Can the mind be located in the brain?

Since Descartes' Error (Odile Jacob, 1995), the world-renowned neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has argued for the primordial role of emotions and feelings in cognitive processes. In an interview with about the release of his latest book The Strange Order of Things (2017), Damasio, who directs the Brain and Creativity Institute (Los Angeles), offers us the keys to his theory on the emergence and functioning of the mind.

Antonio Damasio is convinced that the mind is not purely cerebral, but also bodily, because “it is not only a product of the brain but also of its interaction with the body." Here's a quantifiable example (among others): if you placed all of the vessels that supply blood to our neurons end to end, they would form a 400 mile chain! According to the neuroscientist, our brain is the result of the evolution of the nervous system, whose first beginnings date back 500 million years. Before becoming the coordinator of our bodies, the first networks of nervous fibers provided a basic form of perception for the immediate environment or a means of food assimilation in the digestive tract. Thus, our intestine, often referred to as our second brain, would have in fact been the first to appear. According to A. Damasio: “Remembering our beginnings helps us to put things into perspective: the nervous system and the brain that it eventually became were initially and above all the body's servants; they weren't there to “think,” but today we have a tendency to all too quickly reduce them to this function. ”

Within this framework of thinking, feeling are considered to be “mental perceptions of the internal state of the body and the emotions that modify it constantly.” All of us have experienced this at some time, as for example when fear makes our face contract and our heartbeat accelerate. On the other hand, feelings (which come later) are an exclusively mental phenomenon; and thus appear only in the most advanced species. Damasio believes they are the assistants of homeostasis, i.e. "all of the vital processes allowing an organism to work for its self-preservation." In this way, feelings offer a constant source of new information; they report on our body's internal state. Misery or suffering can thus be considered as warnings that something is wrong.

The brain and body jointly produce what we call the mind. So if you want to physically locate consciousness, you can’t just focus on the “top of the pyramid” (the cortex), but also (and especially) on "the base, which is rooted in the body" (the cerebellum, the brainstem, the hypothalamus, the spinal cord, etc.). Hence the neuroscientist’s skepticism towards what we call "Strong Artificial Intelligence." According to him, it’s not going to supplant the human mind any time soon; consciousness requires feelings and a living body regulated by homeostasis, something robots don't have.

Or don’t have yet?
Source: Antonio Damasio: “Je ne crois pas à des ordinateurs doués de conscience” [“I don’t believe in computers endowed with consciousness”], interview by Yann Verdo for Les, 12-01-2017


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