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Brains and Beauty

The Brain and Creativity Institute directed by Antonio and Hanna Damasio takes on humankind's biggest neuroscientific questions with intellect and an artistic soul.

Yo-Yo Ma plays the cello to a composition by Bruce Adolphe based on a poem by Antonio Damasio. In the background is brain activity imagery produced in Hanna Damasio’s laboratory. Photo credit Hiroyuki Ito/The New York Times/Redux.
Yo-Yo Ma plays the cello to a composition by Bruce Adolphe based on a poem by Antonio Damasio. In the background is brain activity imagery produced in Hanna Damasio’s laboratory. Photo credit Hiroyuki Ito/The New York Times/Redux.

Mind first bloomed quietly
And no one knows when,
Although we know where:
Within a brain that lived within a body.

Sound heady? It should. This is the introduction to a poem written by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio of USC College. Based on his text, composer Bruce Adolphe wrote music for Self Comes to Mind, a three-movement concerto for a cello and nine percussion instruments.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma performed, while swirling images of brain scans produced in Hanna Damasio’s laboratory served as a dramatic, interactive backdrop. A capacity audience of nearly 1,000 praised the performance, which was followed by a colloquium featuring Ma, Adolphe and Antonio Damasio.

The concert in New York City combined text, music and giant images of colorful brain activity to evoke the emergence of human consciousness.

Held at the American Museum of Natural History last May, the concert represented much of what the Brain and Creativity Institute (BCI) stands for, said Damasio, who directs the institute with his wife, Hanna Damasio. Established in 2006, the institute’s research is providing a new look into the functioning of the human brain, uncovering the neurological underpinnings for mental functions — from emotion and decision-making to innovation and creativity.

“We stand at a crossroads of medicine and social sciences,” said Antonio Damasio, David Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience, during an interview. “We take questions posed by individuals and society and try to find biological answers with the help of technology.”

By technology he means tools such as magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI.

“MRI provides us with a window into the structure and functions of the brain, when the brain is involved in carrying out varied mental tasks — learning, remembering, reasoning, emoting,” said Hanna Damasio, a pioneer of brain imaging techniques and director of the Dornsife Cognitive Neuroscience Imaging Center.

Hanna Damasio wrote the first atlas of the human brain based entirely on computerized neuroimaging data. The 1995 book, Human Brain Anatomy in Computerized Images, a standard reference on the subject, is in its second edition at Oxford University Press. Portuguese-born Antonio and Hanna grew up in Lisbon, where they met in medical school.


Hanna and Antonio Damasio lead the Brain and Creativity Institute, housed in USC College. Photo credit Phil Channing

Although most of the BCI activity is concerned with discovering facts that can help solve medical and social problems, there is another part of its agenda. The BCI often collaborates with artists on projects. Visits from prominent musicians, theater directors and novelists have occurred regularly joining a roster that already includes several notable figures of science. This fall, the renowned pianist Alfred Brendel will return to the BCI for a lecture on and performance of Beethoven. Part of the research institute’s mission is to bring the sciences into a broader social space and promote a dialogue between the sciences and the arts.

“Scientists and artists are interested in answering important questions about humanity,” Antonio Damasio said. “Whether through science, film, literature or music, we’re all engaged in the twin goals of understanding what makes humans tick and making human life better.”

At the BCI, researchers have made remarkable strides toward that objective.

One recent breakthrough provides the very first glimpse into the neurological foundation of admiration. Another reveals that the brain processes compassion differently when it is confronted by physical pain or mental pain. Humans respond almost instantly when seeing others in physical pain. They take six to eight seconds longer to respond to mental pain of others.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the research recently won the 2009 Cozzarelli Prize from the National Academy of Sciences.

Selected from more than 3,700 PNAS research articles, the annual award acknowledges recently published papers reflecting scientific excellence and originality. PNAS is the official journal of the United States National Academy of Sciences.

The study was carried out by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, assistant professor in the BCI and the USC Rossier School of Education; Andrea McColl, a Ph.D. student in the BCI; and Antonio and Hanna Damasio, the Dana Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience and co-director of the BCI. Antonio is BCI’s director.

Research surrounding fear, anger, happiness, surprise and disgust has been thoroughly covered. But in a PNAS commentary, Jonathan Haidt and James P. Morris, psychologists at the University of Virginia, lauded the BCI researchers for shedding light on admiration and compassion — two of the most integral social emotions defining humanity.

Now collaborating with Beijing Normal University, the BCI is extending this study across the Pacific with the aim of conducting a comparative, cross-cultural study of social emotions in the United States and China.

Under the Damasios’ leadership, the institute brings together researchers from a wide range of disciplines, including psychology, neuroscience, neurology, anthropology, economics, physics and engineering. Predictably there is a broad research portfolio. For example, one project examines childhood brain damage to understand the development of social behavior, empathy and moral judgment. Another, at the other end of the spectrum, studies aging and addresses a major question: Does healthy aging in the absence of Alzheimer’s disease impair one’s decision-making ability?

Still another is analyzing the brain circuits responsible for emotions and feelings with the hope of leading to increased understanding and treatment of depression. Two research groups within the BCI are studying decision making in the setting of drug addiction and economics.

Breakthroughs are certain at the BCI, led by a man who had the fortitude to challenge 17th-century French philosopher René Descartes’ seminal statement, “I think therefore I am; or I am thinking, therefore I exist.” In Antonio Damasio’s 1994 international best-seller, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (Penguin Books), he rephrases Descartes, asserting, “I feel, therefore I am.”

In the book, Damasio argues that the thinking mind isn’t all that makes us human. Signals from the body, as represented in the brain, play a critical role in the making of consciousness, and are a key to social cognition and decision making. The visceral reactions of the body, he said, provide a frame of reference for other neural processes that we experience in the mind. In many of our actions, split-second everyday decisions, and feelings of elation and misery, we use the body as a yardstick.

“Consciousness is very often understood purely from a cognitive perspective,” Damasio said. “But we are convinced that emotions and feelings are central to the making of the conscious mind.”

In January, the French journal Sciences Humaines highlighted Descartes’ Error among the 20 books over the past 20 years to change our vision of the world. Translated into more than 30 languages, Descartes’ Error has had a major influence in the sciences and in the arts.

His second book, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (Harcourt, 2000) was named one of the 10 best books of 2001 by The New York Times Book Review, a best book of the year at Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, and has 30 foreign editions. Damasio’s most recent book, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, was published in 2003 by Harcourt. In it, Damasio probes Spinoza’s philosophy and its foreshadowing of modern neurobiology.

Damasio’s research at the BCI and the books that draw on it have only scratched the surface of possibilities.

“People call mind and consciousness enigmas, unsolvable mysteries,” Damasio said. “Now, I have great respect, even reverence for mysteries, but the fact is that we are beginning to push back the wall of mystery. Of course, behind that thinner wall we will find still another wall, but that is not a problem. The satisfaction of the scientist comes from the pleasure of the search and the sense that progress is being made.”

Human consciousness continues to evolve. As Damasio put it during the concert in New York:

Nature, ever blind, did not care
that a part of itself wanted to shape its future.
And still it does not.
We are allowed to rebel against indifference.
We have a say.

Drama is not necessarily tragedy
and this is not the end of the story.

Read more articles from USC College Magazine's Spring/Summer 2010 issue.