How Neuroscience Helps Us to Understand Human Nature

(Editor’s note: The following is a lecture given by Antonio Damasio to the 4th International Brain Education Conference held at the United Nations. The audience was captivated by his provocative insight into the brain, and how it affects our lives and culture. His lecture has been edited for length and was published in Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

António Damásio Photo: Phil Channiing

I am delighted to be amongst so many people who believe that it is possible to change human behavior by acting on the main agent of that behavior, which is the brain, and to bring about a change that will make human beings better, happier, more satisfied, and contributing more to culture.

The area that I come from is that of neurology and neuroscience. My work is about trying to understand how the brain works. My hope is that some of the neuroscience that is taking place right now will help those of you who teach, and those of you who want to make each individual and the world as a whole better than they are today.

When you think about neuroscience, which is a collection of activities that allow you to understand how the brain works, especially in relation to the mind, it’s traditional to think of it in terms of its application in neurology, neurosurgery, and psychiatry.

What we have learned about the brain has allowed us to diagnose and manage neurological diseases. Neurosurgery helps many people that have conditions that would otherwise be intractable. The field of psychiatry, which deals with how the brain operates in mental illness, has made great progress. All you need to think is about strokes, Alzheimer’s disease, and depression to realize that neuroscience has a fundamental role to play in medicine.

What has only been happening quite recently is that neuroscience can have a role in our culture. Neuroscience also talks about the fields of economics, moral behavior, politics, aesthetics, and education.

There’s a whole new area of neuroscience that is approaching the issues and hopefully some of the solutions that have to do with how we live as members of a society. It is that new development that I’m going to be talking about today.

Most of what we know now from neuroscience that has an impact on society and culture actually comes from understanding human emotions, decision-making, and processes of consciousness. Am I going to tell you anything that you can transfer directly and practically into some kind of change in your life? I really don’t know. It’s up to you to discover it if there is such a possibility.

One thing that is for certain is that sooner or later, much of the progress that is being made in neuroscience will have an impact on daily life, either through what one does, eats, how one changes one’s life, or through medications.

Why such an interest in neuroscience now? Well, Largely for two reasons. One, there is a revolution going on in biology and two, there is an enormous rise in cognitive neuroscience.

The revolution in biology goes all the way back to 150 years ago and what has been learned since the days of Darwin. We now have a very clear idea of the structure of DNA. DNA is a fundamental element in the transmission of traits through genes. We know about the genetic code. We even know how it operates through molecular genetics and we have a fairly good idea of how the human genome is organized.

At the same time we have something very interesting happening in neuroscience: a hybrid of psychology and of large-scale systems neuroscience. New disciplines with funny names like experimental neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, neuropsychology, and last but not least, human neuroimaging, which has allowed us to have a clear view of the human brain in living individuals.

For any of you to remember me speaking about the brain, you need to have a combination of information about my face, my name, the ideas that I talked about, and the fact that these were all happening at the same time. To bring all this together is a very complicated task because they are happening in different parts of the brain.

For example, how I look is actually being processed by your visual cortex. How I sound is being processed by the auditory cortex, but the auditory cortex is over here [touches sides of head] not here [touches back of head]. And the ideas that I am talking about are being processed by a variety of other areas in the brain. How do you pull this together?

Well, you pull this together by having signals that have to do with all the different parts come into an area that allows you to make a memory of the fact that certain things in certain parts of the brain were active at the same time. This area, by itself, does not have the memory of what is happening right now, but it does have the possibility of locking in certain memories in different parts of the brain, creating a master code that will allow you to go into these different parts of the brain and reactivate it, which is what you do when you recall.

This is so complicated in fact that it is a miracle that it works. It’s really a tribute to the marvel of the nervous system.

It also explains why so very often when you recall things, you don’t recall them perfectly. That’s why witnesses sometimes tell you stories that are not accurate. All of these different things end up being a little bit confused.

I also want to tell you about something that is really very sad and that one can to try to prevent. The entorhinal cortex in patients with Alzheimer’s disease is very atrophic. This is the reason why people with Alzheimer’s disease begin losing the ability to make new memories. For quite a while they maintain the ability to recover old memories, but they can’t build new ones because they have little separate fragments that are not being drawn together in time.

We do not know yet all the reasons that are behind Alzheimer’s disease. Some of the reasons are not in our control. There are some families where the disease is very strong genetically. Some people are going to be affected even if they make all the efforts not to have the disease.

(Editor’s note: The following is a lecture given by Antonio Damasio to the 4th International Brain Education Conference held at the United Nations. His lecture has been edited for length and was published in Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

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