: There was not enough of it...

FLATOW: Of it.

Prof. DAMASIO: ...in my previous formulation. I had given it importance, but not the importance I think I see it having today. And there's an element of the construction of the self that I actually call primordial feeling, which I see as very much tied to this very deep connection between the brain and the body, and which I also see as occurring at a very low level in the brain, to be quite specific, in the brainstem.

And this, too, is something different from what is commonly thought about in relationship to consciousness, because most people will see consciousness as something extremely complex, which it is, and something that is tied to humans - which it is not, because it's not only humans that can have access to consciousness or minds, for that matter. And they tend to associate those very complex processes to the cerebral cortex, because we all know that the cerebral cortex has had a huge expansion in humans, and it is far more complicated in its system organization than in other species.

So you tend to push things up to this very top of neurobiological evolution, when, in fact, it's obvious that the cerebral cortex plays a critical role. But it plays that role in partnership with the brainstem. And here, what is very important to think about is that the brainstem is a very old structure. It's a structure whose role has been that of running, managing life within an organism. And the kind of brainstem we have is basically one that has a design that goes all the way down to reptiles. So, you know, we have sort of humble origins in terms of this process, but there you are.

FLATOW: And so you're saying all these years we've been selling that very primitive area of our brain too short.

Prof. DAMASIO: Exactly.

FLATOW: And how - is there a part of consciousness that it contributes to, or is it the essential being of consciousness?

Prof. DAMASIO: The parts of consciousness that it contributes to and in essence what it does is something, for lack of a better word, I would describe as the near fusion of body and brain. Again, we tend to look at body and brain as two very separate things, and they're not because, to begin with, why is it that we have brains? Why is it that the construction of brains prevailed in evolution and was selected so positively?

Well, because brains help manage life. The problem that we, as living organisms, face - and not we only, humans, but any living organism faces - is the management of life. You know, you need to deal with defending yourself against a variety of dangers, endorsing opportunities, taking care of this life cycle, which requires that you procure energy, that you incorporate it, transform it, and on and on until death, as commanded by genes, makes you die. Well, this management has gotten to be more and more complex, as both environments and organisms get to be more complicated.

And so, at a certain point, it was very expedient to have brains. And organisms that had that faculty, the faculty of having brains to make representations, to make neural maps and to organize life with the help of those maps, were obviously organisms that survived better and that, you know, continued on to tell. And so the brains emerged as a way to manage, guess what, the body, life in the body. And eventually, the same thing is happening in terms of consciousness.

Minds by themselves, which are one of the main products of the brain, are extremely helpful to organize responses. If you have a map, for example, of what's out in the world, you will have a better chance of picturing both a threat or an opportunity that you can endorse, for example, in terms of food or mating or what have you. But if you have, in addition to having a mind, if you have the possibility of being concerned with the mind that you're having and with the problem that you need to solve, which is that of your life, then you have a step up.

And I think that the great triumph of consciousness comes from this fact, is that having a conscious mind - which really means having a mind with a self in it, therefore the title of my book "Self Comes to Mind." When you have that, you generate a concern for the problem you're facing. And that concern is running life, managing life in a living organism.

FLATOW: You know, it's hard because I don't think that many of us take the time to differentiate between these terms: mind, self, consciousness.

Prof. DAMASIO: Correct.

FLATOW: They sort of think they're just synonyms of one another, but you're saying they're not.

Prof. DAMASIO: Well, we should make an effort not to have them as synonyms and try to create a definition that will help us in terms of the research.

FLATOW: Can you - if I asked you to define consciousness, could you give me 30 words or less on what it is?

Prof. DAMASIO: I don't know about 30, but let me try. In steps...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Thirty or forty.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. DAMASIO: Okay. So the ability to create representations of the world within and of the world around an organism, that's number one. Second, the ability to make those representations felt - because, you know, you could generate a lot of representations in a very nice computer, but the question is that our representations are felt.

There is a feeling aspect that is attributed to any thought you have, any image you create. And then the ability to have those representations with a certain perspective and with a sense of ownership. And it is when you combine the feeling aspect and the ownership - the fact that you know that you have a mind and you own that mind - and a certain perspective which is unique to your organism because, you know, if you think of your head as a camera equipped with sound devices, sound detecting devices, that is the source of the perspective that you have on the world. When you roll those things together, then you generate a self, and then you have this process of consciousness.

FLATOW: Should we not expect other animals, who have all the same parts of our bodies, to have their own consciousness, then?

