Antonio Damasio

Nobel Conference 50
Oct. 7 & 8, 2014

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, MD, PhD – University Professor and David Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience and director of the Brain and Creativity Institute, University of Southern California, Los Angeles; adjunct professor, Salk Institute for Biological Studies, San Diego

Antonio Damasio, MD, PhD, is a neuroscientist who has performed pioneering work examining the biology of feelings and emotions. Often in collaboration with his wife, neuroanatomist Hanna Damasio, MD, he has used lesion studies (the testing of subjects who have sustained brain damage from injury or disease) and functional neuroimaging (mapping of brain activity in patients or healthy subjects) to probe the roles of embodied feelings in decision-making, consciousness, and the development of a self.

Even though neuroscientists have been aware of the dead ends of dualistic thinking (mind vs. body, reason vs. emotion), the neural systems underlying feelings and emotions were little explored for many years. These functions were treated as fully distinct from and less important than cognitive functions such as memory, language, and problem-solving. Dr. Damasio challenged that separation with the somatic marker hypothesis, which arose from his studies of patients whose intellect was sound by multiple measures but had brain lesions that diminished their emotions. These patients exhibited impaired decision-making, particularly when those decisions were complex, when their outcomes were uncertain, and when they needed to be made quickly. They also didn’t develop anticipatory skin conductance responses, physiological signs of stress that healthy subjects exhibited as they considered risky decisions. Damasio hypothesized that “marker” signals in the body and the brain’s representation of the body become associated with previously experienced situations. Rather than a distraction from reasoning, feelings—the mental experiences of marker signals—are integrated into decision-making and often aid in making correct decisions. He introduced this hypothesis to the general public in the book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, and explained it to a Nobel Conference audience in 1994. Since then, Damasio has developed models of how consciousness and selfhood are brought about by the activity of neurons and other cells of the body, including the generation of feelings.

Damasio earned his MD at the University of Lisbon Medical School (1969) and his PhD at the University of Lisbon (1974). He directed the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at the University of Iowa, and is now the David Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience and director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. He is a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the European Academy of Sciences and Arts. Author of many scientific articles, Damasio has also written several books, including Descartes’ Error, which was an international bestseller and nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. His most recent book is Self Comes to Mind, which was awarded a Corine International Book Prize.