From feeling to knowing with Antonio Damasio

PodcastNovember 22, 2021
hungry stick man, robot, and dog

It would be interesting to think what would happen if [A.I. had] a little bit of vulnerability, if something about them would be soft and cuddly and they could add something equivalent to a feeling, which is some kind of register of how the body has changed as a result of some set of needs that that body would have.

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In this episode of the Decision Corner, Brooke speaks with Antonio Damasio – David Dornsife Chair in Neuroscience at the University of Southern California and author of Feeling and Knowing: Making Minds Conscious.

Some of the topics discussed include:

  • Why feelings are integral to our understanding of consciousness.
  • The evolutionary origins of our nervous systems and eventually, our ability to have and regulate our feelings.
  • How feelings have been overlooked in scientific explanations of consciousness, and why a paradigm shift is important.
  • Challenges and opportunities around AI – how can we make robots have feelings?
  • The importance of understanding the unique way human consciousness developed, and what it can teach us about our future selves, as well as our technological developments.

The conversation continues

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Key Quotes

The Origins of Feeling

“When we look at those simple organisms, something that is obvious is that they can react to the environment. So they can react by obviously sensing the environment, they can decide whether they’re going to be in this particular place, or in another place, and that depends on sensing the conditions that are suitable or not suitable for the continuation of life.”


“There’s a magic formula of how life can continue. That magic formula has to do with the state of homeostasis. Funny word, but it simply means life regulation.”

How Our Feelings Empower Us

“And when a feeling comes in and results in you feeling hungry or feeling thirsty or feeling pain, for example, it is telling you spontaneously, naturally, a bit of very, very important knowledge and it’s allowing you, provided you have enough of the nervous system to respond…it’s allowing you to do the right thing at that point.”

Neuroscience Doesn’t Explain Everything

“But you are not going to understand how we end up being individuals and we end up having a sense of self by understanding how the retina works.”

The Challenge for AI

“So the majority of these instruments are fine, unless you take an ax to them and destroy them, they’re going to survive forever. And so it would be interesting to think, what would happen if these creatures would have a little bit of vulnerability, if something about them would be soft and cuddly and they could add something that would be equivalent to a feeling.”

How Considering The Feelings of Other Species Help Humans Understand More About Ourselves

“I think that paying attention to the tremendous similarities between our feeling system and the feeling system of other creatures is extremely important. It’s important to give you continuity, to mark certain points in that trajectory that comes all the way to humans, and to the tremendous mental complexity that we have unleashed and the tremendous achievement that we have before us.”


Brooke: Hello everyone, and welcome to the podcast of The Decision Lab, a socially conscious applied research firm that uses behavioral science to improve outcomes for all of society. My name is Brooke Struck, Research Director at TDL, and I’ll be your host for the discussion. My guest today is Antonio Damasio, David Dornsife Chair in Neuroscience at the University of Southern California. Member of too many prestigious societies and laureate of too many prestigious prizes to name and most recently the author of Feeling and Knowing: Making Minds Conscious. In today’s episode we’ll be talking about his latest book, looking especially on how consciousness is built up from various layers underneath, the paradox of AI and what machines are teaching us about ourselves. Professor Damasio thanks for joining us.

Antonio: My pleasure. 

Brooke: So you are writing about consciousness and this latest book that you’ve published is very accessible, it’s very approachable for a lay audience and you mentioned in the book that there seems to be a bit of a groundswell in the topic of consciousness these days. Why is consciousness keeping us up at night?

Antonio: Well, I think, first of all let me just make a point that the book is really about consciousness, no question, but I want to insist on the first word of the title which is Feeling. So it’s a book about consciousness through feeling, that’s an important part. It’s interesting because consciousness… I am old enough to have seen the on and off in terms of the interest in consciousness. For example, about 20 years ago there was also an enormous amount of interest in the scientific community to resolve the problem of consciousness. And at that point in spite of all the interest and efforts and different papers and communication and even books, people sort of came to the premature conclusion that this is not going to be a solvable problem.

And there was a bit of a quiet period and now again we have this return to the problem because it is not solved, people were not happy and they clearly wanted to understand. The reason is that it’s something so essential for what we are. I mean there’s absolutely no way that you can get talking to me if we were not conscious. I think it’s something that is nagging at people, people want to have answers on this problem and until we have some kind of satisfactory situation, people will return to it. It will take time to settle issues because right now there’s so many different strands of research and thinking pulling at this problem and unfortunately they end up being a little bit incompatible.