Prof. DAMASIO: I think we should. In fact, of course, you will tell me, how do you know? Obviously, no animal is going to answer the question, are you conscious? They cannot do that because they do not have language. However, we can triangulate the problem in the following way. If you are in the presence of an organism that behaves in a certain situation in ways that are similar to the way we would behave, number one, and if the brain of that organism contains all the parts that we think are necessary to construct consciousness, then I think we have to assume or presume that that organism can have a mind and consciousness. And I think it is a good assumption to have.

It's perfectly obvious that it is not going to be a consciousness of the kind we have in terms of scope, because animals will have a limited amount of what I call the autobiographical self, which you and I have in spades, and which allows us to have a full sense of the narrative arc of our life from beginning to where we are today, and something quite unique to humans, I think, the possibility of having already a sense of what the future may be.

You know, I can't imagine that, you know, your dog is going to be very worried about Christmas presents or what it's going to do for vacations, but some of us are. And we have a plan of what we're going to do tonight or over the weekend.

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. DAMASIO: And that plan is in fact our anticipated future. We have made plans. We have revised plans. And more important than all of that, we have committed those plans to memory, so that we can, in an almost paradoxical way, say that we have memories of the future. And our present in our consciousness is constantly placed sort of instant by instant between the lived past and the anticipated future that we're constructing right now.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Carl(ph) in Denver. Hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

CARL (Caller): Hi. And thank you. I'm a huge fan of both of you two. And today has been a terrific show. My question for Dr. Damasio is a lot of these questions were sort of half - like, half-addressed in the past by philosophers. And it seems like neuroscience, specifically, is beginning to - you know, like (unintelligible) you know, mind-body dualism or the nature of consciousness, is beginning to address these questions in a very - a much more specific, clear way. I'm wondering if, Dr. Damasio, if you're aware of that? And would you have anything to say about that, and whether or not philosophers sort of should abandon the field to empirical research?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CARL: And I'll take my question of the air - my answer.

FLATOW: All right. Thanks a lot.

Prof. DAMASIO: Okay. So yes, I am aware of that. I think that the questions that some of us in neuroscience who are interested in mind and consciousness are interested in are questions that philosophers have been dealing with for many, many centuries, and have been dealing with them in, actually, in a very important, and very often, extremely precise way, but of course limited by the fact that what they were in fact proposing were certain frameworks, certain hypotheses, but they did not have the tools to experiment. They did not have the tools to test the hypotheses. We do have that today.

But I'm not, you know, I'm not an advocate of suggesting that philosophy should be out of the way. On the contrary, I think, you know, I think those of us in neuroscience that are really serious about these problems want to have the participation of philosophers and want them to help solve these problems, because there's an aspect of philosophy that has to do with the criticism of ideas that is actually extremely important for the continuation of the field.

Now, of course there are different individuals in the history of philosophy that had very marked positions in relation to this problem. And you know that -you know, I have stepped out in the wrong turf in saying a few things about Descartes or at least about the way people came to look at Descartes or, for that matter, about Spinoza and that has cost me, you know, a couple of friendships with philosophers, but not with many.

FLATOW: Right. Right.

Prof. DAMASIO: And in fact, one of the things that gives me great joy is to see a number of people in philosophy in the new generations, graduate students in philosophy who have entirely embraced neuroscience and want to be both philosophers and lovers of the matter that comes out of neuroscience. And it would be very strange if this would not be the case because philosophy has always been - the best of philosophy is about thinking over new material in science.

FLATOW: All right. We're talking with Antonio Damasio, author of "Self Comes to Mind: Deconstructing the Conscious Brain," on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

I'm Ira Flatow here, trying to decipher the conscious brain. Is it - have we deciphered it? Do we know where all the parts are? Or - I mean, what - I'll give you the checkbook question, the unlimited amount of money. If you want -if you had to find something about the brain or consciousness that you don't know, what would you like to? How would you do it?

Prof. DAMASIO: I would spend the rest of my life inside the brainstem, not necessarily of humans...

FLATOW: Hmm.

Prof. DAMASIO: ...but even of other species, to look at the very interesting way in which that fusion of body and brain does take place.

FLATOW: Is that sort of the gut reaction that we have? You know, what about other parts where there are other nervous centers like our stomachs and things like that?

Prof. DAMASIO: You see, what...

FLATOW: They channeled up through the brainstem?

Prof. DAMASIO: That's right. That's right.

FLATOW: They channeled up that way.

Prof. DAMASIO: Yeah. Exactly.

FLATOW: That's - yeah.

Prof. DAMASIO: So you need to have in your brain at any given time sort of control panels that give you a picture of what the body is like, instant by instant. Because if you are going to make corrections, the kind of corrections that occur in basic homeostasis, in life regulation...

