A neuroscientist explains why striving for efficiency is a bad idea

Killing yourself to be efficient "will make you do very irrational things," says neuroscientist Antonio Damasio

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published December 5, 2021 7:30PM (EST)

One lit light bulb among many unlit lightbulbs (Getty Images/Rulles)
One lit light bulb among many unlit lightbulbs (Getty Images/Rulles)

In a data-driven world, Antonio Damasio is one of our best advocates for the power of emotion. In his research and in his popular books like "Descartes' Error" and "Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain," the Portuguese neuroscientist accomplishes the neat feat of making a rational case for feeling.

As he says in "Descartes' Error": "Feelings, along with the emotions they come from, are not a luxury." Rather, they guide our understanding and our decision-making, which is why minimizing or suppressing them can lead to poorer choices and behavior. Despite what the Vulcans may believe, feelings, it turns out, are a very logical thing to have.

It makes sense, then, that Damasio's latest book is one created out of personal desire — the author's interest in creating a "smaller" kind of book. "Feeling & Knowing: Making Minds Conscious" is at once minimalist and complex, a slender volume that ponders, among other things, the evolution of feelings and the nature of consciousness. And as with all of Damasio's work, it is beautiful, thought provoking, instructive and affirming.

Salon spoke to Damasio via Zoom recently about "Feeling & Knowing," his poetic influences and why human intelligence is a "monstrous" thing.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I'm going to tell you, this is a challenging one. There are a lot of concepts that I had to really try and work my brain around.

It's interesting. Sometimes you make things complicated by having a lot of pages. In this one, I had this idea that I wanted to do a haiku of my recent work, and that's what I tried to do. It's very compact. It looks very simple, but in the end, it's not as simple as it appears.

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I was noticing the way that you reference poetry in it. You reference Dickinson and Auden, and it's clear that you're going for something stylistically as well as academically. What was the impetus for trying this new way of communicating, as you said, only the things you really wanted to tell?

It's a mixture of issues. One was personal. I had the impression that very often when I explained things in previous books that were complicated, sometimes people would say, "I wish I could have understood that differently." There was a desire to simplify, and to make more crystal clear. To just go at the essentials. At some point, my editor Dan Frank, who has worked with me on previous books, said, "It would be so wonderful if you would just do the summary of your recent work and in a brief book. Instead of being 400 pages or 350 pages, it would be 200 pages and no references."

I said, "I will not do a book without references, but I will do a book that is smaller." And that's how we ended up with the book that you have today. Books are very much a part of my life, and I'm happy that I've been able to write a few books that have been very well received by the public and now translated in every conceivable language. But at the same time, that's not my whole life at all, only a part of my life. My life is really the life of a researcher.

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What I do most of the time is think about problems, either by myself or with colleagues that are also investigators. The science is actually the main part. And I obviously wanted to have in this book several things that would be the most recent science. So in a way it's a recapitulation of previous work, but enriched by ideas that are very recent. There are some ideas in the book that have appeared in papers that were published just months ago.

Who do you see this as being written for? I recently interviewed the author of "The Embodied Mind," Thomas Verny. I interviewed Steven Pinker about rationality. There is this groundswell right now about talking about thinking, talking about consciousness and talking about feeling.

It's a conversation that I've been interested in and I have been in a way, provoking or being part of for many years. When I wrote "Descartes' Error," which I think is 1994, I wanted to help engender a conversation that was at that point much smaller because there were fewer people involved. So it's being part of the conversation, but at the same time, being a a summary today of where I am in these ideas. The good thing that I can tell you is that as I have just reread the book, to be ready to answer questions about it. And I shouldn't say this, but I actually liked it. At the same time, I was looking at all the things that I have already made progress on and so thinking about the next article. And so it is already work that is bubbling up, and that will continue the story that is in feeling and knowing.

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The message that I got here is the case for a truly deep, semantic understanding of these concepts. To say it's important for us to recognize when we're not on the same page when we're talking about the mind, when we're talking about consciousness, when we're talking about imagination and feeling and emotion. These words are so weighted and so personal, yet they have definitions, they have meaning. And they mean something very specific when you're talking about the neuroscience now.

I think we have fundamentally have a tremendous development in the world of biology in general, and within the world of the biology of mind and the biology connected to the nervous system. More and more, I see myself as biologist and not as a neuroscientist. The idea that the way to understand mind or to understand consciousness is through the study of the nervous system alone, is false. I don't think that's the way to do it. I think that you need to approach it from a biological, much wider point of view.

This dovetails with the idea that what we have as consciousness, for example, as feeling, is not about what's going on in the brain. It's actually much more about what is going on in the living body. That's the key. The key to what's for you and for me is what is going on in life at this moment. And that's in our living body, with all its complicated processes of regulation that are necessary to maintain it alive in terms so that we can be alive in an hour or in a year. The nervous system has a huge role in that, and it really has decisive contributions to help with that survival and continuation. But it's not the critical element. It's important, but it's an element that came very late in the history of all these biological developments.