So I don’t think this is going to be settled and by no means do I expect people to read my book and say, “Haha well here’s the solution.” Although actually a few of them might, and it’s interesting the book just came out this week and the first couple of days already I’ve got people saying, “Wonderful. I finally understand that this is it.” Maybe by being a little bit candid and not too insistent maybe some people will listen and of course as you all know I’m right, so.

Brooke: Yeah of course, of course. Let’s take this whetted appetite and give it something to dig into. Let’s open the cover now and talk a little bit about what’s inside this book. You talk about hierarchy from sensing, to minding, to feeling, to consciousness. Can you talk us through this cascade a little bit?

Antonio: Yeah. Well, this cascade comes out of the number of approaches that I have. One, is that you are looking at life. So it’s not that we’re just looking at human beings and their properties and problems. We are looking at life in general and I think that whatever we say about what we are and about fantastic processes such as consciousness or feeling or language. We have to put them in the context of life. And I think this has helped me and for a while I have been trying to look at ourselves from a historical perspective.

The historical perspective actually has to begin with the very first living things. And the very first living beings were creatures with one single cell and not a tremendous amount of complexity. They were alive and they could move within a certain environment. But the main point is that, for a period that goes between the birth of that organism, and the death and disappearance of that organism, pretty much the same that happens with us, when we think about it.

During that period there were certain actions, there were certain phenomena that manifested life within that simple organism. But when we look at those simple organisms, one cell or a few cells, something that is obvious is that they can react to the environment. So they can react to the environment, they can react by obviously sensing the environment, they can decide whether they’re going to be in this particular place or in another place, and that depends on sensing the conditions that are suitable or not suitable for the continuation of life.

We have something quite spectacular going on, which is the fact that these creatures are alive, from what they do to themselves, where they place themselves relative to say temperature or nutrients. They clearly are behaving intelligently and yet we cannot really see how that intelligence could be known to them. This is probably the most important beginning that we can have together. The issue of consciousness is that there are living beings that have a beginning and an end, they have a course of life and history during which they do things.

They can sense their environment and they are obviously intelligent because they’re doing the right thing to continue a life and yet there’s no way we can understand how they could know what they’re doing. They’re not doing it because they want to, they’re not doing it because they think it’s the right way, actually they don’t think. And in fact the best way of describing them is being intelligent but mindless, or if we want to be polite, say they are intelligent in a covert way. Their intelligence is not numb to them, it’s not manifest which really means it’s not conscious.

Now, as we go on in the history of such creatures they get to be more and more complicated. They get to have more and more cells, then they get to have different systems and they continue doing this business of sensing what’s on the outside. So they are beings obviously, and they sense the environment and this is very intelligent and so very good for them.

The way I like to tell the story is that, at some point the complexity of organisms is such thatthey have so many different cells, so many different systems, so many different organs that it would have been impossible to continue life with that complexity if you did not have a way of coordinating what one organ or one system is doing relative to the other.

This is, I think, when providence invented nervous systems. And nervous systems for me are not things that begin the way our brains are today, with our great cerebrum and the brain stem and the spinal cord and nerves everywhere. They begin by being simple coordinators of a very complex organism that is getting even more complex. The problem was inducing early death and disease because co-regulation would be impossible. Now once nervous systems come to being, we have a new game entirely.

And once that happens then we start on the possibility of sensing not just through the general self that make up a body but also, very particular cells that had as their business, detecting what is going on and then actually differentiating the detection so that it is one thing to detect temperature, another to detect concentration of a certain nutrient and then eventually, all the developments that we have in nervous systems. They are not just detecting what is inside the organism but also what is outside, which is, of course what is allowing me to see you on the screen and you tosee me and greet each other and so forth.

As things were developing, there is also for me, a stage which is critical. Which is when this nervous system, these cells, are organized in such a way that they permit a representation of what is going on inside the organism and that representation is of course very critical because what I am envisioning is something that will be, this nervous system becoming not just a coordinator but eventually the regulator of life. It would make sense that as you sense better, as you sense more of what’s in the organism, you also gain the possibility of coordinating things better and therefore allowing for more complex behaviors and for a longer maintenance of life in good conditions.

