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Damasio studied medicine at the University of Lisbon Medical School, where he also did his neurological residency and completed his doctorate. For part of his studies, he researched behavioral neurology under the supervision of Norman Geschwind of the Aphasia Research Center in Boston.
Damasio's main field is neurobiology, especially the neural systems which underlie emotion, decision-making, memory, language and consciousness. Damasio might believe that emotions play a critical role in high-level cognition--an idea counter to dominant 20th-century views in psychology, neuroscience and philosophy.
Damasio in 2008.
Damasio formulated the somatic marker hypothesis, a theory about how emotions and their biological underpinnings are involved in decision-making (both positively and negatively, and often non-consciously). Emotions provide the scaffolding for the construction of social cognition and are required for the self processes which undergird consciousness. "Damasio provides a contemporary scientific validation of the linkage between feelings and the body by highlighting the connection between mind and nerve cells ... this personalized embodiment of mind."
The somatic marker hypothesis has inspired many neuroscience experiments carried out in laboratories in the U.S. and Europe, and has had a major impact in contemporary science and philosophy. Damasio has been named by the Institute for Scientific Information as one of the most highly cited researchers in the past decade. Current work on the biology of moral decisions, neuro-economics, social communication, and drug-addiction, has been strongly influenced by Damasio's hypothesis.An article published in the Archives of Scientific Psychology in 2014 named Damasio one of the 100 most eminent psychologist of the modern era. (Diener et al. Archives of Scientific Psychology, 2014, 2, 20-32). The June-July issue of Sciences Humaines included Damasio in its list of 50 key thinkers in the human sciences of the past two centuries.
Damasio also proposed that emotions are part of homeostatic regulation and are rooted in reward/punishment mechanisms. He recovered William James' perspective on feelings as a read-out of body states, but expanded it with an "as-if-body-loop" device which allows for the substrate of feelings to be simulated rather than actual (foreshadowing the simulation process later uncovered by mirror neurons). He demonstrated experimentally that the insular cortex is a critical platform for feelings, a finding that has been widely replicated, and he uncovered cortical and subcortical induction sites for human emotions, e.g. in ventromedial prefrontal cortex and amygdala. He also demonstrated that while the insular cortex plays a major role in feelings, it is not necessary for feelings to occur, suggesting that brain stem structures play a basic role in the feeling process.
He has continued to investigate the neural basis of feelings and demonstrated that although the insular cortex is a major substrate for this process it is not exclusive, suggesting that brain stem nuclei are critical platforms as well. He regards feelings as the necessary foundation of sentience.
In another development, Damasio proposed that the cortical architecture on which learning and recall depend involves multiple, hierarchically organized loops of axonal projections that converge on certain nodes out of which projections diverge to the points of origin of convergence (the convergence-divergence zones). This architecture is applicable to the understanding of memory processes and of aspects of consciousness related to the access of mental contents.
Damasio's books deal with the relationship between emotions and their brain substrates. His 1994 book, Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, won the Science et Vie prize, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and is translated in over 30 languages. It is regarded as one of the most influential books of the past two decades. His second book, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, was named as one of the ten best books of 2001 by the New York Times Book Review, a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year, a Library Journal Best Book of the Year, and has over 30 foreign editions. Damasio's Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, was published in 2003. In it, Damasio suggested that Spinoza's thinking foreshadowed discoveries in biology and neuroscience views on the mind-body problem and that Spinoza was a protobiologist. Damasio's latest book is Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. In it Damasio suggests that the self is the key to conscious minds and that feelings, from the kind he designates as primordial to the well-known feelings of emotion, are the basic elements in the construction of the protoself and core self. The book received the Corinne International Book Prize.
In 2013, the Escola Secundária António Damásio was dedicated in Lisbon.
He says he writes in the belief that "scientific knowledge can be a pillar to help humans endure and prevail."
He is married to Hanna Damasio, a prominent neuroscientist and frequent collaborator and co-author, who is a professor of neuroscience at the University of Southern California and the director of the Dornsife Neuroimaging Center.
In 2017 he was designated member of the Council of State of Portugal, replacing Antonio Guterres, the 9th Secretary-General of the United Nations.
Damasio AR. (1996). "The somatic marker hypothesis and the possible functions of the prefrontal cortex". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 351 (1346): 1413-1420. doi:10.1098/rstb.1996.0125. PMID8941953.
Bechara A, Damasio AR, Damasio H, Anderson S (1994). "Insensitivity to future consequences following damage to human prefrontal cortex". Cognition. 50 (1-3): 7-15. doi:10.1016/0010-0277(94)90018-3. PMID8039375.
Adolphs R, Tranel D, Damasio AR (1994). "Impaired recognition of emotion in facial expressions following bilateral damage to the human amygdala". Nature. 372 (6507): 669-672. doi:10.1038/372669a0. PMID7990957.
Damasio AR. (1989). "Time-locked multiregional retroactivation: A systems level proposal for the neural substrates of recall and recognition". Cognition. 33 (1-2): 25-62. doi:10.1016/0010-0277(89)90005-X. PMID2691184.
Tranel D, Damasio A (1985). "Knowledge without awareness: An autonomic index of facial recognition by prosopagnosics". Science. 228 (21): 1453-1454. doi:10.1126/science.4012303.
Hyman B, Van Hoesen GW, Damasio A, Barnes C (1984). "Alzheimer's disease: Cell-specific pathology isolates the hippocampal formation". Science. 225 (4667): 1168-1170. doi:10.1126/science.6474172. PMID6474172.
Anderson SW, Bechara A, Damasio H, Tranel D, Damasio AR (1999). "Impairment of social and moral behaviour related to early damage in human prefrontal cortex". Nature Neuroscience. 2 (11): 1032-1037. doi:10.1038/14833. PMID10526345.
^Damasio AR. "The somatic marker hypothesis and the possible functions of the pre-frontal cortex". Transactions of the Royal Society. (London) 351:1413-1420. 1996.
^Lara Trout. The Politics of Survival (2010). p. 74.
^Damasio AR, Grabowski TJ, Bechara A, Damasio H, Ponto LLB, Parvizi J, Hichwa RD. Subcortical and cortical brain activity during the feeling of self-generated emotions" Nature Neuroscience 3:1049-1056. 2000