António Damásio on a Neurobiological Perspective of Social Events

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In his address during Re-Imagine Europa’s Annual Forum at Palais d’Egmont, Professor António Damásio reflected on the birth of consciousness and how the distinction between feelings and emotions is crucial to understand the evolution of humankind and its behaviour in society.

António Damásio stated that, due to the consecutive challenges and crises citizens must face, a considerable number of latent conflicts and ruptures continue to emerge. This is true regarding the individual, its social and political environment, and the expression of its moral behaviour. The latter presents two tendencies, a more traditional/conservative one and another more modern/individualist, which can coexist in society. Still, these tendencies have been exacerbated in recent years, fuelled by a trend of negativity, especially on social media.

Professor António Damásio considers that, when it comes to the origins of these ruptures, it is important to turn to Biology and understand the impact of evolution, the origins of consciousness and the distinction between feelings and emotions. Our human evolution has always been guided by “life necessities that were well organized in neural systems through the presence of feelings and emotions“. The fulfilment of these “life necessities”, and the coexistence and interpenetration of mind and living organisms led to the birth of consciousness.

Feelings like anger, fear, hunger and well-being were crucial to the development of consciousness, argued Professor Damásio. Nevertheless, he warns about the importance of distinguishing between feelings and emotions. Feelings are private and constant; every living organism’s mind is full of them, yet they cannot be seen or heard. In contrast, emotions are public and come later than feelings in evolution because emotions are the physical and external representation of feelings.

According to Damásio, the birth of consciousness and the evolution of feelings and emotions is a fundamental piece to the social and political analysis because when individuals organize themselves socially and politically, they are copying and reproducing the same processes they underwent during their evolution. In short, we are still “trying to find, by trial and error, ways in which we could live better, whether individually or in a group”. “This is what distinguishes us from Artificial Intelligence. AI has a lack of vulnerability“, stated Professor Damásio.

Individuals are living organisms that include non-conscious operational components and components conquered by consciousness, coexisting in a balanced way and working collectively to achieve the same goal, the maintenance of a life process.
To understand the current crisis of lack of trust and even its development, it is fruitful to use both a biological and a political/historical approach, argued Damásio. A balance between these two approaches must be conquered because biology clarifies the processes guiding individuals’ minds and their relationship with the external environment and with society is clarified by a political/historical approach.

There are things that you cannot understand by using biology alone, and there are things that you will never be able to understand by using only these historical/political approaches because you are lacking the foundation“, concluded Professor António Damásio.