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Neuropsychoanalysis: An Interdisciplinary Journal

for Psychoanalysis and the Neurosciences
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Commentary by Antonio R. Damasio (Iowa City)


Antonio R. Damasio

University of Iowa, College of Medicine, Department of Neurology, Iowa City, IA 52242,

Published online: 09 Jan 2014.

To cite this article: Antonio R. Damasio (1999) Commentary by Antonio R. Damasio (Iowa City), Neuropsychoanalysis: An
Interdisciplinary Journal for Psychoanalysis and the Neurosciences, 1:1, 38-39, DOI: 10.1080/15294145.1999.10773242
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15294145.1999.10773242


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Antonio R. Damasio

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Jaak Panksepp
Department of Psychology
Bowling Green State University
1001 East Wooster Street
Bowling Green, OB 43403
e-mail: jpankse@bgnet.bgsu.edu

Commentary by Antonio R. Damasio (Iowa City)

I must begin this brief comment by confessing that I

read Freud in college, 30 years ago, and that in spite
of the delight and admiration he caused in me, I have
only returned to check quotes and, once again with
great delight, to Civilization and Its Discontents
(1930). Thus my words are based on memories that
may not be accurate although they have been supported, in part, by the helpful Freud quotes in Solms
and Nersessian's interesting article. Under the circumstances, I will comment only on the main ideas that
came to mind as I read the target article and the
thoughtful reaction to it prepared by Panksepp.
1. It makes good sense, given Freud's status as
biologist (yes, I think he was a biologist) and cultural
figure, to attempt a critical rereading of his writings
from the perspective of contemporary neuroscience,
cognitive science, and philosophy. It is important,
however, to turn the enterprise into a slowly evolving
"project" rather than attempt to fashion a position
paper based on the efforts of willing experts. There
are good reasons to choose the former. First, the topics
that have the most relevance to Freud's own thinking
are now receiving ample scientific attention. Second,
the scientific evidence on these topics is changing so
Antonio R. Damasio, M.D., is M. N. Van Allen Professor and Head,
Department of Neurology, University of Iowa, College of Medicine.

rapidly that interpretations are not stable enough for

anything but work-in-progress forms of discourse.
Third, as Panksepp correctly points out, some of the
aspects of neuroscience and cognitive science that are
currently least satisfactory are those that have to do
with emotion, certainly the matter closest to Freudian
thinking. The neuroscience of emotion needs to be reshaped first, and while this is happening even as we
write, we have far to go. The neuroscience of emotion
will make more significant progress when certain issues are given the importance they probably deserve:
the missing perspectives of evolution and homeostasis
in the conceptualization of the emotions; the frequently missed role of the body, real and as represented in the brain, in the process of emotion and
feeling; the scope of the neural correlates of emotion,
too narrowly conceived at present.
2. Notwithstanding the above reservations, I believe we can say that Freud's insights on the nature
of affect are consonant with the most advanced contemporary neuroscience views. Emotion and feeling
are operated in the brain, neurally speaking, in the
manner everything else is operated neurally, and yet,
emotion and feeling are distinctive on several counts:
Emotions are genomically preset and largely innate;
they have an indispensable ingredient (pleasure or unpleasure); and there is a unique within-ness about

Downloaded by [Gazi University] at 06:09 18 August 2014

Commentary on Emotions: Neuro-Psychoanalytic Views

them. I have proposed (without thinking of Freud but
coincident with him), that the body, real, and as represented in the brain, is the theater for the emotions, and
that feelings are largely read-outs of body changes
"really" enacted in the body and "really" constructed in an "as-if" mode in body-mapping brain
structures. The body-mapping structures begin in the
spinal cord but coalesce most dramatically in the brain
stem and hypothalamus before continuing on in the
telencephalon. This idea underlies the argument in Descartes' Error (1994) and is central to my proposals
on consciousness in the forthcoming The Feeling of
What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of
Consciousness (1999). The idea also allows me to
comment on the central question posed by Solms and
Nersessian regarding an anatomical sense organ of
affect perception, and what is it that affects are a perception of My answers: I believe there is something
like an anatomical affect-related "organ," in a metaphorical sense, but it is not just a "sense" organ. It
is, in effect, an "action" organ that also "senses,"
inasmuch as sensing is needed to control action. This
"organ" is not singular. It is, rather, a varied collection of neural structures that includes subcortical elements in brain stem, hypothalamus, and basal
forebrain, as well as cortical elements in areas such
as somatosensory cortices. In my framework this collection of interacting structures is called the protoself.
Activation within these structures results in changes
of body state (real and "as-if"), but part of the collection of structures can also map the body changes. The
answer to the question, What are affects a perception
of, is that they are a perception of body states along
a number of biological dimensions, chemical as well
as macrostructural. The state of the flesh, real and asif, as determined in part by the very process of emotion, is the' 'thing" represented in feelings, its' 'primitives," as it were. This is what causes feelings to be
felt but not what causes feelings to be known. I cannot
do justice to this problem here (it takes a book) but
the essence of that added element is that the process
of consciousness supervenes on the neural patterns
which describe body state changes.
3. Regarding Solms and Nersessian's article, I
would caution against using functional descriptors


such as "channel" and "state," or "modality specific" and "nonspecific" because of the dubious semantic message they convey. The terms hardly
capture the complexity of related neural and cognitive
specifications. Likewise, I would caution against the
neophrenological slip of considering selected regions
as providers of large-scale functions. The interconnectivity among regions is of such a degree that, in all
likelihood, the relevant neural patterns arise in a crossregional and supraregional manner.
4. I sympathize with Panksepp's views on emotion, not just on several details of the neural machinery
but also on his take on the state of the field. This is
especially so regarding neuroscience's reluctance to
accept that complex nonhuman creatures have feelings-an attitude that goes beyond the necessary prudence over the fact that such creatures mayor may
not know they have such feelings.
In short, I applaud the effort to reconsider Freud
in a modern scientific light. The main barrier I see
before the effort, is the widespread view, long held by
contemporary scientists and philosophers, that Freud
did not propose testable hypotheses, that his ideas
were not relevant to the understanding of brain function, and that he was not interested in the brain. Both
Solms and Nersessian and Panksepp make valuable
corrections to this view. Once the barrier is transposed, I see only one risk: premature closure. Given
the speed of change in current neuroscience, that risk
should be avoided at all cost.

Damasio, A. (1994), Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason,
and the Human Brain. New York: G. P. Putnam.
- - (1999), The Feeling of What Happens: Body and
Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. New York:
Harcourt, Brace.
Freud, S. (1930), Civilization and Its Discontents. Standard
Edition, 21:57-145. London: Hogarth Press, 1961.
Antonio R. Damasio
University of Iowa
College of Medicine
Department of Neurology
Iowa City, IA 52242
e-mail: DamasioA @ mail. medadmin. uiowa. edu