Try to look inside yourself right now.” Antonio Damasio and I are sitting in his office in Iowa City, rows upon rows of academic volumes lining the shelves behind him. He’s talking about the importance of the body in understanding consciousness, and somehow we’ve slipped into what might pass for an impromptu meditation session. I close my eyes. Damasio has a soft voice, almost soothing, which suits the subject matter. “Don’t think about words and ideas,” he says. “Try to concentrate on what you feel. People very often say, ‘I don’t feel my body. I only feel my body if I feel pain.’ But when you try to clear away thoughts about objects and ideas, what you have is this thing that’s always breathing and always has some kind of tone. Maybe you’re very relaxed, or you’re tense, but it’s always there. The only way you can say that you’re tense or feeling fine is because there’s a quality that you can sense.”
Then he smiles. “Otherwise, how would you know?”
Twenty years ago, talking to a neuroscientist about the body’s sense of itself would have seemed off the topic. Neuroscience was the study of the brain, not the body. But Damasio has helped change all that. Best known for his widely read books on the connection between the brain and the body—Descartes’ Error, The Feeling of What Happens, and his latest, Looking for Spinoza—Damasio heads the department of neurology at the University of Iowa, where he has worked with his wife, Hanna Damasio, a neuroanatomist, for nearly 30 years. The rise in Damasio’s fortunes during that time also marks the decline of the computational theory of the brain. Instead of thinking of our minds as glorified computers, his research places a new emphasis on the brain’s emotional architecture—particularly the way the body contributes to emotional experience.
On a number of fronts, Damasio’s career has been connective in nature. In writing books laced with philosophical ruminations and literary references, he has served as an emissary from the brain sciences to the cultural milieu. (The week after I visited him in Iowa City, Damasio was a keynote speaker at a conference with the poet Jorie Graham, a longtime friend from her days at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.) His books have been translated into a dozen languages, and his lecture schedule is epic. He seems as much public intellectual as working scientist. In this sense, Damasio’s career mirrors the evolution of the brain sciences, which no longer focus exclusively on the microscopic tanglings of neurons and have made steady inroads into a number of fields like economics, sociology, literary theory, and political science. For some time now we’ve heard stories about the long arm of genetics and how our growing understanding of DNA and Darwin will transform a wide range of disciplines. But the real cross-disciplinary conquistadores turn out not to be the geneticists after all. It’s neuroscience that has traveled the most widely in the past few years, and it seems on the verge of more migrations.
Perhaps more than anyone, Damasio has dictated the terms of that itinerary, and of late he has a new destination on his mind—one that lies at the frontier of the brain and the body, in the accelerations of modern life. In a society that channels information into our heads at an increasingly rapid pace, can the brain keep up? And what would it mean to live in a society that moves at a faster pace than the brains that created it?
“I am very interested,” Damasio says, “in the notion of speed.”
We’re standing at a crosswalk, waiting for a light to change, just outside the University of Iowa Hospital where Damasio’s lab is located. He’s explaining to me how the normal faculty parking lot—100 feet closer to his office—is being renovated, thus forcing him to park in the visitor’s lot. He feigns outrage as we cross the street. “And so I have to face the indignity of parking . . . here.” He gestures dismissively toward the gates, eyes twinkling to let me in on the joke.
“With all the little people,” I say, shaking my head, playing along.
“Exactly. Can you imagine?”
It’s a typical Damasio moment, sending up his own vaunted image, and it suits his physical presence. He’s well dressed and handsome but also somewhat vertically challenged. The playfulness takes the edge off the legendary intellect, makes you feel comfortable in the room with him, makes you feel like you can poke fun without drawing blood.
A recognition of the importance of our intuitive responses to others, based on body language as much as what they say, lies at the very center of Damasio’s research into the brain. Humans make split-second emotional assessments of situations all the time, assessments that unfold so quickly that we’re usually not aware of the process. But much of Western culture and science since the days of René Descartes, the 17th-century French polymath regarded as the father of modern philosophy, is based on the assumption that when we’re being logical, we’re cutting our emotions out of the loop. This was Descartes’ fundamental error, says Damasio, who argues that emotions turn out to be essential to our rational decision-making processes. If we didn’t have those gut responses, we’d get caught in an endless cycle of analysis, drawing infinite pros-and-cons lists in our heads. For example, I don’t have to stop in the middle of the crosswalk and do a comprehensive survey to determine if Damasio is joking about parking with the commoners; I can instantly tell from his tone and physical carriage that he’s kidding.
Damasio first recognized the importance of emotion in decision making by interacting with patients whose emotional centers had been damaged by strokes, accidents, or tumors. He found that the damage would reliably include at least one of three crucial areas of the brain: a section of the frontal lobes called the ventromedial prefrontal cortices, which are central to both emotional processing and decision making; the somatosensory cortices in the right hemisphere, which interpret information coming from the body; and the amygdala, the almond-shaped area within the temporal lobes that plays a crucial role in emotional response.
“The pattern in all these cases was very similar,” says Damasio. “You had a person who had been doing very well in his or her life—someone who had relationships, friendships, marriage, and a successful career. And then because of a stroke or a tumor, everything changed. And the change took place in the realm of day-to-day decision making, not in the realm of knowledge and skills. They could speak perfectly well. They could deal with the logic of a problem. They could learn new things.” Nonetheless, the lives of these tumor or stroke victims fell apart. Their marriages dissolved, and their careers were reduced to a series of odd jobs and disability checks. Even though they scored in a normal range on all standard measures of intelligence, somehow they couldn’t navigate the branching decision trees of everyday life.