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. DAMASIO: ...you need to have a sense of where things are so that you can engage your response. Well, the first outpost or the first in-post in the brain that receives signals about the brain - and in fact in all probability does more than receive signals, actually transforms them and organizes them in a special way with an organization of maps and so forth - is actually at the level of the brainstem. Then all of that gets re-signaled...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. DAMASIO: ...to the higher brain for - to a region, for example, known as the insular cortex, so that, actually, you get a first set of representations at the brainstem level, then another one at the insular level.

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. DAMASIO: And the one at the insular connects with our ideas, our thoughts...

FLATOW: So for all these years, you say we were being too elitist about thinking there was only the cerebral cortex and all that stuff.

Prof. DAMASIO: You bet. Yup. Yup

FLATOW: We didn't consider the other parts of the body.

Prof. DAMASIO: Right. And we - for example, the brainstem by most people is considered a sort of conveyance.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Prof. DAMASIO: You know, there it is, you know?

FLATOW: It controls your breathing. That's it. And sort of...

Prof. DAMASIO: Yeah. It is, sort of, a station where you change trains, but it's more than that.

FLATOW: All right. Well, let's take a break. I want to get to another idea. Can you stick around for a few more minutes with us?

Prof. DAMASIO: Of course.

FLATOW: We're talking with Antonio Damasio, author of the new book, "Self Comes to Mind: Deconstructing the Conscious Brain." Our number, 1-800-989-8255. We're also taking some - see if we can get some more tweets in @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. What do you think about consciousness? We've got all over the body in this one. It's quite interesting to hear your new take on this.

Stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking with Antonio Damasio, author of "Self Comes to Mind: Deconstructing the Conscious Brain." Our number, 1-800-989-8255.

In the few minutes we have left, Antonio, what kinds of fields are opening up? Where would you like to see research happening?

Prof. DAMASIO: Well, there's something that is very interesting when you reflect on what consciousness has brought us. One thing that it certainly has done in humans is opening of the way into what I call, at the end of the book, socio-cultural homeostasis. And the way it happens is the following: Once you had consciousness, our memory could expand enormously, as it did, especially with the development of personal individual memories or memories about unique events and objects. There was also an expansion of reasoning, and eventually, the creation of language.

Now, what all of those instruments that came post-consciousness have allowed us to do as humans is generating a culture. This is something that is, of course, extremely recent. We cannot possibly date the beginning, but it is something, for example, when you think about, say, Lascaux ended 17,000 years in the past. Or we think about the development of agriculture or the development of writing. We're talking about things in the thousands of years, which is, of course, a little speck of time, compared to both the Big Bang or the appearance of life on Earth, which is measured in billions of years.

But what is happening right now is that all of the instruments that culture has created - which you can itemize, for example, moral systems, justice systems, systems of economics and political organization, science, technology, the arts, religion - all of these instruments have, in my view, exactly the same purpose as basic homeostasis.

In other words, they aim at improving the governance of life in the individual, but the individual that is part of a society, the individual that is part of a group. But in the end, exactly what is being achieved is improving life and if possible, up-regulating life towards well-being.

So I think it's interesting to have this stake on something that came out of our biology, but has, in fact, expanded into a world that we normally see as separate from our biology, but I don't.

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. DAMASIO: I think it's an offshoot. But it's an offshoot with particular characteristics because it does give us the possibility of deliberation. So instead of following exactly what nature would want you to do, you have the possibility of saying no to certain things. And consciously...

FLATOW: Allows you to do that.

Prof. DAMASIO: Exactly.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Prof. DAMASIO: And I think that that is...

FLATOW: Makes - gives you choice.

Prof. DAMASIO: Gives us a choice. And I think when you think, for example, about - take the fact that, clearly, violence has been declining. I mean, I just heard yesterday that fewer shots were fired by the New York police this year or this past year than ever before in history. That's just one little clue. But I think there is this diminution of violence and the fact that we are not tolerating violence as much as we did in the past is a sign that there is this evolution within the culture that is being created by this freedom we have to act on it.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. If you want to read more about Dr. Damasio's writings, this is certainly excellent stuff, the new book, "Self Comes to Mind: Deconstructing the Conscious Brain." Antonio Damasio, excellent stuff again as always. Thank -nice to have you back here in New York visiting us.

Prof. DAMASIO: Thank you. Very nice to be back.

FLATOW: And good luck with it. He's professor of neuroscience at University of Southern California in L.A. and director of the Brain and Creative Institute there.

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