Because of course, in all of this and there’s a last thing I’m going to introduce in this background, to answer this long answer to your very short question, is that we have to be regulated. There’s a magic formula of how life can continue. That magic formula has to do with the state of homeostasis. Funny word, but it simply means life regulation. That will allow the utilization of energy procurement and transition of energy to be convertible in reasonable conditions for as long as possible. We now have a nervous system, we have this sort of addict that says homeostasis is needed at all times and the nervous system is going to try to comply with that addict and it’s going to arrange things in the organism so that you can maintain that life.

And final part, it would have been wonderful to develop, what nature in fact developed, which is a way of sensing what is going on and therefore making, at first recommendations about what to do next, that were non conscious, were not known to anybody but then, lo and behold, at a certain point, even those recommendations come in a form that will be spontaneously naturally known. And that’s what happens when you get the first feelings I think. So feelings are very clear messages being sent by the organism to this, also in parallel, budding construction called the mind.

And when a feeling comes in and results in you feeling hungry or feeling thirsty or feeling pain for example, it is telling you spontaneously, naturally, a bit ofvery important knowledge and it’s allowing you, provided you have enough of the nervous system to respond, it’s allowing you to do the right thing at that point. So feeling is the inauguration of consciousness as far as I can see. It is that because it is telling you in the beginning of this mind process that, look the body is in a condition where X or Y is required and provided that you can respond that way, that’s going to be effective, it’s going to allow you to continue.

It really is a very remarkable development. What this means also is that, from there on, you don’t have creatures that are sensing that don’t know that they’re sensing and don’t know what they are doing, even if they do the right thing. From now on you have the beginning your own responsibility as a living being, of doing something that conforms with the knowledge, with the information that feeling is giving you. That’s why I call my book Feeling and Knowing.

There’s two things, feeling is about knowledge and it’s presenting knowledge to the nervous system that has by now other kinds of knowledge and that knowledge is of course very central. And of course after feeling and knowledge, the next word that you want to put in this chain is consciousness because that’s what it is. You are conscious when you know and when you refer that knowledge to yourself, to your organism. It’s really an interesting pirouette that one is doing here.

You gain, it’s not just sensing, it’s sensing but sensing with knowledge about what is going on and that knowledge is in the form of feeling. Why is it in the form of feeling? Well, because feeling relates to your body, it’s naturally about the body. It’s always a particular kind of knowledge that is going to allow you to continue. Anyway, I am done. 

Brooke: (laughter) There is a lot there to unpack. Let me try to summarize a little bit. So sensing is simple receptivity towards the environment. Even at the level of a single cell organism we have this kind of receptivity. If it’s warm over there and I’m the kind of being that likes warm, then I will move in the direction of warmth, not because I’m aware of this, not because I have some grand narrative about who I am as a single celled organism, but simply because I’m the kind of thing that has a receptivity to temperature and temperature is good for me and there are certain kind of fundamental laws about how I’m going to behave that are baked into my being and so when I have this receptivity, when I receive that signal, I will gravitate towards it. Not out of any choice, not even necessarily out of unawareness that this belongs to me, it’s just an automatic response.

When we start to get nervous systems, when we start to get to not just single cell or multi cell organisms but multi system organisms where we have the specializations of different functions. Then one of those functions that goes along with it is the coordination function. This is where we move into feeling, that integration of various receptivity into one kind of coherent piece which includes sensitivity to external stimuli as well as sensitivity to internal stimuli. So hunger for instance is an internal stimulus that can be integrated into this piece which we call feeling. Consciousness then is an additional layer that’s on top of that, it’s not just having this kind of integrated sense of feeling but that sense of those integrated feelings actually belonging to me. That there is a something that is having those feelings. Is this correct?

Antonio: Absolutely correct. You summarized it beautifully. You said it even better than I did.

Brooke: Thank you. Let’s dig into this now. So before moving on I just want to say one small thing. You talked, in your introductory remarks today about changes since the last time that we were really wrestling with the hard problem and I think one of those changes which is what we are already touching on here is that we’re starting to drop the idea that consciousness lives from the neck up. This I think helps us to overcome a lot of the challenges that we were previously trying to tangle, with the hard problem, and this really I think gets at the heart of a lot of the novelty that your brain with this book here and in fact as you mention the title, Feeling and Consciousness. That consciousness has this kind of tabula rasa model where people are dancing out on stage to be appropriated into consciousness This misses the fundamental kind of layers that are going on underneath that allow consciousness to even emerge. And those layers are not things that happen only within your brain.

