Antonio Damasio made his name by explaining that our emotions are good for us. You might think you would be better off without any emotions, like Mr Spock in the original Star Trek, deciding every issue by logic alone. But a decade ago Damasio's bestseller Descartes' Error showed that this would be a disaster. Without any emotional reactions, you wouldn't know what to do. Logic might tell you what will follow from different actions, but you need your emotions to make you care about the consequences. Descartes' Error sold half-a-million copies in over 20 languages, which is not bad for a professor of neurology at the University of Iowa writing about his specialist subject.
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Feelings of pain or pleasure or some quality in between are the bedrock of our minds. We often fail to notice this simple reality because the mental images of the objects and events that surround us, along with the images of the words and sentences that describe them, use up so much of our overburdened attention.
But there they are, feelings of myriad emotions and related states, the continuous musical line of our minds, the unstoppable humming of the most universal of melodies that only dies down when we go to sleep, a humming that turns into all-out singing when we are occupied by joy, or a mournful requiem when sorrow takes over. Given the ubiquity of feelings, one would have thought that their science would have been elucidated long ago-what feelings are, how they work, what they mean-but that is hardly the case.
Of all the mental phenomena we can describe, feelings and their essential ingredients-pain and pleasure-are the least understood in biological and specifically neurobiological terms. This is all the more puzzling considering that advanced societies cultivate feelings shamelessly and dedicate so many resources and efforts to manipulating those feelings with alcohol, drugs of abuse, medical drugs, food, real sex, virtual sex, all manner of feel-good consumption, and all manner of feel-good social and religious practices.
We doctor our feelings with pills, drinks, health spas, workouts, and spiritual exercises, but neither the public nor science have yet come to grips with what feelings are, biologically speaking. I am not really surprised at this state of affairs, considering what I grew up believing about feelings. Most of it simply was not true. For example, I thought that feelings were impossible to define with specificity, unlike objects you could see, hear, or touch. Unlike those concrete entities, feelings were intangible.
When I started musing about how the brain managed to create the mind, I accepted the established advice that feelings were out of the scientific picture. One could study how the brain makes us move. One could study sensory processes, visual and otherwise, and understand how thoughts are put together.
One could study how the brain learns and memorizes thoughts. One could even study the emotional reactions with which we respond to varied objects and events. But feelings-which can be distinguished from emotions, as we shall see in the next chapter-remained elusive.
Feelings were to stay forever mysterious. They were private and inaccessible. It was not possible to explain how feelings happened or where they happened. One simply could not get "behind" feelings. As was the case with consciousness, feelings were beyond the bounds of science, thrown outside the door not just by the naysayers who worry that anything mental might actually be explained by neuroscience, but by card-carrying neuroscientists themselves, proclaiming allegedly insurmountable limitations.
My own willingness to accept this belief as fact is evidenced by the many years I spent studying anything but feelings. It took me awhile to see the degree to which the injunction was unjustified and to realize that the neurobiology of feelings was no less viable than the neurobiology of vision or memory.
But eventually I did, mostly, as it turns out, because I was confronted by the reality of neurological patients whose symptoms literally forced me to investigate their conditions. Imagine, for example, meeting someone who, as a result of damage to a certain location of his brain, became unable to feel compassion or embarrassment-when compassion or embarrassment were due-yet could feel happy, or sad, or fearful just as normally as before brain disease had set in.
Would that not give you pause? Or picture a person who, as a result of damage located elsewhere in the brain, became unable to experience fear when fear was the appropriate reaction to the situation and yet still could feel compassion.
The cruelty of neurological disease may be a bottomless pit for its victims-the patients and those of us who are called to watch. But the scalpel of disease also is responsible for its single redeeming feature: By teasing apart the normal operations of the human brain, often with uncanny precision, neurological disease provides a unique entry into the fortified citadel of the human brain and mind.
Reflection on the situation of these patients and of others with comparable conditions raised intriguing hypotheses. First, individual feelings could be prevented through damage to a discrete part of the brain; the loss of a specific sector of brain circuitry brought with it the loss of a specific kind of mental event. Second, it seemed clear that different brain systems controlled different feelings; damage to one area of the brain anatomy did not cause all types of feelings to disappear at once.
Third, and most surprising, when patients lost the ability to express a certain emotion, they also lost the ability to experience the corresponding feeling.
But the opposite was not true: Some patients who lost their ability to experience certain feelings still could express the corresponding emotions. Could it be that while emotion and feeling were twins, emotion was born first and feeling second, with feeling forever following emotion like a shadow? In spite of their close kinship and seeming simultaneity, it seemed that emotion preceded feeling.
Knowledge of this specific relationship, as we shall see, provided a window into the investigation of feelings. Such hypotheses could be tested with the help of scanning techniques that allow us to create images of the anatomy and activity of the human brain. Step by step, initially in patients and then in both patients and people without neurological disease, my colleagues and I began to map the geography of the feeling brain. We aimed at elucidating the web of mechanisms that allow our thoughts to trigger emotional states and engender feelings.
Emotion and feeling played an important but very different part in two of my previous books. Descartes' Error addressed the role of emotion and feeling in decision-making. The Feeling of What Happens outlined the role of emotion and feeling in the construction of the self.
In the present book, however, the focus is on feelings themselves, what they are and what they provide. Most of the evidence I discuss was not available when I wrote the previous books, and a more solid platform for the understanding of feelings has now emerged. The main purpose of this book, then, is to present a progress report on the nature and human significance of feelings and related phenomena, as I see them now, as neurologist, neuroscientist, and regular user.
