Episode 44: Antonio Damasio on Feelings, Thoughts, and the Evolution of Humanity

April 29, 2019 | , ,

When we talk about the mind, we are constantly talking about consciousness and cognition. Antonio Damasio wants us to talk about our feelings. But it’s not in an effort to be more touchy-feely; Damasio, one of the world’s leading neuroscientists, believes that feelings generated by the body are a crucial part of how we achieve and maintain homeostasis, which in turn is a key driver in understanding who we are. His most recent book, The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures, is an ambitious attempt to trace the role of feelings and our biological impulses in the origin of life, the nature of consciousness, and our flourishing as social, cultural beings.

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Antonio Damasio received his M.D. and Ph.D. from the University of Lisbon, Portugal. He is currently University Professor, David Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience, Professor of Psychology, Professor of Philosophy, and (along with his wife and frequent collaborator, Prof. Hanna Damasio) Director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. He is also an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine, and the European Academy of Sciences and Arts. Among his numerous awards are the Grawemeyer Award, the Honda Prize, the Prince of Asturias Award in Science and Technology, and the Beaumont Medal from the American Medical Association.

7 thoughts on “Episode 44: Antonio Damasio on Feelings, Thoughts, and the Evolution of Humanity”

  1. Had read “The Strange Order of Things” prior and it is indeed a great book. Enjoyed this discussion, and found the distinction between Damasio’s “feelings” and “emotions” (actions) useful.

    Very interesting, seemingly throwaway comment on how the the idea that “feelings” can perhaps shed light onto why certain religious sentiments have such a longstanding hold on humanity. For example, Christianity, like all compelling religions, stirs some significant emotions: fear, of eternal damnation; joy, at the deliverance of Christ; sadness and self-effacement, at one’s own iniquity and shortcomings; loneliness and alienation, when considering the situation of Christ abandoned on the cross; social jubilation in the company of other believers (in-group/out-group dynamics); etc. Per James Wathey, the other sense triggered by this and other religions may be the feeling of being protected and accepted by an all-powerful parental figure. It would be interesting to see if further research can tease apart such connections in a formal way.

  2. Sean:

    Thank you for this interesting interview with Damasio. He is a highly respected figure in neurobiology and his contributions cannot be overestimated, Nevertheless, I had to make a great effort to keep myself from yelling at my ipod. He indeed has created an elaborate castle of words, the scientific significance of which, however, is doubtful.

    Fortunately, I did not have to yell and wake up my sleeping wife because you asked the crucial question “What would Karl Popper say?” Too bad that you never pressed the point though. Popper would have asked “Where is a falsifiable hypothesis?” as he demanded of Freud and Einstein. No doubt Damasio’s theory, like Freud’s can explain a lot after the fact, but without a testable hypothesis that can be proved wrong, it is not “scientific.”

    In your introduction you pointed out that Dr Damasio is Professor of Psychology, Philosophy and Neurology. I must assume that he was talking as a Philosopher, rather than a Psychologist. I can live with that. Perhaps he does not think of Psychology as a science, but I do.

    Bill McKim

  3. Fátima Pereira

    Grande admiração por este Senhor, António Damásio!
    Muito interessante o desenvolvimento do diálogo!
    A minha ação/emocao de ler este artigo, produziu-me um sentimento de felicidade!
    Interessante a sua perspetiva, de sentimento homeostatico!
    Obrigada, Sean Carroll e António Damásio!

  4. Wright Forbucks

    I began listening to Mindscape because a squirrel, or something similar, got into the ducting in my new Toyota Camry and destroyed the connection between my radio and its antenna – not kidding. I have since forgiven the squirrel because I now understand such a random act is the nature of nature. I often wonder about the way things are, so I’ve greatly enjoyed many of Sean’s podcasts. To date, the conversation with Dr. Damasio was my favorite. Many interesting points were made during this conversation about the integration of the body and mind. Very thought provoking. Thanks much.

  5. Great episode, thanks! You remarked: “On Twitter recently I said that we won’t ever get true human-level artificial intelligence until computers can be bored.” For what it’s worth I wrote an AI system in 2001 that had boredom. I’m sure I wasn’t the first.


    This is so frustrating. How come you agreed unquestioningly with his response that feelings are necessary to explain behaviour? The hard problem of consciousness–as applied to evolution– is that you dont need the feelings to explain the movement of the atoms etc (until you get to the problem of who or what is doing the measuring, which is kind of the hard problem in a different form). He is right that feelings explain behaviour, and the physicists are right that quanta, atoms, and molecules etc. do. But that is why the hard problem of consciousness is such a real (and hard) problem: because no can explain why BOTH explanations work.

  7. Pingback: Wasafiri’s May Reading (and Listening) List! - Wasafiri Consulting

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Sean Carroll hosts conversations with the world's most interesting thinkers. Science, society, philosophy, culture, arts, and ideas.

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