Monday, April 2, 2007

Antonio Damasio: Possessor of Profound Understanding of Human Cognition

This weeks post is inspired by the University of Southern California’s honorary degree award. I will discuss who I think should be the next recipient of this prestigious prize. I have chosen a deserving individual in my field of study. Psychology has an array of different fields, therefore, narrowing the candidates down to a single person is a very difficult task. Yet, there is a remarkable psychologist who has made incredible innovative contributions to the field.. He is an internationally famous neuroscientist and a neurologist. He is a brilliant professor, head of USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute, author of a best selling book, and publisher of many well known papers, he is Antonio Damasio.

Antonio Damasio is a pioneer in the study of emotion. It is due to Damasio’s research that scientist have come to understand all concepts of the subject. He has conducted extensive work on the nature of the conscious and thoughts, and has been successful in discovering patterns that link consciousness to the brain and an individuals underlying emotions. Damasio says that; “‘thinking’ is done by patterns of nerve cell activation”, which means that people do not have much control over what they think, many thoughts are unconscious. His work, thus, contributes to all fields of study, as there are only small percentages of people who suffer from disorders in which emotions are not felt. His work can help the lawyer, teacher, dentist, social worker or architect, understand more about the emotions they feel and their everyday thoughts.

Damasio’s work is very original, in the past many felt that emotions were innate and therefore, took no interest in the study. However, Damasio developed a theory about their origin and has been persistent in finding answers and patterns that help explain where and how they are initiated. Bruce G Charlton, wrote in a review of Damasio’s "The Feeling of What Happens"; “he achieved the long sought-after integration of emotions into mainstream explanatory schema of cognitive neuroscience; so we can now understand emotions in exactly the same way we understand vision.” His book has been translated in over 30 languages and was nominated for numerous awards. Damasio has found patterns between the external world and internal brain activity, which he calls, cognitive representations. This is amazing information, it implies that mental psychological disorders can possibly be cured by examining patterns in never cell activity.

There are numerous talented and deserving psychologists, yet Damasio is especially deserving of the honorary degree because his research has rendered many encouraging and remarkable data that apply to all people, not just certain subgroups. His work on emotions has been linked to consciousness, thought, and intelligence. Damasio states that; “contrary to some popular notions, emotions do not ‘get in the way’ of rational thinking, instead emotions are essential to rationality.” Every field, every person strives to maintain rationality, it is not always easy to be rational, and some fields are very stressful, which leads to the experience of psychological turmoil. Hence, Damasio’s research is essential for the prevention of overwhelming emotions that interfere with the pursuit of successful career paths.

USC has a renowned psychology program and Damasio’s work is exceptionally influential. Damasio is currently a professor in the University and has received many grants to conduct his research. He has done numerous case studies of reasoning in people with neurological damage, people that do not register emotions the same way others do. For instance, their response to a fearful stimulus undergoes a different process than that experienced by the normal person. His work has been very successful and helps the department of psychology in USC gain additional recognition. For this, Antonio Damasio should be honored and present the opening speech to the upcoming graduating class.

Damasio has a extensive range of knowledge and can use his expertise in the area of emotions to provide the graduating students with advice that will help them succeed in future endeavors. Being that he is a professor he has contact with college students and is completely aware of what they are experiencing. Graduation brings many contradicting emotions. While it is a joyous occasion it is also a stressful one, as the future becomes more real. Damasio knows exactly how emotions are created and caused, therefore, he is the perfect candidate to address the students, calm their nerve-racking sentiments and provide motivation.


Dr. Mezmer said...

To rephrase the philosopher Santayana, those who don't remember the experiments of the past are condemned to repeat them. Thus I give you:

Neal Miller’s Somatic Marker

In 1935, the psychologist and learning theorist Neal Miller conducted the following experiment.

To human subjects he presented in unpredictable order the symbols T (followed by electric shock) and 4 (not followed by shock). The shock was followed by a large galvanic response (GSR) that was soon conditioned not only by seeing the symbol T, but by anticipating it. From this and subsequent experiments Miller concluded that organisms should "behave 'foresightfully' because fear (i.e. anxiety), would be mediated by cues from a distinctive anticipatory goal response." Miller further concluded that the 'learned drive' of fear or anxiety, as marked by the GSR, obeys the same laws as do overt responses".

In other words anticipatory somatic changes mediate not choice, but avoidance, and may be described fully by learning principles.

Compare this experiment to the IGT experiment, where an individual again is confronted with a succession of symbols (in this case, markings on a card), and with unpredictable aversive consequences and similar changes in an equivalent somatic measure, the SCR. In this case the unpredicted aversive consequences were large negative card values occurring from time to time. If it is assumed that unexpected 'bad information' is painful as well, then both experiments assume equivalence.

The difference between both experiments is not in their structure, which are more or less equivalent, but rather in the interpretation of the role of the galvanic skin response as a dependent measure. Specifically, the GSR for the Miller experiment correlated with a subjective response that was interpreted as anxiety or fear. For Damasio, the subjective response to arousal as marked by the SCR was subtler, or a mildly or non aversive ‘gut feeling’. In other words, if one assumes that the level of arousal was higher for Miller’s subjects than Damasio’s, the level of arousal could lead to distinctly different interpretations as to the role of arousal. Thus, it is easy to see how Miller assumed that tension based arousal (or anxiety) mediated avoidance, and why Damasio assumed that arousal mediated choice. In other words, if turning a bad card in the IGT experiment signified not a loss of play money but a loss of real money or a painful shock, then avoidance and not choice would have been a more likely interpretation.

So we are left with the original question: what is the role of autonomic arousal? If arousal is dependent upon learning, as both Miller and Damasio hold, what is its function: avoidance, choice, or some mixture of the two that is dependent upon the level of arousal?

One way to ascertain the role of avoidance is to simply examine whether elevated autonomic arousal occurs under response contingencies that either eliminate the ability to avoid or obviate the need to avoid. If results under a response contingency are all bad and unavoidable, then we have Seligman’s learned helplessness, and if all results are good and thus create no need to avoid, then we have Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘flow’ response. Both are marked by low autonomic arousal as marked by a reduction in SCR and a corresponding lack of reported tension, anxiety, or fear. Thus it may be construed that avoidance is an essential function of autonomic arousal. This of course does not directly challenge Damasio’s position, but raises the avoidance hypothesis front and center as an alternative explanation for his findings.


Miller, N. E. (1971) Selected Papers, Atherton, Chicago


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