Friday, March 10, 2006

António Damásio

Emotional blog-verbal communication...

Collage of Scientist, Books and Brain

Although not assuming it out loud both the Right Honourable Reader and this blogger of yours know how readers are greedy about auto-biographical information regarding bloggers. "View My Complete Profile" is never enough..

Yes, I do confess that at some point in my last year in University I felt tempted to embark in a journey into the Neurobiological Eldorado. I told a friend that if only I could take family pressure out of the way (and the obvious financial rewards of being a Dad's Son) and if I could switch from cultivating B-cells (lymphocytes), which I was already doing , to Brain cells, I would love to dedicate my life to research in Neurobiology (as it was named then, before being rechristened, pompously, "Neuroscience").

At that time very few of us in the Fundamental Research in Biology international masonry-like world knew that a compatriot of mine was a pioneering genius. I knew it because my Neurology tutor was AleksanderCC and I could sense Antonio Damasio was the modern guru for that Neurology Centre in Lisbon named after the previous guru, Egas Moniz, a Nobel Prize for Medicine, whose ghost still cursed those rooms.

Yesterday, Antonio Damasio and his wife Hanna came to town. For a lecture on "La Era De Las Enfermedades Emocionales" at the auditorium of the "Museo de la Villa". When I arrived at the gates of the Museum, twenty five minutes in advance, there was a still 200-meters queue even when the doors had been opened half an hour before! I waited patiently for ten minutes on the street until I realized a usher had closed the door in a "sold out!" mood. I had to flash the card issued by the local MFA to get myself a chance to go inside. I had to flash it again in order to get a seat.

Why this tremendous appeal? A lecture at 7.30 pm on emotions having the same sexiness as a rock and roll concert? I guess the Premio Principe de Astúrias ( the local Nobel) that Professor Damasio got just a few months ago explains a lot, including the best-selling of the Spanish version of his " The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness.". Or is it just the eagerness of all thinking women and men in understanding why we feel and suffer, why are we sad rather than happy, blushing in embarrassment at the idea of acknowledging it?

I felt like in good old days at Medical School. Just a slight technological upgrade from retroprojection of slides to powerpoint computer projection. Damasio was introduced to the audience in Spanish with the obligatory mention of the Asturias and a quick overview of his current job (I'm glad he has moved in the mean time from slightly un-cool Iowa to glamorous USC (Southern California). No mention whatsoever of where he was born or of the P-word (Portuguese). ("Meaningless? - I thought to myself. " Would we, let's say in Lisbon, introduce a famous American scientist but Madrid-born before an audience omitting his Spaniard condition? I doubt it. QED".)

I'm afraid ( I know, I know, I'm not being excessively diplomatic here...) that there's an overenthusiasm in this country to Damasio - after the overt courtship of Saramago - in an almost child-like greediness to turn him in "one of us". Is Saramago still a Portuguese writer in the eyes of the Spanish cultivated elite? Is Brel a Belgian poet-singer in the eyes of the French? Is Paula Rego nothing but a Brit in the eyes of the Londoners?

But Damasio gave his lecture and answered the questions in English and that gave me some heart. (Saramago probably thinks in Castellano his answers to the Spanish media for a long time now). The only moment when the tail of the cat was out of the box was during the Questions & Answers session, when someone in the audience asked about the "sonrojar" reaction to embarrassment. In Damasio's understanding of the questions fired in Spanish there was a flickering moment of hesitation.. Someone explained then that it should be translated as "blushing". Damasio smiled and said: "Ah! 'Blushing'.. I see.. In Portuguese it's 'corar'...". There! The P-word had come out!

I don't intend to blog about the lecture itself. Those who want to get into the neurobiological substratum of emotions and feelings and state-of-the-art analysis of neurological paths and systems will have to do their homework themselves. They are gently but firmly ushered into reading Damasio's books or googling in their spare time.

I managed to put a question in the debate period, "compatriot to compatriot about a third compatriot, Egas Moniz: "Would there be a brainsurgeon out there, curious about Damasio's studies on a small "a c" spot , just bellow the Corpus Callosus, that could be a crucial brain hub for sadness, who could feel tempted to use the bisturi to get read of deep depression on a patient? " .Damasio's answer vindicated the excellence, both ethical and as a scientist, of Antonio Egas Moniz. Apparently one of the first to think about surgery for Parkinson's (something that has been having some encouraging results, in France namely, fifty years later) was Moniz himself!

I paid my compliments to the Lecturer in the end. Both his wife and he were my Father's students at the Faculdade de Medicina and they remembered the Professor. I told Damasio I had studied under AleksanderCC. "Alexandre? - he said. He was my very first pupil!".
I returned home by Metro, carrying with me conflicting emotions. What if? What if?

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