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Antonio Damasio, Part I

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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.


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