LeadU presents Damasio

LeaderW@RE

The Feeling of What Happens

Adapted from Antonio Damasio 2003 Lecture

Listen to Audio Clip Reviewing The Process

An Interview with Antonio R. Damasio

http://www.hcs.harvard.edu/~husn/BRAIN/vol8-spring2001/damasio.htm

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 Institute 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.

The following is an 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 philosopher 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 non-patients as well, and using diverse techniques that include functional imaging, psychophysiology, and experimental neuro-anatomy. 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.



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