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Scientists seeking answers to some of today’s greatest neuroscience questions may find inspiration in the writings of a 17th century lensmaker and philosopher, according to Antonio Damasio, the head of the Department of Neurology at the University of Iowa.
Damasio discussed his new book, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Human Brain, before an audience of 200 at the Askwith Education Forum at the Graduate School of Education (GSE) last night.
Beginning with a definition of emotion as “the unlearned reaction to objects and events,” Damasio went on to further explain the neurological processes underlying emotion.
Many factors—hormonal imbalances and tragic events, for example—can trigger a series of complex neural reactions in the brain, which induce physical changes and certain behaviors, he said.
But Damasio added that the social aspect of emotion is important as well.
A stimuli may trigger an emotion in one social context but not in another, he said. And some emotions, such as compassion and awe, can only exist in a social framework.
According to Damasio, Spinoza, who is more well-known for his philosophical and religious writings, was thinking about this as early as the 17th century.
“He was thinking [about emotion] as a biologist,” he said, “and connected it to social behavior in a very clear way.”
Damasio said this approach is also valuable for today’s scientists.
“One thing we should do now is study social emotion,” he said. “This is the next step for biologists.”
Damasio complemented his speech with a slide presentation of emotion’s neurological processes. He concluded the slide presentation with a painting by Rembrandt, a painter of Spinoza’s time.
He also discussed the connection between science and ethics.
“Science is morally neutral,” said Damasio, who is also an expert in the classics and contemporary philosophy. “But when you look at [the aspect] of emotion that is social, the neutrality vanishes.”
Damasio, who serves as Van Allen professor at the University of Iown Medical Center and an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute in San Diego, has written two other books on the subject of emotion, Descartes’s Error and The Feeling of What Happens.
“I thought [the lecture] was excellent,” said Renatta N. Knox ’03, who attended the lecture.
“I like how he differentiates between emotions and feelings and how he gave the historical background.”
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