Antonio Damasio MD, PhD (1944 to present)

Antonio Damasio giving a talk at the Universidade de Sao Paulo, in Brazil in 2013.

Photo credit: Fronteiras do Pensamento – This file has been extracted from another file: Antonio Damasio no Fronteiras do Pensamento Porto Alegre 2013 original file, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50130700

 

 

Antonio Damasio is a Portuguese-American neuroscientist who is currently the David Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience, Psychology and Philosophy at the University of Southern California, and an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute. Damasio heads the Brain and Creativity Institute, and has authored several books including, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain (2010), which explores the relationship between the brain and consciousness. His most recent book, about to be released in February 2018 is The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures. Damasio’s research in neuroscience has shown that emotions play a central role in social cognition and decision-making. Damasio continues his quest for a theory of human consciousness, in his latest book he links feelings and culture with homeostasis and evolution. His ideas are exciting, his explanations tend to be abstract, as might be expected when describing consciousness. He writes that “the constructions that inhabit our minds can well be imagined as ephemeral musical performances, played by several hidden orchestras.“ Attempting to explain “the biological underpinnings of the human cultural mind,“ Damasio begins with the Cambrian unicellular organism and shows how the mapping of internal and external images led to the development of nervous systems, which in turn laid the groundwork for verbal language, consciousness, subjectivity, and feeling. Damasio posits that feelings in humans “arose from a series of gradual, body-related processes accumulated and maintained over evolution.“ He then explores the biological roots of culture, particularly the role homeostasis played in generating behavioral strategies. Damasio extends his thinking on homeostasis to the shaping of moral codes and the emergence of religious and political systems, and even to the internet and what he dubs “the current crisis of the human condition.“ Wide in scope, Damasio’s book contains moments of genius but feels like a work in progress. As expected from a scientist whose life has been dedicated to a constant search for difficult solutions.

 

Damasio studied medicine at the University of Lisbon Medical School, where he also did his neurological residency and completed his doctorate. For part of his studies, he researched behavioral neurology under the supervision of Norman Geschwind of the Aphasia Research Center in Boston. Damasio’s main field is neurobiology, especially the neural systems which underlie emotion, decision-making, memory, language and consciousness. Damasio believes that emotions play a critical role in high-level cognition – an idea counter to dominant views in psychology, neuroscience and philosophy. Damasio formulated the somatic marker hypothesis, a theory about how emotions and their biological underpinnings are involved in decision-making (both positively and negatively, and often non-consciously). Emotions provide the scaffolding for the construction of social cognition and are required for the self processes which undergird consciousness. “Damasio provides a contemporary scientific validation of the linkage between feelings and the body by highlighting the connection between mind and nerve cells, this personalized embodiment of mind.“

 

The somatic marker hypothesis has inspired many neuroscience experiments carried out in laboratories in the U.S. and Europe, and has had a major impact in contemporary science and philosophy. Damasio has been named by the Institute for Scientific Information as one of the most highly cited researchers in the past decade. Current work on the biology of moral decisions, neuro-economics, social communication, and drug-addiction, has been strongly influenced by Damasio’s hypothesis. An article published in the Archives of Scientific Psychology in 2014 named Damasio one of the 100 most eminent psychologist of the modern era. (Diener et al. Archives of Scientific Psychology, 2014, 2, 20-32). The June-July issue of Sciences Humaines included Damasio in its list of 50 key thinkers in the human sciences of the past two centuries.

 

Damasio also proposed that emotions are part of homeostatic regulation and are rooted in reward/punishment mechanisms. He recovered William James’ perspective on feelings as a read-out of body states, but expanded it with an “as-if-body-loop“ device which allows for the substrate of feelings to be simulated rather than actual (foreshadowing the simulation process later uncovered by mirror neurons). He demonstrated experimentally that the insular cortex is a critical platform for feelings, a finding that has been widely replicated, and he uncovered cortical and subcortical induction sites for human emotions, e.g. in ventromedial prefrontal cortex and amygdala. He also demonstrated that while the insular cortex plays a major role in feelings, it is not necessary for feelings to occur, suggesting that brain stem structures play a basic role in the feeling process. He has continued to investigate the neural basis of feelings and demonstrated that although the insular cortex is a major substrate for this process it is not exclusive, suggesting that brain stem nuclei are critical platforms as well. He regards feelings as the necessary foundation of sentience.

 

In another development, Damasio proposed that the cortical architecture on which learning and recall depend involves multiple, hierarchically organized loops of axonal projections that converge on certain nodes out of which projections diverge to the points of origin of convergence (the convergence-divergence zones). This architecture is applicable to the understanding of memory processes and of aspects of consciousness related to the access of mental contents. In The Feeling of What Happens, Damasio laid the foundations of the “enchainment of precedences“: “the nonconscious neural signaling of an individual organism begets the proto-self which permits core self and core consciousness, which allow for an autobiographical self, which permits extended consciousness. At the end of the chain, extended consciousness permits conscience.

 

Damasio’s research depended significantly on establishing the modern human lesion method, an enterprise made possible by Hanna Damasio’s structural neuroimaging/neuroanatomy work complemented by experimental neuroanatomy (with Gary Van Hoesen and Josef Parvizi), experimental neuropsychology (with Antoine Bechara, Ralph Adolphs, and Dan Tranel) and functional neuroimaging (with Kaspar Meyer, Jonas Kaplan, and Mary Helen Immordino-Yang). The experimental neuroanatomy work with Van Hoesen and Bradley Hyman led to the discovery of the disconnection of the hippocampus caused by neurofibrillary tangles in the entorhinal cortex of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Damasio’s books deal with the relationship between emotions and their brain substrates. His 1994 book, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, won the Science et Vie prize, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and is translated in over 30 languages. It is regarded as one of the most influential books of the past two decades. His second book, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, was named as one of the ten best books of 2001 by the New York Times Book Review, a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year, a Library Journal Best Book of the Year, and has over 30 foreign editions. Damasio’s Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, was published in 2003. In it, Damasio suggested that Spinoza’s thinking foreshadowed discoveries in biology and neuroscience views on the mind-body problem and that Spinoza was a proto-biologist. In Damasio’s book, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. Damasio suggests that the self is the key to conscious minds and that feelings, from the kind he designates as primordial to the well-known feelings of emotion, are the basic elements in the construction of the proto-self and core self. The book received the Corinne International Book Prize.

 

Damasio is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine, the European Academy of Sciences and Arts. He is the recipient of several prizes, amongst them the Grawemeyer Award, the Honda Prize, the Prince of Asturias Award in Science and Technology and the Beaumont Medal from the American Medical Association, as well as honorary degrees from, most recently, the Sorbonne (Universit? Paris Descartes), shared with his wife Hanna Damasio. He has also received doctorates from the Universities of Aachen, Copenhagen, Leiden, Barcelona, Coimbra, Leuven and numerous others. In 2013, the Escola Secundaria Antonio Damasio was dedicated in Lisbon. He says he writes in the belief that “scientific knowledge can be a pillar to help humans endure and prevail.“ Damasio additionally serves on the board of directors of the Berggruen Institute, and sits on the jury for the Berggruen Prize for Philosophy.

 

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