There’s not kind of a fixed and hard stop between your brain for instance and your spinal cord or your spinal cord and the rest of your nervous system that extends out through the rest of your body. And this I think helps us to grapple with some of the challenges of the hard problem.

Antonio: That is absolutely critical.  You know one of the things that is most spectacular in the change that has happened in these few years is that, little by little, some people are accepting this turn of events that you are describing. When the discussions on consciousness began, well discussions on consciousness go a long way back. Every once in a while people have, either with that word, or with the effect, they have of course touched on the problem of consciousness. It’s not a new issue. 

But once neuroscience appeared in this scene and was acknowledged as this spectacular development and once people were, for example, able to get a glimpse of what a retina was and what a visual system was producing there was this moment of explosion of neuroscience that everything seemed possible and the interesting thing is that something terrible happened in my view, is that neuroscience had this enormous moment of success, this explosion around senses that are directed to the outside. And it’s perfectly reasonable that people wanted to understand how they saw, how they heard, and even how they touched. But not how they felt. So that was skipped over completely. Neuroscience developed spectacularly around the external senses and the successes were huge, and the noble prizes were huge for the discoveries. And unfortunately the idea then became sort of very sensible. We have all of this complexity, consciousness is obviously complex so, we have to look for consciousness at this high level of complexity. It’s something that evolution must have given us at the end of this long trajectory that ended up in complicated homo sapiens.

Of course nothing could be more wrong. We literally started at the wrong end and I have, first timidly and now not so timidly, I’m saying it’s exactly the opposite. I mean please don’t worry about visual awareness and visual consciousness, they will come, that’s actually easy to explain, but you are not going to understand how we end up being individuals and we end up having a sense of self by understanding how the retina works.

Brooke: Yeah that’s very interesting and in fact I think that there are some good historical reasons of why it is that we would have felt that kind of thing. I mean the image of man as the rational animal and if nothing else human exceptionalism, this idea that we have very strongly imported from our religious past as much as we try to outrun it. That somehow, man is special and that consciousness is a unique thing, or something must be unique to humans because we must be ‘other’. This is what leads us to really neglect focus on the body and when we do think about the body, often we think about it as something that leads us astray.

Now, certainly there are instances where the body leads us astray, there are instances where I am actually now consciously aware, having worked at it for several years, that when my gut clenches, perhaps this is actually the wrong response to the social situation that I’m in and it’s likely to elicit certain kinds of behaviors that are maladaptive to the situation. They don’t serve me well, they don’t serve the situation well. And through, as I say, several years of resurfacing those things to consciousness, I recognize that sometimes my body leads me astray. But those still remain the exceptions for the vast majority of what my body does, it does an exceptionally good job of keeping me alive.

Antonio: Exactly, exactly. That’s absolutely important. It’s very interesting too because that historical situation in which we are, which you summarized beautifully. There’s also the fact that you have had this tug of war between what’s called emotion effect and reason and in fact there’s no question that historically, people had been very preoccupied in maintaining reason, rationality or this idea that if we are rational we are really above the other creatures which are non-rational because guess what, they are only about their simple emotions and so forth.

And of course there’s nothing simple about emotion, there’s a huge job of deconstruction and reconstruction of these different concepts, and I think we’re right in the middle of it and I would be very surprised if in the next five to ten years these things would not be sorted out, not really a new paradigm, but a new arrangement in which a lot of the things we have been saying up to now sound a little bit odd because they just don’t conform to reality.

But it’s so interesting that this idea that you could have a rational individual without feelings of any sort. That you would actually, you had better suppress feelings and emotions, all of that terrible stuff so that you can be rational. And of course the only thing that you would get is monstrous creatures because it’s not the way we were put together.

Brooke: Let’s pivot to monstrous creatures of another sort. Let’s talk about Artificial Intelligence, which in some ways is actually exactly what you just described. It’s an attempt to create some kind of highly rational system and doing so in a way that at least up until now, for the most part does not involve a body. So in this cascade of sensing, to feeling, to consciousness, where do you see AI fitting in right now?

Antonio: It’s obvious that AI is very convenient as a tool and allows us to do things that we could not do before, at the speed that we could not do before, and it is a very smart development provided we can put some kind of controls on it. But also it inspires you to think or to comparean AI creature; a robot well-equipped with a good brain-like governance, with the creatures that we are. And the differences are obvious that those, first of all those robots are not alive in the proper sense, you can plug them in and they’re ready to go, which might be convenient for us in many ways but it’s just not the way we are, so too bad.