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You explore this in a way that challenges us as humans to look to these other forms of life to understand what they can teach us about consciousness, about feeling, perceiving and understanding that we're not so very different from those other creatures.

We are more complicated, we are much more evolved, but in the end the fundamentals are the same. The most fundamental of the fundamentals is life, is the fact that there's this very special thing and it's called being alive. When you are alive, you're not alive diffusely, you're alive in a body with a perimeter, with a limit. Within that body, they are interesting things that are happening to make that life possible and to make it continue.

The analogy that you use of the recipe was very helpful. You can read a recipe and you can understand and you can project and you can imagine, but it's not the same as this experiential thing. You still can't taste the dish, you still can't feel it.

That's right. If people think that reading a recipe is the same thing as eating, they're for a big surprise because it's not. I think people constantly confuse recipes with a thing. Algorithms allow you to do certain things, but they're not the things that you're interested in.

That's the deep philosophical work here — what is the thing? What is the experience? Is it my perception of the experience? Is it the sharing of the experience? Is it the embodiment of the experience? Is it the consciousness of it? Is it the memory of it? Is the imagining of it? It's tricky to nail those concepts down because they mean different things to different people.

Your work is always circling back to this idea of feeling, what feeling and emotion mean and the role that they play. There's the idea that rationality is the highest expression of our humanity. You keep making the argument why it's much more complicated than that.

It's a little bit how you carve the problem for a specific purpose or audience. Look, rationality is something that did come after we had life regulatory systems. I sympathize with the idea, especially if you're trying to get your fellow humans to look at problems, not in a passionate way that goes with the moment, but in something that requires greater analysis and calm. So I can perfectly well sympathize with that. And yet in the execution of that attempt at being rational, we are still drawing on things that are very much related to our feelings.

There's absolutely no way that you're going to be a dispassionate decider on a problem. Maybe on a few very trivial instances you could do that. But the majority of cases, your rationality is still bound in its day to day operation to what we are as human beings, in terms of its fundamental regulation. And the passions there are very critical.

I'm perfectly happy to have it both ways, because it depends on what your drive is for. I accept Steven Pinker's idea that rationality is really a great achievement that we have, and it's good to make use of it — which is not always the case. It's not a daily consumption.

A word that you explore is this idea of "efficiency." What does efficiency really mean? You can look at lower life forms that have as you define it, "intelligence," and behave with efficiency. But they're not behaving next with rationality.

Rationality is not the pinnacle of efficiency. However, we equate efficiency with rationality and with intelligence, because we think of efficiency as meaning one particular thing.

That's why it's so important to make these comparisons with different living creatures in different habitats and facing different problems. The problems that the intelligence of a paramecium faces are very different from your problems or mine. It's completely different in the scale of it.

When we talk about our intelligence, well, yes, it's a monstrous, huge thing that allows us to behave in very particular ways, in different circumstances. And yes, there are issues that have to do with efficiency. It's so interesting too, how all of this interdigitates with culture in general, and with what the culture drives us for efficiency and cost cutting in the political parlance of the day. But it doesn't mean that efficiency goes with rationality. In fact, quite all often it can be that the efficiency and striving for efficiency will make you do very irrational things.

And efficiency is not the same as efficacy.

At the end of the book, you talk about hope. It's a recurring theme in your work. And you kind of back up then, saying, this is why we, as rational, feeling, emotional, imaginative humans with creatures with memories can still hope. Yet it's very hard for us to feel hope right now. How do we apply the hope and the optimism that you talk about in what we are doing and whatever disciplines we're bringing our experiences to and our consciousness to?

It's one thing to have hope, but then there are other things that go wrong. It's difficult. What's so interesting is that it's a constant struggle. You can be hopeful for example, for your own work. You can be hopeful that idea will have a positive effect on somebody else. But then things change. That's the other theme, is that we're not for very long exactly the same people in exactly the same circumstance. Things are constantly changing, that's the nature of the beast. So when you ask me, how do you see this operating? Well, it varies. There are times in which it can be fantastic, and it can be extremely happy with what is happening around you and what's happening to your work, how you see the world going. Then immediately comes something that destroys that, and then you need to start again. It's a little bit Sisyphus, over and over.

It's interesting, making me think about something. The value of discussing these concepts, making these distinctions, is exactly to make you face the continuation of life in slightly different ways. Being a little bit more complex and complete about how you formulate our problems. And they're huge, you know?

When you look at what has happened in the pandemic in these two years, it's really extraordinary the awfulness of the thing. But then there's the ability to respond to it in a way that we had not responded to any prior pandemic, with the development of vaccines so rapidly, with the development of efficient tests. Then at the same time, there's another loss, the lost opportunity to really take care of this radically and have to face the people that opt to die instead of being treated. It's quite strange, when you look ay the world right now.

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By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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