Skip to main content

Antonio Damasio, Part I

Front Cover

Damasio is the head of the Department of Neurology at the University of Iowa College of Medicine.

He's made something of a reputation in philosophical circles for his writings on mind/body issues, starting with Descartes' Error (1994).

The title of that 1994 book suggests the thesis: that any separation of mind from body (and concomitantly, any separation of intellectual judgment from emotional reaction) is erroneous. Damasio hypothesized that rationality requires emotional input.

In part this was a development of the James-Lange theory of the emotions.  That theory, you will recall, is this: our body instinctively reacts to a situation (by blushing, for example).  The emotion we feel (embarrassment) is not the reason for the blushing. A sensory stimulus of some sort is the reason for the blushing. The emotion is a consequence of the bodily reaction.

Damasio said that James was "well ahead of both his time and ours" in this respect, and that he had "seized upon the mechanism essential to the understanding of emotion and feeling."

Damasio saw emotions as James did, while also inserting them into a broader picture of a feedback loop. If I feel embarrassed as a consequence of a blush, and I blushed because I opened a door when I shouldn't have, then I've learned to keep that door closed in analogous situations in the future. That is a perhaps overly simple example (and I am to blame for that example, neither James nor Damasio highlighted blushing -- I should feel embarrassed to learn it misrepresents either of them).  But it is an example of something important to Damasio, something he called the "cognitive guidance role" of emotions, and thus of instinctive bodily responses.

I'll say something more about Damasio tomorrow, when I'll move on to another of his books, The Feeling of What Happens (1999).


  1. Under the James-Lange theory, you write, "our body instinctively reacts to a situation (by blushing, for example." What does "instinctively" mean here? I doubt that you mean genetically programmed to blush in certain situations, because these situations seem to be culturally determined. In some cultures, opening a door and seeing your mother, say, in the nude, would cause blushing, whereas in others in would not. Thus, I think that by "instinctively" you mean merely "unconsciously."

    Now, why would we unconsciously blush in certain situations but not in others? According to the James-Lange theory, it is not because we feel embarrassed. Therefore, we must have learned so well that certain situations "should" embarrass us that they do so "instinctively," before we become conscious of the fact that they should. Our embarrassment, that is, must be Pavlovian. That is why we blush before we become aware that we are embarrassed.

    I have not studied the James-Lange theory. What I have written here is solely my attempt to think its implications through logically. Have I gotten it right?

    1. Perhaps some instinctive reactions are genetically programmed--fear of sudden loud noises or fear of large objects (such as predatory animals) charging at you, for example.

  2. Henry,

    Thanks for this. I should have said we react reflexively. Our reflexes are of course open to conditioning, and it is interesting that James' psychologizing was contemporaneous to Pavlov's. The dogs do NOT (a) see the meat, (b) feel hunger, and then (c) salivate. The salivation is a reflex. (Perhaps the dogs sense that he is salivating and THEN feels hunger, though behaviorists would reject the idea because they programmatically want to ignore subjectivity altogether. The rest of us can entertain the idea that there is an a-c-b sequence.)

    And of course the reflexes can be conditioned, as Pavlov dramatically showed with his bells. And that gets us back to the social nature of embarrassment.

  3. "Perhaps the dogs sense that THEY ARE salivating and then FEEL hunger ..." I should have written!

  4. You seem to be saying that I did get it right. Next question: How widely accepted is the James-Lange theory today? Does it have serious opposition among respected psychologists? If so, what do they claim?

  5. I believe the consensus among scientists working on the nature of the emotions today is that the issue is a very complicated one, that the James-Lange theory has some truth in it, but that it is less than the full story. Part of the problem with it in unaltered form is that people who have serious spinal injuries, people in Christopher Reece's post-accident situation, still report emotional responses. On the other hand, they ALSO report a weakening of their emotional responses over time, after the accident. And that supports James-Lange, although it requires modification. HOW to modify it seems to be a fertile theoretical question, but "more a jungle than a garden" as one historian of the field has written.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

A Story About Coleridge

This is a quote from a memoir by Dorothy Wordsworth, reflecting on a trip she took with two famous poets, her brother, William Wordsworth, and their similarly gifted companion, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

We sat upon a bench, placed for the sake of one of these views, whence we looked down upon the waterfall, and over the open country ... A lady and gentleman, more expeditious tourists than ourselves, came to the spot; they left us at the seat, and we found them again at another station above the Falls. Coleridge, who is always good-natured enough to enter into conversation with anybody whom he meets in his way, began to talk with the gentleman, who observed that it was a majestic waterfall. Coleridge was delighted with the accuracy of the epithet, particularly as he had been settling in his own mind the precise meaning of the words grand, majestic, sublime, etc., and had discussed the subject with William at some length the day before. “Yes, sir,” says Coleridge, “it is a majestic wate…

Cancer Breakthrough

Hopeful news in recent days about an old and dear desideratum: a cure for cancer. Or at least for a cancer, and a nasty one at that.

The news comes about because investors in GlaxoSmithKline are greedy for profits, and has already inspired a bit of deregulation to boot. 

The FDA has paved the road for a speedy review of a new BCMA drug for multiple myeloma, essentially cancer of the bone marrow. This means that the US govt has removed some of the hurdles that would otherwise (by decision of the same govt) face a company trying to proceed with these trials expeditiously. 

This has been done because the Phase I clinical trial results have been very promising. The report I've seen indicates that details of these results will be shared with the world on Dec. 11 at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology. 

The European Medicines Agency has also given priority treatment to the drug in question. 

GSK's website identifies the drug at issue as "GSK2857916," althou…

Hume's Cutlery

David Hume is renowned for two pieces of cutlery, the guillotine and the fork.

Hume's guillotine is the sharp cut he makes between "is" statements and "ought" statements, to make the point that the former never ground the latter.

His "fork" is the division between what later came to be called "analytic" and "synthetic" statements, with the ominous observation that any books containing statements that cannot be assigned to one or the other prong should be burnt.

Actually, I should acknowledge that there is some dispute as to how well or poorly the dichotomy Hume outlines really maps onto the analytic/synthetic dichotomy. Some writers maintain that Hume meant something quite different and has been hijacked. Personally, I've never seen the alleged difference however hard they've worked to point it out to me.

The guillotine makes for a more dramatic graphic than a mere fork, hence the bit of clip art above.

I'm curious whe…