In this regard when you look at what is missing in those robots, signs of life are missing and then something that of course goes with life then it’s quite important, which is the vulnerabilities that we are subject to also go. So the majority of these instruments are fine, unless you take an ax to them and destroy them, they’re going to survive forever. And so it would be interesting to think, what would happen if these creatures would have a little bit of vulnerability, if something about them would be soft and cuddly and they could add something that would be equivalent to a feeling, which is really some kind of register of how the body has changed as a result of some set of needs that that body would have.

Not just electrical power but other things that it might need. So this is both vague but I think extremely pointed in the sense that it contrasts creatures that are invulnerable by definition, that don’t have a birth and a death in the sense that we do. And that now we would have creatures that would be vulnerable in some way and the question, and this is of course something about which you can speculate but mostly what could and should do experiments, what would that vulnerability do? Would it make those creatures smarter in some circumstances, and I mentioned that it might or it’d actually just be a way of buying into stupidity and not getting any positive results.

It’s interesting because in relation to the ideas that I and a colleague of mine, Kingston Man,  put out in a paper a couple of years ago, they were both reactions. There were people that thought, “This is interesting, this is new, let’s think about it.” And the people that said, “Why would you want that? I mean we’re fine. We don’t want the computers that are controlling my 747 Flight and to be having touchy cuddly feelings. We want to avoid that.” Of course that’s for sure, I don’t want to fly with the soft robotics, I want to fly with hard robotics. But I still want to have a pilot there, just in case. And that pilot does in fact introduce an element of I think welcome vulnerability.

Brooke: So I asked a question in a somewhat uncharitable way. Let me backup and disaggregate a few things to help the conversation along. One of the things that I didn’t talk about is how it is that we are creating our AI algorithm, what it is that we are connecting it to and this kind of thing. It strikes me that there’s an important difference between an AI algorithm that is trained on a static data set versus an AI algorithm that is trained attached to live receptors, that are kind of feeding in the constant stream of new data.

There’s another element that I want to bring in around effectuator systems. Mechanical systems that allow an AI to take action based on what it is that it computes, which would be the analogue of our muscular systems. It’s not just that we, as soft fleshy beings have nervous systems that coordinate all of these various inputs but we respond to them as well and we have systems that allow us to respond. If we want to take the AI analogue a little bit closer, we give it not only kind of a constant feed of life data from receptors, as we have with our eyes and our hands, et cetera. We also give them effector systems, we can think of a robot that is somewhat human in its shape but as you mentioned an airplane also has a effector systems. It has flaps and it has engines and these kinds of things that allow it to interact with the environment.

And this I think allows us to place AI in the realm of feeling from the hierarchy that we were discussing before. The layers that we were discussing before that it strikes me as sensible to say that, an AI in that kind of situation has a set of various inputs that it is integrating and a set of actions that it is taking in response to those inputs. And that kind of coordination strikes me as analogous to what we had described as feeling earlier on. Now, I want to come to the topic of homeostasis as well, because it strikes me that-

Antonio: Quick question. Yes, it’s equivalent to feeling, one issue or one component that is] missing there is experience. There are definitely many elements that are equivalent to feeling or the data that correspond to different points of an organism. They are being fed into somewhat more central stations. But the element… See what’s so curious about feeling and why I talk about interactions between sensors that are in the nervous system and the flesh that is around those sensors. There is an interaction and as result of that interaction, there’s this experience that is born out of this. That there’s something that apparently, well not apparently, but at first glimpse is magic but in the end you can try to dig in and try to explain it. That in your description of the Artificial Intelligence I would say the experience is missing. Would you agree?

Brooke: Yeah I think so. Thinking about that nature paper that you wrote, which was another excellent piece for anyone looking for some good reading to get you far too wound  up before you try to go to sleep at night. One of the things I found so interesting there is your discussion about the kind of the hard metals and hard plastics on which we tend to make most mechanical bodies. And that essentially these materials are so invulnerable to so much of what happens in the environment, that in fact the number of inputs or the variety of inputs that are required for something living in a body like that to interact with its environment become far too over simplified. Now from a computational perspective that makes a lot of sense, right? If you can simplify something then this helps you to save a lot of energy, and computational power and all these kinds of things. But  if the object of the exercise is to create something that feels then those kinds of efficiency gains are counterproductive.

