Antonio Damasio


I have just been listening to Sam Harris interviewing the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio (you have to subscribe to Sam Harris’s website). I first became aware of Damasio through the title of one of his books, Self Comes to Mind, the beginning of which I read. I liked his description of what having a self feels like and how this feeling naturally arises due to the body mapping itself (is it lying, moving or upside down?) and monitoring its functions. Since this feeling of having (or being) a self happens so naturally it is only through prolonged practice that you can suppress it. I have never been clear why meditators want to suppress it.

In the talk Damasio puts forward his idea that bodies preceded nervous systems, brains and even genes. Quite how something without genes to replicate itself could survive longer than one generation is not clear to me but I have no doubt Prof. Damasio has given it more thought than I have. Whichever way this trick is done, some ‘thing’ existed with an urge for homeostasis, the desire to keep the body functioning. At some point RNA probably entered the scene, then DNA which both enabled replication. Once beings had become large and complex they evolved nervous systems to control their bodily functions. Yet desire for homeostasis remained the motivating force behind all the creatures actions.

What is interesting to me is that Damasio sees everything we do, including culture, as coming about through this primitive urge for homeostasis. As well as our urge to eat, drink, rest and sleep, even our housing estates, hospitals, schools, museums and galleries are extensions of our urge to maintain the correct functioning of the body. I love ideas that reduce something as mind-bogglingly complex as all human culture to a single motivation I can hold in my head. Whether the idea is correct or not is another matter.

Another interesting idea he had was that feelings rather than thoughts are at the bottom of all we do. David Hume had the same thought two hundred years ago but Damasio has evidence that he was right. The only way we can possibly know if a proposition sounds right or wrong is by the way it makes us feel. If we had no feelings we wouldn’t have the first notion of what we should think about anything.

This raises the question of what happens when feelings are clearly not reliable guides to the truth. Almost all of us are prey to confirmation and bias and believe ourselves better than average at almost everything so gut feelings can’t be a reliable guide to reality. When disagreements happen it’s helpful if facts can adjudicate but often one man’s facts are another man’s cherry-picked fake news. So if we can rely neither on our feelings nor on “facts” (please wiggle two fingers on either side of your head) how are we supposed to proceed? Damasio says we should gently and persuasively negotiate with each other.

I have to say I found this a bit unsatisfactory and I think Sam Harris felt the same. However he didn’t push, perhaps because he thought, as I do, that there may be no better way of dealing with such an intractable problem. Either way Damasio clearly thought our present ‘negotiations’ are anything but gentle and since our judgments appear to be based on our feelings rather than vice versa then getting your opponent’s back up is probably counter-productive if winning him over to your point of view is your goal.

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