Antonio Damasio




Dr. Antonio Damasio, the Van Allen Professor and Head of Neurology at the University of Iowa, and Adjunct Professor at the Salk Institute, has had a major influence on our understanding of the neural basis of decision-making, emotion, language and memory, decision-making and consciousness. He elucidates critical problems in the fundamental neuroscience of mind and behavior, at the level of large-scale systems in humans, although his investigations have also encompassed parkinsonism, and Alzheimer's disease. The laboratories that he and Hanna Damasio (a distinguished neurologist who is independently recognized for her achievements in neuroimaging and neuroanatomy) have created at the University of Iowa are a leading center for the investigation of cognition using both the lesion method and functional imaging.

Dr. Damasio is a graduate of the University of Lisbon Medical School. He is a member of the Institute of Medicine, of the National Academy of Sciences; a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; a member of the Neurosciences Research Program; a Fellow of the American Academy of Neurology; a member of the American Neurological Association, and of the Association of American Physicians. He has received numerous scientific prizes and delivered some of the most prestigious lectures here and in Europe.

His book Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain (1994) is taught in universities worldwide. His new book The Feeling of What Happens: Body, Emotion, and the Making of Consciousness, is published by Harcourt Brace, and has received several awards.



Damasio, A. R. (2000). The feeling of what happens: Body and emotion in the making of consciousness. NY: Harcourt Brace.

Damasio A. R., Grabowski T. J., Bechara A., Damasio, H, Ponto L. L. B., Parvizi J., Hichwa R. D. (2000). Subcortical and cortical brain activity during the feeling of self-generated emotions. Nature Neuroscience, 3, 1049-1056.

Bechara A., Damasio H., Tranel D., Damasio A. R. (1997). Deciding advantageously before knowing the advantageous strategy. Science, 275, 1293-1294.

Damasio A.R. (1996). The somatic marker hypothesis and the possible functions of the prefrontal cortex. Proceedings of The Royal Society, 351, 1413-1420.

Damasio A. R. (1994). Descartes' error: Emotion, reason and the human brain, NY: Grosset/Putnam.


The Harvard Brain, Volume 8 [Spring 2001]

An Interview with Antonio R. Damasio



Antonio R. Damasio is the M.W. Van Allen Distinguished Professor and Head of the Department of Neurology at the University of Iowa College of Medicine and Adjunct Professor at the Salk Insitute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California.  He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine. He is also the author of Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, and more recently, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness.

Last fall, Professor Damasio lectured on the neuroscience of affect, consciousness, and social behavior as part of the Mind, Brain, and Behavior Distinguished Lecture Series Program and graciously agreed to an interview with The Harvard Brain.

Interview conducted by Conor Liston.

The Harvard Brain: Professor Damasio, the last decade has witnessed many attempts to address the problem of consciousness from a variety of perspectives ranging from that of the philsopher to the neuroscientist. For much of the twentieth century, however, consciousness was often considered taboo in scientific circles. In your opinion, what factors have favored this resurgence of interest in the study of consciousness?

Antonio Damasio: The resurgence is due to the maturity of the sciences of brain and mind. There are new techniques that permit the effective study of the neural substrates of mind processing and help produce new findings.  In parallel, there are new theoretical developments prompted by the new findings. The combination allows for effective formulation and testing of hypotheses.

THB: Since the publication of The Feeling of What Happens two years ago, what progress has been made in the biological study of consciousness?   Has any of this work reinforced your claims in The Feeling of What Happens? Has anything forced you to reconsider some of those claims?

AD: Since the publication of The Feeling of What Happens a number of results have surfaced that give additional support to the hypotheses developed in the book.  For example, we have been able to show that emotional feelings do involve body maps in the brain, and it is also clear that brain components which we postulated to be involved in consciousness, namely, in the brainstem and in the cingulate cortex, show altered functional states during experimental changes of consciousness-for example, during pharmacological manipulations leading to general anesthesia. In general, the attitudes towards the notion of self have become somewhat more accepting. Overall many of these findings have reinforced our propositions and so far no finding has made us reconsider what we had suggested.

THB: What avenues of research are currently being pursued in this burgeoning field, and what, in your opinion, are some of the most promising avenues for the further study of consciousness in the near future?

AD: At the moment the great challenge for any individual laboratory is to select from the wealth of problems that can be studied and the wealth of techniques available for studies.  It is not possible to study every aspect of a problem, even with an army of investigators. One must choose. In our laboratory we are concentrating on issues that have to do with the processes of emotion and feeling, because we regard them as key to understanding numerous aspects of the mind and behavior, in health and disease, and because they are key to the elucidation of consciousness.   We are pursuing work in neurological patients and nonpatients as well, and using diverse techniques that include functional imaging, psychophysiology, and experimental neuroanatomy.  We are also interested in the neurochemical aspect of brain systems related to emotion and some of the investigators in our lab are involved in research along those lines, focusing on the problem of drug addiction.

In the near future, recent developments in genomics and proteomics will have an impact on the sciences of brain and mind and allow us to study how different molecules interfere with the development and operation of neurons and circuits.

THB: In The Feeling of What Happens, you mention that you have been interested in the problem of consciousness since your medical school days.  How did you ultimately conceive of the central themes in The Feeling of What Happens?

AD: The themes in The Feeling of What Happens developed gradually and are secondary to developments in my understanding of the neurobiology of emotion and feeling, and, to a certain extent, my understanding of memory, language, and decision-making.  Some findings along the way, both from neurological observations and from hypothesis-driven experiments, may have appeared all of a sudden, and even unexpectedly, but the majority of the ideas developed gradually, or so it seems to me.