Antonio: Exactly. And I think the way nature developed, we ended up with this great, certainly unexpected from the point of view of a creator, this great gain which is feeling. It’s this idea that as the process is going, as the regulatory process is going, you get to experience it. It’s at that point exactly, that you have to place the problem of consciousness because that’s where consciousness first begins to happen. Now I’m a bit conscious that I have a view of my screen and all of my environment around here, which is another huge development but which is actually quite simple. To go from feelings is the hard part. Once you get that then everything else is perception and connecting whatever perception you have, with that feeling. You’ve got the problem solved. There’s no big problem about coordinating that spectacular journey. I look in that direction and I see buildings on Wilshire Boulevard and I look there I see the Santa Monica mountains and I look in front and I see you. But all of that is very nice engineering in these different sensory systems. But the magic is that I am seeing all these things and at the same time I am connecting them with me. And it’s that connection that makes the experience and that allows me to be conscious. Anyway, I stopped your flow. You were going into homeostasis.

Brooke: Yeah, so homeostasis is kind of the next frontier here. And you talk about survival and propagation as the core purposes of life. And one of the things you raise in your book, very timely, given the pandemic we’re living through right now, is the paradox or what I would call the scandal of viruses, right?

Antonio: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brooke: Because something that is not alive and yet seems to have this purpose of propagating, well in this instance, its nucleic acids. There’s some information that makes it what it is and propagating that information is the purpose of this thing, but the thing is not alive. Why is there such a paradox? What is the scandal?

Antonio: Well, it’s the paradox relative to our misconceptions about them. We come to these creatures with a series of preconceptions and we imagine them to be alive. In fact all the discourse is about life and death. “Kill them, kill them right now.” (laughter) And of course it’s like that because they share some characteristics with things that are for sure alive, like fully formed cells and so forth. One reason why this is all so strange and so bizarre is the size scales because we are sort of big creatures, we occupy a lot of space and these things occupy nothing, you can’t see them. You need all sorts of optical devices and sometimes not even that to see what they are and we call them creatures because there’s no other way to call them. I like the idea of scandal, it’s a paradox scandal.

Brooke: I’m borrowing the term from Immanuel Kant who thought it was scandalous that we had to just accept on faith that there was a world out there that we were experiencing and we didn’t have any proof of it. This is where I’m drawing the scandal idea.

Antonio: You’re borrowing from somebody worth borrowing.

Brooke: Yeah but I think that the same kind of scandal is true of AI as well. If we think about the way that a lot of neural nets are designed, essentially what we are doing is that we are creating these mini blood sportcompetitions between various algorithms who are all competing to kind of out-live each other. And essentially what they are trying to propagate, just the way a virus tries to propagate its nucleic acid, what the algorithm is trying to propagate is its little piece of code. Its solution to a certain formula. 

Does that change anything and what we were talking about earlier with, what if the kind of potential shortcomings for AI and moving towards feeling and towards consciousness, if you think about this in the context of homeostasis, aren’t AI algorithms in many instances locked in this battle? Red and tooth and claw, they’re trying to out-survive their competitors?

Antonio: Hmm, interesting. I had not thought about that and I think you might be right. I mean, what to write about this? What you just said is very intriguing but I would like to see it written so that I could think about it. Are you writing about this by the way?

Brooke: No, I’m speaking about it now and some very dutiful individual will take my words and take the sound and put them on to a page so that people can read about it.

Antonio: Why not you?

Brooke: I’m channeling my inner socratic, I refuse to write. I will only have scribes follow me and follow a few steps behind with the hemlock if things don’t go well.

Antonio: Great, great okay. Very good. Dark image. You have very good images you ought to be writing.

Brooke: Thank you.

Antonio: That’s essential if you are ready to write or speak, you have to have access to interesting images that can basically tell what you want to tell in terms of ideas and so yeah. You’ve got it made.

Brooke: Let’s talk about paradoxes. You mentioned earlier a potential kind of recombination. You hesitated a little bit from the term paradigm shift but maybe that’s the direction that we should be thinking about. It’s often these paradoxes or these scandals that lead to these very profound realizations of something that in retrospect can seem so obvious like we were tripping over it for so long but we didn’t see it until all of a sudden, right? And then we can’t help but see it anymore.

I think that one of the big shifts that you’re really bringing with this book standing on the shoulders of giants as so many of us do, is this shift from thinking about consciousness as something that just happens in the brain, just happens in the head to thinking about the whole body. And that paradox of how it is that the mind actually lives outside of just the brain and ends up extended in space. Once we overcome that, we can overcome lots of other challenges, notably the hard problem which I think you’ve done a very nice job addressing in this book.

