Creative MindsJanuary 1, 2005
Damasios join faculty
By Nicole St. Pierre
When it comes to creativity, USC College has the market cornered.
In fall 2005, Antonio and Hanna Damasio, two eminent neuroscientists, will join USC as professors of psychology and neuroscience where they will lead a new institute devoted to the study of the brain and human creativity.
Scholars have long researched how creativity can be taught and nurtured, but the Damasios have expanded the definition of “creative” to include some unexpected concepts.
“Creativity is not just about the creation of an art object, or a piece of music, or a film, or the creation of a scientific project, but also about the creation of social relations and of cultural institutions,” says Antonio Damasio. “People rarely associate these latter areas with creativity, but anytime we produce something new, be it an architectural drawing, classroom curriculum, or a new approach to a business problem, the creative process is at work.”
Studying things like economics, education and governance from a neurobiological perspective has rarely been done. But pioneering something new, be it a concept, a research finding, or another best-seller, is what the Damasios are known for.
Their professional careers have been steeped in creative moments. A distinguished physician, Antonio Damasio’s research on the neurobiology of the mind has had a major influence on our current understanding of the neural systems that underlie emotion, memory, language, decision-making and consciousness. His work has shown that emotions play a central role in human decision-making. His books on the mind include Descartes' Error; The Feeling of What Happens; and Looking for Spinoza. They are widely read by the lay public as well as by scientists.
Through basic research, medical case studies and philosophical analysis, he has investigated the biological roots of consciousness and helped to reveal its role in survival. His work has spanned many fields and includes studies of Alzheimer’s and other human diseases.
And there’s his equally creative wife Hanna Damasio, a neurologist and neuroscientist acclaimed for developing new brain imaging techniques and imaging methods in the study of brain lesions. She is the author of the first atlas of the brain based on computerized images, Human Brain Anatomy in Computerized Image. A second edition is due for release in early 2005. Her award-winning book Lesion Analysis in Neuropsychology is widely used in brain imaging work.
They come to USC College from the University of Iowa College of Medicine, where Hanna Damasio, Distinguished Professor of Neurology, directed the Laboratory for Human Neuroanatomy and Neuroimaging and developed a prominent research center dedicated to the investigation of language and other aspects of behavior and cognition.
"The Damasios’ vision, scientific leadership and breadth of knowledge in modern neurobiology will allow us to ask and answer new questions about the human mind and behavior," says Joseph Aoun, dean of the College. “They will be vital catalysts in our quest to unlock the mysteries of the mind and to better understand higher brain functions, including creativity, learning, memory, consciousness and language."
Both Damasios are members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; he is a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, the Neurosciences Research Program and the European Academy of Arts and Sciences. Individually and together they have received numerous scientific awards.
“USC College has the sort of vibrant academic environment where one can dream of brain science and the humanities coming together to produce a better future,” says Antonio Damasio, who will direct the USC Institute for the Study of the Brain and Creativity.
The interdisciplinary institute will examine how knowledge from modern neurobiology can contribute to the elucidation of the creative process and how such knowledge can assist individuals and institutions in the betterment of human affairs—namely through the resolution of human conflict and through education.
The core of the institute is a laboratory focused on mind and behavior. Hanna Damasio will direct the laboratory and work closely with the USC Dana and David Dornsife Cognitive Neuroscience Imaging Center, which she will co-direct.
"The new brain imaging methods offer unprecedented possibilities for the study of human nature,”she says. “But for those studies to succeed neuroscience must form partnerships with, for example, the social sciences, engineering, and psychology. The structure and faculty of USC are ideal for such collaborations.”
The institute will approach three themes from a neurobiological perspective.
By looking at the broad topic of governance, scientists will examine how social emotions contribute to the understanding of economic, business and political institutions, including their ethical dimensions in the age of globalization.
The theme of artistic and scientific creativity will analyze the creative process that goes into the production of films, music, literature, the visual arts and architecture. By approaching this area from a neuroscience standpoint, the Damasios may look at why some people are more creative in certain areas than in others.
Under the theme of education, scientists will investigate how neuroscience can be applied to improve the way classroom curriculum is designed. By studying the learning process from a neurobiological perspective, they may gleam new insights that teachers can then adapt to their educational technique and curriculum.
“The possibilities for exploration are practically limitless,” says Antonio Damasio.
Adds Dean Aoun, "Because the study of the mind and human behavior does not fall within the domain of a single discipline, scholars from across the USC campus, from neurobiology, cognitive neuroscience, and the schools of cinema, education and communication, will be actively involved in this cutting-edge area of research that has important societal implications.”
Both Damasios are graduates of the University of Lisbon Medical School and adjunct professors at the Salk Institute in La Jolla. They join USC as part of the College’s Senior Faculty Hiring Initiative, a drive to bring 100 senior level scholars to USC. Just two years after announcing the bold initiative, the College has recruited 55 senior scholars to campus.
“This highly interdisciplinary approach to brain science will no doubt lead to extraordinary discoveries,” says Aoun.