Eighteen centuries ago, the philosopher Plotinus affirmed that “human beings are halfway between gods and beasts”, sensing that there was a path that linked our nature with that of animals. Charles Darwin, in The origin of the man, concreted that perception by expressing his fears that many people would be irritated by the main conclusion of his book, “that man descends from a lower-ranking organic form.” Antonio Damasio (Lisbon, 79 years old) has gone further and affirms that there is a link between our cultural life and the first microorganisms, that our consciousness did not arise suddenly, but is part of a path that unites us with the beasts through of feelings.
Things as basic as hunger, thirst or pain are behind the most sublime art or the most sophisticated technological advances. Damasio says that fundamental feelings help us adapt to our environment and are the first step towards the consciousness that for millennia was the defining feature of humanity. Director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California (USC), his theories have inspired neuroscientists and intellectuals and some of his books, such as Descartes’ mistake, are a reference in the dissemination of science and philosophy. He recently visited Madrid, invited by the Bankinter Foundation, to talk about how the progressive knowledge of the brain is facilitating the human-machine connection and the latest advances in artificial intelligence.
Ask. You did your thesis in Lisbon in the 1960s. If you could travel back in time and meet your youthful version, what would be the most shocking advances in recent decades for that other Antonio Damasio?
Answer. I did my doctorate in neuroscience, but I was also a neurologist and I practiced both disciplines. As a neurologist, that young man would speak to him about the great advances in the way of treating neurological diseases. In Lausanne, Switzerland, there is a group that has managed to restore the ability to walk to a paraplegic person with electrical implants that stimulate his spinal cord. That person can transmit the intention to move through implants in the cerebral cortex and make their legs move. Nobody would have expected that when I was doing my thesis and not even 20 years ago.
Another thing that I would tell that kid is something that is astonishing and also a little scary: the possibility of having implants in the brain that affect our brain function and the way we make decisions. There are implants that can help people with Parkinson’s with movement, or restore memory in people who are losing it to Alzheimer’s. The problem is that every time you implant something in your brain you face many risks, of infections, of damage, because we are entering uncharted territory. This is like launching a rocket to the moon, you don’t know where you are going to land. Technology has a lot of potential for good, but we have to think carefully about how we apply it so as not to make mistakes.
Q. Sometimes technological advances go in frustrating directions: we have phones to watch videos of kittens, but no flying cars, and we may have developed implants to view those images without touching the phone, but no progress in the treatment of Alzheimer’s.
R. Economic interest can condition where these advances go, because humans do many things thinking about the benefits. But it also has to do with the fact that there are things that fascinate people more than others. Curing something simple like a stomach or skin problem may be less appealing than launching a rocket to the Moon, even though it helps a lot of people.
Q. He talks about motivations, and motivations have a lot to do with feelings, something he has researched and written about extensively throughout his career. If feelings are a tool to adapt to our environment, is it a good idea to always follow what our feelings tell us?
R. There are some feelings that we have to follow, which are homeostatic. [la homeostasis es la capacidad del organismo para mantener estable su interior pese a los cambios en el entorno]. Those are at the root of our consciousness. For example, the feeling of body temperature. He is monitoring you all the time and tells you how to dress or that if you notice a fever there is something wrong. So temperature, hunger, thirst, pain, discomfort… are homeostatic feelings because they allow us to maintain that state of balance.
Those feelings, from what I have seen in my research, are at the genesis of consciousness. But there are other feelings that are not always good guides. Feelings of ambition, immense excitement, envy, anger or sadness. Those are emotional feelings and our emotions can guide us well, but sometimes they derail us. The emotion of ambition can be very destructive and so can anger. One of the things we have to govern as individuals and as a society and as political agents is to control the terrible things that emotions can lead us to do.
Q. But if we look at classical education, in part, it consists of fighting against feelings like hunger or the search for immediate well-being to conquer freedom. It is a use of reason against feelings to have long-term benefits.
R. Homeostatic feelings are always positive because they tell you what to do at a specific moment, but they also suggest a social or political project that allows you to overcome problems such as hunger or thirst. In the immediate future they can save your life, but as a motivation for political or social action they can cause the right developments to take place so that people have food and water. In general I think they are good advisers.
Q. In politics it also seems that emotions have more and more weight. Does this have to do with an increase in the complexity of the reality in which we live and that comes to us through the Internet? Do we take refuge in emotional intuitions when reality confuses us?
R. It has less to do with what we can do in terms of controlling emotions, as trying to control the social effects of our success. Internet is a great development in our lives. When I was at university, I had to go to a library to find anything, and if I wanted an article by a scientist from another country, I sometimes had to write to ask for it. But today I have all that at my fingertips. The access we now have to information is wonderful. On the other hand, the internet made social networks possible, and that is where what you describe comes in, which is a side effect of the brutal development of social networks, which allow us to constantly confront political positions and instead of having a little time to think and analyze the facts, you can respond immediately.
Technology has brought many good things, but others are not. We spend very little time, for example, on an image. Before you could dedicate three minutes and now you don’t spend more than 30 seconds, at most. There has been an acceleration in our way of facing reality that has been transferred to a large extent to some devices that we carry with us. I remember a moment, especially after covid, walking through the campus of the University of Southern California, which is very beautiful, with beautiful buildings, parks, trees… and I would see all these students absorbed in their phones and bumping into me . There are days when it is impossible to see a single person without these things in their hands. It’s amazing that you can go through life like this.
Q. There is a book called party to death, by Neil Postman, from 1985. It talks about how audiovisual culture and the dependence of American citizens on television is dumbing down people, making them incapable of paying attention to complex speech. You could change internet television or social networks in the book and the arguments would be identical to those used today to criticize them and, nevertheless, it does not seem that since 1985 we have become fools. Scientific advance is much faster now than then.
R. I think the impact is not the same for everyone. There are certain people who are able to survive in this fast-paced environment and be creative despite distractions, but others are not. There are people for whom it is disastrous.
Q. When you were a student, the separation between humans and animals was much clearer. Only we were aware and there was less concern for the feelings of other animals. Now we think that we are all part of a continuum, that in the matter of consciousness there is no leap from nothing animal to everything human.
Q. Do you think that this imposes an ethical decision on us in this regard?
R. I think it is clear that there are many animals that are conscious in the same way that we are. If you look at mammals, fish, or birds, you don’t have to be overly thoughtful or very fond of animals to realize that they are self-aware, protective of each other, and behave very much like humans. ours. They are capable, like us, of feeling pain, pleasure, hunger or thirst. And they operate according to similar regulatory principles. I think that towards those animals we should have a very kind behavior. I’m not in favor of over-legislating, but maybe with a good education we would realize that we shouldn’t torture those animals. Investigating consciousness should make you more aware of these creatures.
Q. But in these ethical and political decisions there is also a lot of arbitrariness, which perhaps has to do with the emotional part of supposedly rational decisions. There are people who easily accept this continuum between animals and humans and conclude that their lives must be respected, but then accept that abortion is acceptable before three months of gestation and not after, when there is also a continuity that is broken again. arbitrary shape.
R. We are very clever at compartmentalizing. I accept that you eat dogs, but don’t eat my dog.
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Source: EL PAIS