Look up the term “Renaissance man” in the dictionary, and you’ll probably find a photo of Antonio Damasio. He is a polyglot, an avid reader of fiction, a classical music aficionado, a student of modern philosophy, and an enthusiastic collector of art. And oh yeah, he’s a neuroscientist, professor, co-director of USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute, and the author of brilliant books like Descartes’ Error and Feeling & Knowing.
On a recent episode of the Next Big Idea podcast, Antonio chatted with host Rufus Griscom about where our feelings come from, how our brains and bodies interact, and the orgiastic pleasure of social admiration (and no, that is not a typo). Listen to the full episode below, or read a few key highlights.
On the incredible beauty of human evolution.
Rufus Griscom: It’s such a thrill for me to have you on the show, Antonio. I’m a big fan of your books, and I was delighted to read your latest, hot off the presses, Feeling & Knowing: Making Minds Conscious.
Part of what I enjoy about your writing is that you’re an eminent scientist; you run the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC; you’ve done important research on the role emotions play in social cognition and decision-making. It can also be said, reading your books, that you love language. You write lyrically, sometimes poetically. It feels to me like you bring an artistic sensibility to neuroscience. You sometimes describe human evolution as beautiful, and I get the sense that you want your readers to see the poetry and hear the music in the science of how we got here. Would you say that’s true?
Antonio Damasio: Absolutely. It’s a very deliberate thing, but it’s also something that I do naturally. It pleases me to help people see the immense beauty of science in general, and of biology in particular. In this book, I have that opportunity—it really is such a marvelous world that it would be a tremendous waste not to see the beauty and to only see the technical aspects.
“It really is such a marvelous world that it would be a tremendous waste not to see the beauty and to only see the technical aspects.”
Use your head, but trust your gut, too.
Rufus: As a result of your work, I have changed the way I read my own feelings. I’ll give you an example: I sometimes get in a mental state—and I’m ashamed to say this, Antonio—where I get easily irritated by other people. But I’ve come to realize that when I get in that state, the only thing that makes me happy is focusing on my work—reading books like yours, or building the business that we’re building. I’ve come to interpret some of these mood shifts as a sign of the intelligence that is in my hybrid mind—both mind and body—that is telling me, “It’s time to get to work.”
There are other examples, too. I might attend a dinner party and have a lovely evening, but then I wake up the next morning, and I feel a sense of embarrassment or shame in a blurry sort of way—a visceral way, in the viscera. And then I’ll think back and realize that I made an insensitive comment, or that I ignored a friend, and it probably hurt their feelings. So I have learned that this visceral response contains intelligence about how I could improve my behavior.
Antonio: You are combining the intelligence that comes from your knowledge and your ability to reason with the natural intelligence that comes from your feelings—which is something that you have inherited from evolution, which is there in the interplay between the nervous system and the living body. You’re using that older part as material for your rationality to operate on, and to give you new ideas about what you can do to help you make corrections in your life—how you plan it and how you run it.
“Any extreme where you try to get rid of either the rationality or the affective component is not going to lead to a good result, because it’s incomplete.”
I’m very happy to hear you say that, because that’s the kind of encompassing attitude that good minds have to have. Any extreme where you try to get rid of either the rationality or the affective component is not going to lead to a good result, because it’s incomplete. Nature has provided us with all these possibilities, so why not make the best use of them?
On the orgiastic power of social admiration.
Rufus: In the book, you talk about what our feelings tell us about other people. You say that betrayal can feel like a stab wound, and that social admiration can be orgasmic—which makes me think that I need to experience more social admiration.
It’s so interesting that if we polled people on the street and asked them to tell us about the most powerful feelings they have ever felt, most people would respond that those feelings were in relation to other people. At the risk of oversharing, during my sophomore year of college, I was dumped by my first love. And I remember lying on the floor of the shower, crying until I could cry no more. I was completely useless. I was unable to focus. I couldn’t do anything for two weeks.
“If we polled people on the street and asked them to tell us about the most powerful feelings they have ever felt, most people would respond that those feelings were in relation to other people.”
Antonio: Oh boy. That’s a long time!
Rufus: Apparently my body felt that my future potential as a procreator was at risk. But I think some of us remember moments in childhood when you felt rejected by a group of friends, and you felt devastated. Another word would be gutted, right? I find it very interesting that our feelings about other people are sometimes more powerful than our desire to eat. The best explanation I could come up with, with my armchair interest in this, is that in our ancestral environment, rejection by the group could be fatal. Whereas today, when some kids at a school cafeteria don’t let another child sit at their table, that child might feel utterly gutted, but their life is not threatened. Even so, our bodies and brains still allocate huge importance to those social signals.
Antonio: And of course, our setting is very different. The social structures and those events have great significance, but they tend not to be fatal. However, there are still plenty of people alive today who are in social situations where rejection can be fatal. We’re the lucky ones because we’re very privileged, but at the same time, it has also given us a huge opportunity to appreciate the positive sides of social relations. This happens with friendships, and it happens with admiration—for instance, for great figures in art.
“The social structures and those events have great significance, but they tend not to be fatal.”
Music is an especially great example. Whether it’s figures in classical music or jazz or popular music, some of these people have become gigantic icons. And that’s because there’s a very direct way in which we emote positively out of what they produce. If you really want to talk about orgiastic stuff, that’s a good way to go. You have to go to the world of music because that’s where you’ll find great responses.
Rufus: It might be a little late for me, Antonio, to have a future as a rock star. But I agree with you—based on what I can see, that is a powerful experience. Although many powerful experiences, when repeated, become less powerful.
Rufus: Rock stars don’t always sustain that orgastic experience of public affirmation.
Antonio: On the other hand, classical musicians do. They have very good staying power.
Rufus: Yes, that’s probably the better choice—although probably still a long shot for me.
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