THB: Finally, what advice can you offer to students interested in pursuing a career in neuroscience in the twenty-first century?

AD: My advice for anyone beginning a career in neuroscience early in the twenty-first century is to consider this simple fact:  what we really want to understand, the relation between brain systems and complex cognition and behavior, can only be explained satisfactorily by a comprehensive blend of theories and facts related to all the levels of organization of the nervous system, from molecules, and cells and circuits, to large-scale systems and physical and social environments.  For almost any problem that is worth one's interest, theory and evidence from all of these levels are, in one way or another, relevant to the understanding of physiology or pathology.  Since none of us can possibly practice or dominate knowledge across all of those levels, it follows that one must practice one or two very well, and be very humble about considering the rest, that is, evidence from those other levels that you do not practice.  In other words, beware of explanations that rely on data from one single level, whatever the level may be.


Between the Lines

Interview with Antonio Damasio

Looking for Spinoza
Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain
Antonio Damasio



Completing the trilogy that began with Descartes' Error and continued with The Feeling of What Happens, noted neuroscientist Antonio Damasio now focuses the full force of his research and wisdom on emotions. He shows how joy and sorrow are cornerstones of our survival. As he investigates the cerebral mechanisms behind emotions and feelings, Damasio argues that the internal regulatory processes not only preserve life within ourselves, but they create, motivate, and even shape our greatest cultural accomplishments.


Antonio R. Damasiois the Van Allen Professor and head of the department of neurology at the University of Iowa Medical Center and is an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute in San Diego. DESCARTES' ERROR was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and has been translated into twenty-three languages. His most recent book, THE FEELING OF WHAT HAPPENS, was a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice, a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year, a Library Journal Best Book of the Year, and has eighteen foreign editions. He lives in Iowa City and Chicago.


Q: Much of the work you have done in the lab and with your previous books explored the role that emotions play in decision-making and in the construction of the self. In your new book, LOOKING FOR SPINOZA you seem to be presenting a progress report on our understanding of the nature and significance of feelings. What is new here? What have you found out?

A: Neuroscience is advancing at a fast pace. As of four years ago, when my last book was published, we had a reasonable hypothesis regarding the brain basis for feeling, but no certainties. Now, we can speak with confidence about "what feelings are" - where they come from, how they happen, what they are made of biologically. That is why the book's subtitle is the "feeling brain." We have identified brain areas and brain pathways necessary to feel emotions. Armed with the new knowledge we can even venture to say what feelings are for. The new knowledge broadens our view of human nature. We can not really know who we are if we do not understand the brain mechanisms behind emotion and feeling - what causes emotions, what leads to feelings, how they affect our decisions, social behavior, and creativity, and where they fit in evolution.

Q: What value does understanding the difference between emotions and feelings have?

A: Understanding the difference between emotions and feelings removed a barrier to research on the nature of affect, and opened the way to elucidating the origin and content of feelings.

Q: Are there neurobiological foundations for Ethics?

A: Yes there are. One of the payoffs of the new understanding of emotions and feelings is the realization that moral behavior does not begin with humans. In certain circumstances numerous non-human species behave in ways that are, for all intents and purposes, comparable to the moral ways of human beings. Interestingly, the moral behaviors are emotional -compassion, shame, indignation, dominant pride or submission. As in the case of culture, the contribution of everything that is learned and created in a group plays a major role in shaping moral behaviors. Only humans can codify and refine rules of moral behavior. Animals can behave in moral-like ways, but only humans have ethics and write laws and design justice systems. Animals can show attachment to others but as I discuss in the book only humans love in the proper sense of the term.

Q: Why bring Spinoza in to this?

A: Because Spinoza prefigured in a remarkable way some of the ideas on emotion, feelings, and ethics that are now taking shape as a result of modern neuroscience (Spinoza's views on the mind body problem are especially modern). Also because Spinoza's uncanny foreshadowing of modern views on biology and mind have not been recognized by contemporary science and deserve to be so. Finally, as I studied Spinoza with the purpose of giving him his due, I became intrigued by the person and the times, and both found their way into the book.

Q: Are there any case studies that illuminate your argument?

A: There are many such cases. For example, children who suffer brain injury in certain regions of the frontal lobe in their first year years of life develop major defects of social behavior in spite of being otherwise intelligent. They do not exhibit social emotions (compassion, shame, guilt) and they never learn social conventions and ethical rules.

Q: Is it possible to locate the spiritual in the human organism?

A: It is indeed. The spiritual is a special feeling state and, as other feelings states, it can be traced to the particular operations of several brain and body regions. We might say that the spiritual is the ultimate state of well-beingthere is a maximal ease, harmony, and balance of organism functions. Spiritual states are most conducive to survival.

Q: People who have read Looking for Spinoza were surprised to find it hopeful. Do you think it is hopeful?

A: The book does have a message of hope. This may be unexpected, given the bleakness of today's headlines, but I believe it is justified. The message emerges naturally from several sources. For example, I am suggesting that knowing about the workings of mind and brain can help us deal more effectively with the social problems we face today. Part of our failures in the past may well be due to underestimating the positive and negative power of emotions. On a purely practical level, the new knowledge will also let us develop new medications to cure causes of human suffering such as pain and depression. No less importantly, perhaps, the book shows how Spinoza, alone and marginalized, was able to achieve happiness by cultivating curiosity, knowledge, and goodness of character.






© IFB  June 2005
All rights reserved. Print (also in extracts) only with approval of the IFB.