My interjected and highlighted text -first paragraph, says it all.
My suggestion? The two-page aperture of Democracy, the best
form of government opens the universe of 'the nature of man and the
evolutionary biology underlying it' -and start reading and asking
May 13, 2011, 4:26 p.m.Los Angeles Times
CONVERSATIONS IN SCIENCE
Digging into our consciousness
USC's Dr. Antonio Damasio's latest work, 'Self Comes to Mind,' explores how
consciousness evolved and how it contributes to our culture.
By Eryn Brown, Los Angeles Times
Dr. Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist and director of the Brain and Creativity
Institute at USC, is best known for his pioneering work on how the brain
generates emotion and how emotion, in turn, helps people make decisions. His
books "Descartes' Error" and "Looking for Spinoza" were international
bestsellers. His latest work, "Self Comes to Mind," extends his theories and
adds new facts to the ever-vexing question of consciousness — what it is, why
it evolved and how it contributes to human culture.
Damasio discussed these ideas with The Times.
What is consciousness?
It's this ability that we have to look out on the world and
grasp it. It is a way evolution found to increase our effectiveness in dealing
with life and its struggles.
This is an opinion -and a pronouncement to boot! -ambiguous words that (Occam's Razor) have absolutely
nothing to do with the nature of evolutionary
process: 'increase?, effectiveness?, dealing with life?, struggles?' -all,
all, words that were conjured into existence only as and
after evolutionary process happenstantially began the evolution of
uniquely human deliberative capability -and language, in evolving mankind.
The rest of this interview is more of the same.]
You write that consciousness arises out of a sense of self — and that
animals, too, have a basic sense of self.
Yes. Imagine, for example, birds. When they look out at the
world, they have a sense that they are alive. If they are in pain, they can do
something about it. If they have hunger or thirst, they can satisfy that. It's
this basic feeling that there is life ticking away inside of you.
What is the root of consciousness?
One of the things that is most important in this field is to understand the
relationship between the mind and an organism. There is no such thing as a
disembodied mind. The mind is implanted in the brain, and the brain is
implanted in the body.
Most of the attention has been given to the cerebral cortex.
Even I, when I started, always gave the lion's share to the cerebral cortex.
Through the years, I've become convinced that if there's a lion's share to be
given in terms of the origins of consciousness, it has to go to the brain stem,
which regulates our basic bodily functions and is really the hinge point
between the body and the rest of the brain.
How did consciousness start in the brain stem?
A living system has to cope with many problems. It has to
search for sources of energy, incorporate them and transform them. The system
also needs to defend itself. This poses a big management problem for an
organism, because it needs to "know" when it needs more energy, and when to
defend itself. It sounds like a simple problem, but it's very complicated.
Nature has solved it for millions of years by focusing on such resources as
states of hunger, states of thirst, defense mechanisms and so on.
The essentials of that machinery of regulation exist in
biological systems, even if they don't have a brain. But as the systems and
environments become more complicated, brains develop to cope with the added
complexity. Eventually, mind and consciousness develop from those brains and
they come in handy. They give them a way of applying the best among several
What particular aspects of consciousness contribute to survival?
Having a self, even a simple self, allows you to look into
the world and put a mark over what is more important and less important. It's a
way of classifying the world in terms of your own needs. That has been the big
triumph of consciousness, and is probably the reason why it got into more and
more elaborate forms.
What are some advances in science that have made it possible to study
One very important one is advances in imaging. We use what is
known as functional magnetic resonance imaging. By tracking the amount of blood
flow into a certain area, it gives you an idea whether a particular part of the
brain — or several parts of the brain — are more active or less active. That
allows you to test how the system is operating. That has been extremely
What kinds of things have you learned this way?
One recent study at the institute has to do with
understanding compassion. We compared what was going on in the brains of normal
individuals when they were experiencing compassion for someone who had a
physical predicament — for example, someone breaking a bone — or someone who
had a mental predicament, such as being very sad about the loss of a friend. We
had film clips that told stories about these different conditions. When people
were placed in the scanners and looked at the stories, there were certain parts
of the brain that were very active and others that were not active at all.
Anything that had to do with the body activated parts of the brain that had a
lot to do with body regulation. When people were very concerned about mental
pain, those parts were not active.
When you deal with something like compassion for physical
pain, which we know is very, very old in evolution — we can find evidence for
it in nonhuman species — the brain processes it at a faster speed. Compassion
for mental pain took many seconds longer. Which of course stands to reason,
because you need to think through things in order to understand the situation
and create the stimulus to engender your emotion.
In "Self Comes to Mind," you say that society and culture are outgrowths of
human evolution. Can you explain that?
Homeostasis is the whole collection of systems and strategies
which allow a living organism to regulate life to its best advantage. By and
large, even though humans are very complicated, if you leave things alone
you'll be fine; if you respond to the commands homeostasis is giving you, you
will be able to stay in check.
However, because the world we live in is so complex, you need
to introduce another layer of regulation. That's what social networks and
culture provide. And the beautiful thing is that this socio-cultural
homeostasis has exactly the same role as basic homeostasis: regulating life so
we can survive, and do so with a modicum of well-being. That's why, for
example, people have managed throughout history to be under despotic regimes
and emerge on the other side with better regimes. That's happening right now,
even as we speak.
This doesn't work all the time — sometimes organisms die, and species go
Exactly. But certainly the more aware we are of the
predicaments we're in, the less likely it is that the bad stuff will
This interview was edited for space and clarity from a longer discussion.