Damasio: To me, body and mind are different aspects of specific biological processes. Philosopher Baruch Spinoza supported views similar to mine, regarding the body and soul question, shortly after Descartes' time. In his Ethics he wrote: "The object of the idea which constitutes the human mind is body." Spinoza thereby anticipated the findings of modern neurobiology.
MIND: Indeed, in your latest book, Looking for Spinoza, you describe the man as "a mental immunologist developing a vaccine capable of creating antipassion antibodies." So is only a life free of passions a good life?
Damasio: Spinoza fascinates me not only because he was ahead of his time with his ideas on biology but also for the conclusions he drew from these ideas about the correct way to live life and set up a society. Spinoza was a very life-affirming thinker. He recommended contrasting the negative emotions such as sadness and fear with joy, for example. He understood this kind of practice as a way to reach an inner peace and stoic equanimity.
MIND: What are some of the other functions that feelings have, in addition to helping us make decisions?
Damasio: My interest now extends way past the question of decision making. In our lab, we are working more intensely with social feelings such as sympathy, shame or pride--they form a foundation for morality. Neurobiol-ogy doesn't simply help us to better understand human nature but also the rules of social interaction. Yet to really grasp this, we need a broader research approach: along with cognitive and neurological sciences, many of the humanities could contribute, especially anthropology and sociology.
MIND: It seems your research also extends into defining consciousness. What role do emotions play? What role does the body play?
Damasio: Consciousness, much like our feelings, is based on a representation of the body and how it changes when reacting to certain stimuli. Self-image would be unthinkable without this representation. I think humans have developed a self-image mainly to establish a homeostatic organism. The brain constantly needs up-to-date information on the body's state to regulate all the processes that keep it alive. This is the only way an organism can survive in an ever changing environment. Emotions alone--without conscious feelings--would not be enough. Adults would be as helpless as babies if they suddenly lost their self-image.
MIND: Animals also must possess consciousness, then?
Damasio: I do believe that animals develop a very basic self-concept--what I refer to as "core self." But to have a broader self, such as we do, requires an autobiographical memory.
MIND: Do you believe that we will someday be able to create artificial consciousness and feelings?
Damasio: An organism can possess feelings only when it can create a representation of the body's functions and the related changes that occur in the brain. In this way, the organism can perceive them. Without this mechanism there would be no consciousness. It is unclear that this could ever develop in a machine or whether we really want machines with feelings.
MIND: Will research on emotions help lead to better forms of therapy for psychiatric illnesses?
Damasio: Without question. Emotional disorders form the core of most psychological illnesses--a good example of this is depression. Specific treatments will be developed in the future, such as new types of medicine that target distinct cellular and molecular systems. Other forms of therapy are also sure to benefit, from traditional psychotherapy to social intervention.
Manuela Lenzen is a philosopher and writer in Bielefeld, Germany.
This article was originally published with the title Feeling Our Emotions.