“I think, therefore I am.” 

Many of us are familiar with the Cartesian notion of the thinking nature of consciousness. René Descartes, it turns out, was wrong.

That’s according to António Damásio, a leading neuroscientist in the origin of consciousness. One of the world’s most cited scientists, Damásio has authored several books on his life’s findings, such as “Descartes’ Error.”

On April 17, he spoke on the true nature of consciousness as part of the series, “Celebrating the Carnation Revolution: A Conference in Honor of Eduardo Lourenço,” organized by the UC Santa Barbara Center for Portuguese Studies.  

Consciousness, the recognition of the self and awareness of oneself in one’s surroundings, is a process scholars have long struggled to understand. Because scientists have historically regarded reason as a virtue of value, while viewing emotion as less dignified, people were desperate to believe that consciousness is housed in the brain’s highest form of thinking.

 Damásio argues that this top-to-bottom approach to consciousness cannot uncover its true nature because consciousness actually arises from the opposite direction.  

“Consciousness comes gurgling,” Damásio said, imitating a bubbling stream with his hands, “from something deep in our nature: feeling.”

 I feel, therefore I am.

Damásio speaking at the Fronteiras do Pensamento conference in 2013. WIKIMEDIA.

An everyday cooking experience can illustrate this bottom-top understanding of consciousness. Picture yourself, in the midst of preparing a meal, carelessly grabbing a searing hot baking sheet.

Yowch! The unbearable pain compels you to drop the pan immediately. In less than a second, the hand’s sensory receptors fired a signal to the brain, neurons registered the sensation of pain, and motor neurons carried out the instruction to reduce harm through a behavioral response. The feeling of pain, rather than a thoughtful analysis of it, brought about awareness of the body.

“Feelings are the ambassadors of the state of life in your organism,” Damásio said.  

Sensations such as feeling hot or cold, hunger, thirst, and even heartbreak, bring awareness to the fact that the body has strayed from homeostasis. 

 “Once you notice these things, conscious intervention allows you to make a deliberate decision as to what to do next,” he said. 

 Contrary to the belief of past scholars, consciousness is not attributed entirely to the brain. Rather, it emerges from an intermarriage of the brain and non-neural cells.

 “Consciousness is about experience. It’s internal, and it’s private. You can make guesses about what is going on in somebody’s mind, but you have no authority or capacity to know,” Damásio continued. 

 When you walk out the door on a summer morning, the warmth you receive from the sun and your visual perception of the blue sky tell you, through a qualitative, positive feeling, that it’s a good day. No one knows you’ve reached this conclusion, that is unless you turn to your friend and say, “What a lovely day!” 

Language provides us with the ability to communicate our conscious experience. From here, Damásio revealed how our understanding of consciousness is intrinsically tied to the value of literature.

 At its best, creative writing captures the subtleties of complex human emotion. Good literature externalizes a person’s conscious experience well, providing a vessel from which we can muse over the nuanced human experience. Literature opens us to the understanding that while our individual experience is private, others have experienced it too.

 “Is it the case that literature itself is going to alter the way we are conscious? I would say yes,” Damásio said. In other words, engaging with literature can alter the way we experience the world. 

 Damásio’s top-bottom understanding of consciousness poses implications for our understanding of AI machine limitations like ChatGPT. The chatbot can produce written work—like essays, short stories, and poems—at a moment’s notice, leading some to argue that it can functionally replace human creative writers. As Damásio argues, consciousness arises from feeling, and our ability to feel is intrinsic to the production of literature. How, then, can an unfeeling and unconscious entity actually portray the human experience as it is? It may explain why ChatGPT passed many rigorous exams with flying colors, except for two: English language and literature.

 “Do you need consciousness for language? No,” Damásio said. “But in order to use language consciously, in order to use it creatively, we definitely need to be conscious.”