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A Legacy of Behavioralism in the Neurology of Emotion

Siri Hustvedt:  Antonio, I’m interested in the fact that you started working on emotion in neuroscience before it was a very popular thing to do.  I think the legacy of behaviorism has something to do with that and how did it happen?  How did you start working on emotion, long ago now?

Antonio Damasio:  That is a very interesting story and it happened largely because of a set of observations in patients curiously with prefrontal damage, patients that we came to realize resembled a lot a very famous, but incompletely studied patient in the history of neuroscience known as Phineas Gage. And the fact that after studying those patients in great detail we could not explain their failures of decision making and their completely disrupted social life in terms of impaired intellect, impaired language, impaired memory and something else needed to figure into the explanation and that something else offered itself very clearly to us, had to do with emotion. And that is when we said "Well, it’s obvious that a very strong hypothesis for why these people fail so miserably in real life, real time when if you put them in the laboratory and you ask them the question of what would you do they turn out to be so normal is that there is something in the execution that is very strongly influenced by emotion or by the lack thereof." And something that was very clear is that these patients were no longer normal in terms of their emotions.  Their emotions were attenuated—that’s to say the least.

And there was alt something else, is that there were certain emotions of what we call the social variety of emotions such as compassion, guilt, embarrassment, shame.  Those emotions seemed to be lacking, so there was a very, very specific impairment of a range of emotions known as social emotions and at the same time this attenuation of emotions in general, so we turned to that—meaning me and my wife Hannah and the people that were working with us—and people were extremely negative and we’re talking about late '80s, early '90s and people said, “Why on earth are you doing this? Everybody knows what needs to be known about emotion has been done. Everybody knows. You seem to like William James. Everybody knows William James was wrong, which was incredibly pathetic and you’re doing so well with language and memory. You’re going off the deep end.” 

You know, I remember actually presenting my first paper on somatic marker hypothesis at the Society of Neuroscience, and there was one person in the first row that just shook his head and said, “How can this poor guy be so wrong?”  You know, “Why is he doing this?”  Anyway, we did it and we had the only other colleague...  Well there were several people that were interested in emotion, but not in a very prominent way.  You know someone like [...] who was very interested in emotions both in animals and in humans and there was somebody studying emotions in animals—that was Joe LeDoux—and he was doing beautiful work that had to do with fear and the amygdala. And it is very interesting because we actually organized in 1995 the first symposium on emotion at the Society for Neuroscience.  They had never had a symposium on the neuroscience of emotion.

Siri Hustvedt:  Well it is extraordinary.

Antonio Damasio:  It’s extraordinary and we organized this first symposium, so it’s very interesting.  This was one year after I published "Descartes’ Error" and at that time people were sort of warming up more to the idea and of course as you know it has become extremely popular.

Siri Hustvedt:  It’s a huge field now.

Antonio Damasio:  It’s a huge field.  It’s a huge field in neuroscience and everybody talks about it and then of course there was the impact of the studies of emotion on the studies of moral behavior and social behavior in general.  The impact in economics; because of course something that is very interesting is that these patients who had all these problems with social behavior and with their emotions and their decisions were very poor at decisions in the area of finances for example and they made a complete mess of their lives.

Siri Hustvedt:  They seemed to lack the ability to project themselves into the future in order to plan well and that is so closely related to the psychiatric disorder of psychopathy that this is fascinating.  So you know there has to be a neural relation between these two illnesses.

Antonio Damasio:  Absolutely, yeah, yeah and of course the big difference here is that for example most of our patients, one might even say practically all of our patients, turned out not to be psychopathic in the criminal sense. Of course we’re talking about patients who had normal development and who grew up until say age 30, 40, 50 as entirely normal human beings, productive members of society and so on.

Siri Hustvedt:  And then they have a brain lesion.

Antonio Damasio:  And then they have a brain lesion.  Now what this…  And they normally don’t have criminal behavior.  They’re generally not violent and other such and they don’t get into problems with the law.  However, we have since discovered and this is now one of the main themes of our work at the Brain Creativity Institute that if you have this damage early on, if you have this damage in your first years of life...

Siri Hustvedt:  Yes, I read that paper.

Antonio Damasio:  That story is completely different and what happens is that people will become in fact in some cases indistinguishable from psychopaths, and they will never learn the moral system.  You know, people try to inculcate that moral system and they don’t learn it. And we think that the lack of emotion is extremely critical there—and this by the way is very interesting because it’s different from most of the consequences of early lesions on the human brain.  For example, if you have a lesion at let’s say age three in language areas the brain will compensate for that and you will end up being a normal speaker of your native language and you can learn languages and you will have some linguistic deficiency. You will not become Siri the novelist, but you will speak normally and nobody will think that you are an idiot.  If you have something in your visual system you also have these kinds of compensations.  You go to the prefrontal cortex and you damage emotion and then you have something that stays there forever and that is not compensated. So it probably is indicating that these systems are very old and relatively singular and not duplicated and there is much less possibility of compensation because you have only... basically only one system serving the entire...

Siri Hustvedt:  This whole spectrum.

Antonio Damasio:  This whole spectrum.  Exactly, whereas, with language you have this…  You know it’s very interesting because the older the functions like say emotion or aspects of consciousness the more the operators in the brain are near the midline.  They’re near the midline.  They sort of look... They look at each other like they’re looking you know across the way to another building and they’re very, very close to the midline and that is of course where you would want them in terms of evolution because these are very old systems that were necessary for life regulation.  Once you start going towards the more evolved functions, say language, certain aspects of memory, vision, then you go into the outer aspects of the hemispheres and the structures are separate in the left and in the right hemisphere and, of course, they link functionally, but if you damage one you have some very good hope that the other side will compensate in part at least.

Siri Hustvedt:  So the question, which is very interesting, is that in people who develop psychopathy who do not have a lesion, is there some kind of even speculative developmental hypothesis about early traumatic experience possibly or simply a failure to develop?

Antonio Damasio:  There is an infinity of possibilities, which is why it is so difficult to research, but, for example, there is could be genetic defects that would influence the development of an area.  There can be lots of things that can happen in intra-uterine life or that happened at the time of birth, and that can be very easily missed because there is no patent defect at the beginning. And in fact, one thing that we know now that we’re studying for example, premature babies, which are more and more frequent as you know, in our society.  We find that there are numerous small lesions that can be missed and nobody will notice them, but now of course with scans that can be done more invasively like magnetic resonance scanning and that in fact can be done in pregnant...

Siri Hustvedt:  You’re able to see them yeah, in utero, I know, yes, yes, yes.  This is a new thing.  This is great.

Antonio Damasio:  You can look at the fetus development.  Now we see that there are things happening that may probably be the telltale event that precedes these later developments. And then of course there are many other little lesions that can occur later and there is not much doubt that for example if you take a prison population in our country.  Unfortunately we have plenty to pick from.  We think that as you study these populations with proper systematic scanning there is a much larger number of lesions than one could have imagined, so in fact, we’re dealing with a mixture of pathologies and then of course when you think about all the social pathologies... that are independent in the brain and have to with poverty and with society and education. 

Recorded July 2, 2010

Neurologists learned about how emotion originates in the brain from people like Phineas Gage, who had a spike driven into his head. By learning about the specific impairment of a range of emotions, scientists learned the origins of how brains feel things.

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