I want to think now about the future. I want to think about these paradoxes we’ve just been discussing. The paradox of viruses and the paradox of Artificial Intelligence. When we encounter these paradoxes, we learn something profound about ourselves. What is it that we are learning about humans in virtue of the way that we are observing Artificial Intelligence being developed? Seeing Artificial Intelligence move from these initial steps of just being trained on static data sets, to then being fed progressively more complex and even real time data sets to being given effectuator motor systems to be able to act in a world.

And even now being put in a situation where homeostasis is something like what it is that they are trying to achieve although, as you mentioned earlier, there’s some parallel there but it’s not perfect. I think in the same way that viruses are not trying to achieve homeostasis. There’s something, there’s some kind of propagation of signals, some kind of continuation that they seek but homeostasis isn’t quite the right word. The same thing seems to be true of AI, there’s something very homeostasis-like going on there but it’s not quite the right word. What is this teaching us about what it means to be a person?

Antonio: Wow. What it teaches us about how to be a person, is that how you said it? Or what it is like to be a person?

Brooke: Yeah what it’s like to be a person. What are we learning about the human condition that we wouldn’t have known to look for until we started to see AI do human-like things but just a little bit different.

Antonio: My immediate honest response is I don’t know what I would choose first. I think probably the thing that I would choose first is to look at the considerable beauty of having a system that is so clearly calling attention to its needs in order to continue. And calling attention to the needs in a variety of ways. This idea of well being and pain and suffering is very interesting. They’re interestingly important because of the words. When you think about pain and suffering and when you think about the whole world of living things that are not humans which are in a coma, we can see suffering.

I think that’s very important. Obviously something that we’re coming to by fits and starts. When we think for example the work of someone like Peter Singer the way that people are beginning to realize that there is a world out there that we have neglected. Let me just interject; I’m thinking about something I listened to the other day which absolutely confounded me. Somebody who was saying that it’s so interesting we will not put big animals or human beings in hot water because that will make them suffer. But you can put a lobster in hot water because a lobster doesn’t have feelings. I said, “Wow, that lobster does not have feelings?”

Brooke: I want to interject and say that in Europe this is not the case. In Europe, lobsters do have feelings and one does not put them into hot water anymore.

Antonio: Which is very good. But you see it’s so interesting just how it takes time for these ideas to settle in, for people to recognize the things that they are doing wrong with other living beings or with the environment for that matter, the two are quite close. So I’m sort of losing my point here. But I think that paying attention to the tremendous similarities between our feeling system and the feeling system of other creatures is extremely important. And it’s important to give you a continuity, sort of mark certain points in that trajectory that comes all the way to humans and to the tremendous mental complexity that we have unleashed and the tremendous achievement that we have before us.

That’s really very interesting. When you we look at cultures, when you look at the products of our nervous system. There is absolutely no question that we have a big dividing line. Even between the most complex non-human animals and us. We were able to create something quite extraordinary and that extraordinary thing was created out of ideas and observations of behaviors and with that we created incredibly complex structures. Everything there is to do with, for example, moral behaviors or with the law and with the technologies that we have created. It’s really a big dividing line. 

I think what we want is for a science of feeling and consciousness to put the light on this transition between the less complex creatures and us. And at the same time give value to the extraordinary things that are going on outside. If you have this line separating humans from non-humans, on the human side we have the spectacular development of our cultures in spite of the complete mess we’re making of it right now, which is quite egregious. But on the other side you see there is great complexity as well and you see all the sources. You have the points that connect with our great adventure as humans. Maybe that looking back and that recognition of what is so complex and great and rich in what preceded uss.

Maybe that can help a little bit with the management of what is moving forward because, for example, the fact that… Actually it’s interesting, it’s just occurring to me that the problems we’re facing today, in great part come out of, first the scandalous viruses because clearly our social political moments would be very different if we did not have COVID for the past two years, and it continues to be a dramatic pressure on the economies, political government and so forth. That’s one thing.

The other big problem that we face actually has to do with the AI, and has to do with the use of the AI in our cultures. And for example with social media. If I would have to choose the things that are most troubling today, I would choose the problem that has to do with infectious diseases and the problem that has to do with social media and what it has done to our political discourse for example, to our civility and it’s now becoming perfectly obvious that it is a major problem. Would you agree with that?

