Antonio Damasio: ‘Life is like a high-wire act in the circus. You need a lot of skill to maintain it’

The Portuguese-American neuroscientist, a leader in his field, reflects on human consciousness, rationality and the mind in the era of artificial intelligence

Antonio Damasio
Antonio Damasio in his home in Los Angeles.APU GOMES

In Antonio Damasio’s Los Angeles apartment, an enormous painting hangs on the wall, showing a pianist playing to a concert hall audience. Each seat is occupied by the pianist himself in a different position or pose, seemingly feeling something different each time. The artwork by German artist Martin Liebscher could not reflect its owner better: a man who has dedicated his life to the mysteries of the brain and our feelings, and the opaque ways in which they are linked.

Damasio, 77, is the pre-eminent scientist in his field, and is the director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. His book Feeling & Knowing: Making Minds Conscious is an accessible look at decades of research into feelings and the processes of the brain. He explains the difference between mind and consciousness, which are often used interchangeably, and even advocates for a world with intelligent machines that can experience feelings. In his opinion, the artificial intelligence currently being developed is depriving machines of bodies that are more in the image of humans.

Damasio spoke to EL PAÍS about the thorny issues of emotion, intelligence and technology from the living room of his home, sitting across from a book containing the biography of another Portuguese author who wrote about the sense of being: Fernando Pessoa.

Question. You said that you don’t like to read that consciousness is a mystery. Tell us about your theory on this popular misconception or confusion between mind and consciousness.

Answer. There are more and more people that bring on science that shows that the problem can be at least attacked. Maybe we don’t have the full solution yet. The most important problem is the lack of recognition that mind and consciousness are different. Once you are able to feel pain or hunger or thirst or desire, once you’re able to feel you are conscious, then everything else that you can have in your mind hooks on to that feeling because that’s the feeling of yourself alive. Consciousness, in the end, is about this particular kind of image that is the image of your body in life. It’s the ability to feel the state of your life inside your body at any given moment, and it’s there continuously from shortly before your birth up to the end of your life.

Q. You’ve said that we benefit from a non-explicit or “hidden” intelligence that makes us similar to ancient organisms. What do you mean by this?

A. Bacteria are intelligent, simple organisms that have, say, 1,000 cells. They can be very intelligent. They choose the right thing for them to maintain their life, to maintain homeostasis [the equilibrium that a living organism seeks]. But they don’t know they’re doing it. They’re implicit or covert. Of course, we have the benefit of both because there are lots of things that we are not really running, our digestion and our breathing and our heart function, our circulation or our immune system. All of that is being run in an implicit way. And so we benefit from a level of intelligence that is totally covert and from a level of intelligence that is related to our knowledge and the fact that we are conscious. So the great moment of development of consciousness is the moment creatures started having feelings. And those feelings, all the first feelings are omnostatic again, hunger, thirst, wellbeing, sickness, pain, desire. That’s the story. Everything revolves around this.

Q. How about in the sense of loss? With the death of a loved one, it’s not physical pain, but it hurts. How does the mind work there? Or how does consciousness work there?

A. What’s so interesting about our mind is that as our mind developed, we have borrowed signals and systems that were meant by nature to run our basic life. We have borrowed them to run our mental life, which is also what you do in relation to cultural structures. What is an economy? An economy and the world of business are projections of our physical needs into the world of society. Why are people, always, throughout human history, interested in finding ways in which they could compensate not just their physical pain, but the pain that they felt with loss? Because people were capable of thinking and imagining worlds, so you have the construction of something that may help you in terms of making the laws tolerable, and fundamental ideas of religion have always been around that. Of course, you can say that there is not just a discovery of God, but the construction of God, related to the fact that we are conscious of our suffering.

Q. Why is the body so important for the mind?

A. None of this makes any sense without the body. We’re not ghosts. We’re bodies. We are bodies, and we have something beautiful and dramatic to cope with. We have life. Life is ticking away in us. But life is like a high-wire act in the circus. You have the people with the trapeze jump. That’s what life is. You need a lot of skill to maintain life.

Q. Because of the importance of the body, you’ve drawn a line separating it from artificial intelligence.

A. Artificial intelligence today does spectacular things, but it does spectacular things to help us. Are we going to accept artificial intelligence the way it is, or could we do something to make artificial intelligence possibly more intelligent by being a little bit like living creatures? That’s an interesting debate, because there are two sides, people that will say, well, it’s working so well. Why do you want to tinker with it? Leave it alone. And then there are people that will say, well, but you could be even more intelligent. You could be even more adapted to what we are. And for that, it has to have something that looks a little bit like feelings, but it’s a very complicated issue.

Q. Scientists in universities like yours are working right now to make the human experience of life longer, even up to 140 years old. How’s that going to change our relationship with our mind and with intelligence?

A. If somebody comes and says, you could live 10 or or 15 more years, I say I’m all for it. But we don’t know what the consequences are. That sounds like a good idea. And I think it’s possible because so many of the reasons why we age and we die are correctable up to a point, we don’t know the ultimate limit. And today we know that people are living longer and longer, people that can live 100 years and actually be of sound mind. So you don’t have to be old and an idiot.

Q. You’ve written that there’s a certain repertoire of feelings within us. Could that be changed over the years, by culture or by the influence of our environment?

A. Look at what is happening with social media. It’s very easy to manipulate people into believing things or into not wanting to do things. Clearly, things like Facebook can change the way you operate in your life. And I think that people better watch out.

Q. Does that mean that we’re getting less intelligent?

A. Not really, I think the ability to manipulate ideas and to understand facts remains the same, if anything, it’s actually a bit better. So our intelligence is there. It’s the ability to reason through the facts. But look at the irrationality of the people that decided not to get vaccinated. Where does that come from? So if people don’t get vaccines at all, the older they are, it’s like signing their death warrant. Your capability is the same. It’s just that you’re not being rational. It’s different from not being intelligent.

Q. You’d have to be intelligent to know that you’re being irrational?

A. It’s really a combination of basic intelligence and knowledge. You need to have facts. And if you have the facts, and if you know the possibilities of you getting sick and dying, and even after that, you still want to persist in not getting the protection of the vaccine, then it’s either irrationality or you’re stupid. You could be stupid. And there’s no vaccine for stupidity, by the way.

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