The gist of my current view is that feelings are the expression of human flourishing or human distress, as they occur in mind and body. Feelings are not a mere decoration added on to the emotions, something one might keep or discard. Feelings can be and often are revelations of the state of life within the entire organism-a lifting of the veil in the literal sense of the term.
Life being a high-wire act, most feelings are expressions of the struggle for balance, ideas of the exquisite adjustments and corrections without which, one mistake too many, the whole act collapses.
If anything in our existence can be revelatory of our simultaneous smallness and greatness, feelings are. How that revelation comes to mind is itself beginning to be revealed.
The brain uses a number of dedicated regions working in concert to portray myriad aspects of the body's activities in the form of neural maps. This portrait is a composite, an ever-changing picture of life on the fly. The chemical and neural channels that bring into the brain the signals with which this life portrait can be painted are just as dedicated as the canvas that receives them. The mystery of how we feel is a little less mysterious now. It is reasonable to wonder if the attempt to understand feelings is of any value beyond the satisfaction of one's curiosity.
For a number of reasons, I believe it is. Elucidating the neurobiology of feelings and their antecedent emotions contributes to our views on the mind-body problem, a problem central to the understanding of who we are. Emotion and related reactions are aligned with the body, feelings with the mind.
The investigation of how thoughts trigger emotions and of how bodily emotions become the kind of thoughts we call feelings provides a privileged view into mind and body, the overtly disparate manifestations of a single and seamlessly interwoven human organism.
The effort has more practical payoffs, however. Explaining the biology of feelings and their closely related emotions is likely to contribute to the effective treatment of some major causes of human suffering, among them depression, pain, and drug addiction. Moreover, understanding what feelings are, how they work, and what they mean is indispensable to the future construction of a view of human beings more accurate than the one currently available, a view that would take into account advances in the social sciences, cognitive science, and biology.
Why is such a construction of any practical use? Because the success or failure of humanity depends in large measure on how the public and the institutions charged with the governance of public life incorporate that revised view of human beings in principles and policies.
An understanding of the neurobiology of emotion and feelings is a key to the formulation of principles and policies capable of reducing human distress and enhancing human flourishing. In effect, the new knowledge even speaks to the manner in which humans deal with unresolved tensions between sacred and secular interpretations of their own existence.
Now that I have sketched my main purpose, it is time to explain why a book dedicated to new ideas on the nature and significance of human feeling should invoke Spinoza in the title.
Since I am not a philosopher and this book is not about Spinoza's philosophy, it is sensible to ask: why Spinoza? The short explanation is that Spinoza is thoroughly relevant to any discussion of human emotion and feeling. Spinoza saw drives, motivations, emotions, and feelings-an ensemble Spinoza called affects-as a central aspect of humanity. Joy and sorrow were two prominent concepts in his attempt to comprehend human beings and suggest ways in which their lives could be lived better.
December 1, The friendly doorman of the Hotel des Indes insists: "You should not walk in this weather, sir, let me get a car for you. The wind is bad. It is almost a hurricane, sir. Look at the flags. I prefer to walk, I say. I will be all right. Besides, see how beautiful the sky looks in between the clouds? My doorman has no idea where I am going, and I am not going to tell him.
What would he have thought? The rain has almost stopped and with some determination it is easy to overcome the wind. I actually can walk fast and follow my mental map of the place. At the end of the promenade in front of the Hotel des Indes, to my right, I can see the old palace and the Mauritshuis, festooned with Rembrandt's face-they are showing a retrospective of his self-portraits. Past the museum square the streets are almost deserted, although this is the center of town and it is a regular working day.
There must be warnings telling people to stay indoors. So much the better. I arrive at the Spui without having to brave a crowd. After I get to the New Church, the route is entirely unfamiliar and I hesitate for a second, but the choice becomes clear: I turn right on Jacobstraat, then left on Wagenstraat, then right again on Stilleverkade.
Five minutes later I am on the Paviljoensgracht. I stop in front of number The front of the house is much as I imagined it, a small building with three floors, three windows wide, a version of the average canal townhouse, more modest than rich. It is well kept and not very different from what it must have looked like in the seventeenth century.
All the windows are closed, and there is no sign of activity. The door is well kept and well painted, and next to it there is a shiny brass bell, set in the frame. I press the button resolutely but without much hope.
Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain
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'Looking for Spinoza'
Antonio Damasio is a neurologist known for his writings and experiments on emotions. His best known previous book is Descartes' Error , which argued that emotions have an important role in rational decision-making, and presented evidence that people who suffer damage to the brain centers that generate emotions become seriously impaired in their decision-making ability. His most recent book, Looking for Spinoza , concentrates specifically on the conscious aspect of emotions. Damasio's main thesis in the book consists of two basic claims. The first claim is that emotions are connected to states of the body and are an integral part of the biological process of homeostasis--maintaining the internal conditions necessary for the continuation of life. Damasio presents empirical data about how the brain processes emotions, including data from brain imaging about what happens in the brain when emotions are triggered, experimental data on how emotions can be triggered by electrically stimulating specific areas of the brain, and data on how damage to specific areas of the brain can make a person incapable of certain emotions, or, conversely, cause certain emotions to be triggered periodically with no apparent cause. The presentation of empirical data is the most consistently interesting and informative part of the book; and it supports Damasio's claim by demonstrating that the process of monitoring the body's internal state by the brain and the process of generating emotions are closely connected and involve the same brain areas.
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This is a well written book and at times almost lyrical especially the first chapters on Spinoza. Damasio not only explains well the neuroscience of the brain but also the philosophy of Spinoza. Joy, sorrow, jealousy, and awe—these and other feelings are the stuff of our daily lives. In the seventeenth century, the philosopher Spinoza devoted much of his life's work examining how these Antonio R.