Brooke: I would. I would add climate to that. And maybe we can come back to that.

Antonio: Yeah.

Brooke: But I think there’s a very rich point for us to unpack around the quite dramatic threat that the AI represents in the social media ecosystems. And that is as you were mentioning earlier, one of the challenges with AI from the perspective of trying to develop consciousness, is that the sensors have been too simplified. This has been facilitated by having rigid bodies and these kinds of things but we have so simplified the sensors that AI does not become conscious.

And in the context of social media, we have done exactly the same thing. We have so simplified the sensors and we have so simplified the function that we are looking to optimize when we introduce artificial intelligence into a social media ecosystem that we are creating, I would say existential threats to ourselves. Our societies literally are falling apart. And we have major coordinated action challenges that we as a species must face, which we are struggling to face at least partially, because of the way that we are using artificial intelligence and the way that we communicate with each other.

Antonio: Yeah. So we are in complete agreement.

Brooke: Yeah. I think also that I really appreciate the ethical dimension of what it is that you mentioned earlier. You talked about what AI is teaching us in terms of not just how we should be looking at but how we should be treating other organisms. That if we had a clean story before about how we are worthy of moral respect and other animals and other creatures are not, AI has come and shuffled the deck on that. And it’s just made it much harder for us to sustain the idea that there is one clear unobjectionable dividing line and that ethical consideration lives entirely on one side of that line and not the other. I think even your historical approach in writing the book, talking about the evolution of single-celled organisms towards multicellular and multi system, all the way up until us.

Even just that literary approach to telling the story and explaining the concepts that you’re looking to explain. That in itself is already challenging this kind of narrative of a harsh divide, with all the ethics on one side and none on the other. AI is just adding fuel to that fire and I think it’s a fire that we should continue to feed. We should always be asking ourselves about how it’s appropriate to treat other people, to treat other beings, to treat entire ecosystems. That seems to be a reasonable question now, in a way that it might not have seemed five or six years ago.

Antonio: Right. Right. Absolutely. Yeah. Well, I think we are in complete agreement.

Brooke: Yeah. Well that’s no good, we’ll have to have another conversation where we can really duke it out. (laughter)

Professor Damasio, thank you very much for your time, your generosity and your insights today. Thank you for writing this book and I would encourage anybody listening today to check out Feeling and Knowing: Making Minds Conscious. With that I will say a very deep and heartfelt thank you.

Antonio: Thank you. It was a pleasure to have a conversation with you. I hope we can continue this conversation in different ways, maybe one day in person okay?

Brooke: That sounds wonderful. Take care.

Antonio: Thank you very much. Good bye.

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About the Guest

Antonio Damasio

Antonio Damasio is University Professor, David Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience, Psychology and Philosophy, and Director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

Trained as both neurologist and neuroscientist, Damasio has made seminal contributions to the understanding of brain processes underlying emotions, feelings, and consciousness. His work on the role of affect in decision-making has made a major impact in neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy. He is the author of numerous scientific articles and has been named “Highly Cited Researcher” by the Institute for Scientific Information, and is regarded as one of the most eminent psychologists of the modern era (Google Scholar h-index is 149; over 155,000 citations).

Damasio is a member of the National Academy of Medicine and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Bavarian Academy of Sciences, and the European Academy of Sciences and Arts. He has received numerous prizes, among them the Grawemeyer Award [2014] and the Honda Prize [2010], the Asturias Prize in Science and Technology [2005], and the Nonino [2003], Signoret [2004] and Pessoa [1992] Prizes.

Damasio has discussed his research and ideas in several books, among them Descartes’ Error, The Feeling of What Happens, Looking for Spinoza and Self Comes to Mind, which are translated and taught in universities worldwide. His most recent work addresses the evolutionary development of mind and especially the role of homeostasis in the generation of cultures.

About the Interviewer

Brooke Struck portrait

Dr. Brooke Struck

Dr. Brooke Struck is the Research Director at The Decision Lab. He is an internationally recognized voice in applied behavioural science, representing TDL’s work in outlets such as Forbes, Vox, Huffington Post and Bloomberg, as well as Canadian venues such as the Globe & Mail, CBC and Global Media. Dr. Struck hosts TDL’s podcast “The Decision Corner” and speaks regularly to practicing professionals in industries from finance to health & wellbeing to tech & AI.

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