Damasio Wins Grawemeyer Award

USC Dornsife University Professor Antonio Damasio’s somatic marker theory has inspired countless experiments in the United States and Europe and has had a major influence in contemporary psychology, neuroscience, neurology, psychiatry and philosophy.
ByPamela J. Johnson

University Professor Antonio Damasio, who proposed that emotions play an integral role in human reasoning and decision-making, has won the 2014 Grawemeyer Award for Psychology.

Damasio, the David Dornsife Chair in Neuroscience, professor of psychology and neurology, and director of the Brain and Creativity Institute, received the prize — which includes $100,000 — for his somatic marker hypothesis showing how emotions influence the way people make decisions. The Grawemeyer Award for Psychology honors distinguished leaders in the study of cognition and neuroscience for their pathbreaking ideas.

“The somatic marker idea turned out to be relevant to understand complex human behavior. I am pleased to see it recognized,” said Damasio, whose  other honors include the Honda Foundation’s Honda Prize, the Prince of Asturias Prize for Scientific and Technical Research, as well as election to the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine and numerous honorary doctorates and other prizes.

Four of Damasio’s books have been translated into more than 20 languages and are used in universities worldwide. He has written nearly 400 scientific articles.

Damasio developed his somatic marker hypothesis after years of gathering evidence that people with certain brain injuries had difficulty making personal and social decisions even when their intellects remained intact. He found that the brain process used to evaluate choices involves emotion as well as rational thinking.

Although his proposal ran counter to dominant theories in his field, it inspired countless experiments in the United States and Europe and has had a major influence in contemporary psychology, neuroscience, neurology, psychiatry and philosophy.

“Antonio Damasio’s pioneering work showed that emotions, by way of decision-making, are indispensable for the construction of social behavior, and that specific brain systems are responsible,” award director Woody Petry said. “His work has had an impact in the study of drug addiction, social communication, neuroeconomics, the biology of moral decisions — even education and the law.”

Each year the Grawemeyer Award is presented in five categories: music, political science, psychology, education and religion. In psychology, nominations are judged on the basis of originality, creativity, scientific merit and breadth of impact on the field.

Among the first winners of this award in 2001 was Marcus Raichle of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Raichle’s discovery of the relative independence of blood flow and oxygen consumption during changes in brain activity provided the physiological basis of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Another past winner was Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University, who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his work on the psychology of judgment and decision-making.

Yet another was Mortimer Mishkin of the National Institutes of Health who spent more than five decades working with nonhuman primates to better understand the pathways for vision, hearing and touch. He studies how these processing streams connect with brain structures that play an important role in memory.

“The winners of this award include some of the colleagues that I most admire,” said Damasio, director of the USC Dornsife Brain and Creativity Institute. “They are all extremely distinguished scholars; and I am honored to be among them.”

Damasio’s famous theory suggests that when individuals make decisions, they use cognitive and emotional processes to assess the value of their choices. When facing complex and conflicting choices, people at times are unable to decide using only cognitive processes, which can become overloaded.

In these cases, somatic markers can help decide, Damasio said. Somatic markers are associations between reinforcing stimuli that induce a physiological affective state. Within the brain, somatic markers are processed in regions such as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. These somatic marker associations can recur during decision-making and bias our cognitive processing.

Some decisions don’t require conscious thought — such as getting hungry or avoiding a falling object — and others do, such as decisions in social groups. But they all rest on the same mechanism. The complexities and uncertainty in decisions requiring conscious thought make those decisions difficult to predict.

But when making decisions in the future, these physiological signals — or somatic markers — and their evoked emotion consciously or unconsciously associate with their past outcomes. This is where bias decision-making comes in. The physiological signals make us lean towards certain behaviors or decisions while avoiding others.

For instance, when a somatic marker associated with a positive outcome is perceived, the person may feel happy and motivated to pursue that behavior. When a somatic marker associated with the negative outcome is perceived, the person may feel sad, which acts as an internal alarm to warn the individual to avoid a course of action. These situation-specific somatic states based on, and reinforced by, past experiences help to guide behavior in favor of more advantageous choices.

H. Charles Grawemeyer, industrialist, entrepreneur, astute investor and philanthropist, created the Grawemeyer Awards to help make the world a better place. An initial endowment of $9 million funded the awards, which have drawn nominations from around the world.

Damasio will deliver a lecture during the award ceremony, which will take place in April 2014 at the University of Louisville, Kentucky.


Jacques Hymans, associate professor of international relations at USC Dornsife, has won the 2014 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order for his book about nuclear proliferation.