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120 of 128 people found the following review helpful
Part of this is a celebration of the 17th century Rationalist philosopher Baruch Spinosa whose world view is very much in concert with that of Antonio Damasio. Spinosa's demolition of Descartes' mind/body duality is the thread that Damasio takes up and weaves into this graceful and agreeable narrative. Furthermore, it is Spinosa's recognition that we are part of, and contained within, nature and not materially different from nature (another of Descartes' errors) that attracts Damasio's admiration for Spinosa.

Leaving aside this framing device I want to concentrate on Damasio's argument about the nature of humans based on his experience as a neurobiologist, which is really the core of this book.

Damasio recognizes that feelings, like consciousness itself, are perceptions, not states of mind. What is being perceived is the state of the body itself, and what is doing the perceiving is the brain. In this understanding--and I think it is a felicitous one--the brain operates as a sixth sense, something like the so-called third eye of the Hindus. It is not, of course, a supernatural sixth sense, but a sense organ in addition to the other five whose job it is to perceive the homeostasis of the organism, a sense organ that looks within instead of without. Instead of the sensation of color or sound, the sixth sense perceives emotions.

Of course the Van Allen Distinguished Professor of Neurology at the University of Iowa Medical Center does not use such a term as "sixth sense" nor would he allude to the third eye of the Hindus. He is a neurologist, a scientist and (despite his demurral) a philosopher. I mention these other ways of "knowing" in an attempt to provide a larger context for Damasio's argument.

This argument is not original with Damasio (and I don't think he would claim it is). In one sense it is derivative from the growing understanding that consciousness itself, a kind of meta-awareness, is actually a perception. Damasio's "feelings" are part of this consciousness.

A further part of Damasio's argument is that emotions are prior to feelings. First there is an emotionally competent stimulus (ECS). Then there is an "appraisal" of that stimulus which results in appropriate and automatic emotion, followed by feelings based on a perception of the emotion and the external situation. This is on-going, and we usually don't notice it. In extreme cases, such as danger, our feelings are more pronounced. In Damasio's scheme, an ECS might be a grizzly bear come upon suddenly while hiking. The "appraisal" would be the recognition that this is a bear, that it is big and it is potentially dangerous. The "emotion" would be all the systemic glandular, chemical and muscular responses in preparation for the flight or fight response. The "feeling" itself would be what we call fear.

Damasio attempts to explain the experience of feelings in anticipation of "naysayers" who contend that such things are eternal mysteries. He makes a distinction between what, say, a Boeing 777 with all its sensing devices might "feel" and how humans feel. The crux of Damasio's distinction is the enormously greater complexity of the biological organism. But this argument, beginning on page 126, is not satisfactory because it does not explain the subjective experience of pain, which is what the "naysayers" are really talking about.

What I think Damasio should say is that we can never know what the Boeing 777 is feeling (or if it is "feeling") since feelings are subjective experiences. They can only be recognized in ourselves (if we have them) and identified with in the report of others. It is the same as trying to explain what the color red looks like to a blind person or how strawberries taste to someone who has never tasted one. Analogies and comparisons may be drawn, but there is no way that I can ever be sure that I feel what you feel or that the subjective nature of any sensuous experience between one entity and another is the same.

In the fourth chapter, "Ever Since Feelings," Damasio attempts to account for how feelings arose in an evolutionary sense. He believes they help complex organisms solve complex problems. (p. 177) "Body-state maps" work automatically for most organisms, but, Damasio argues, with emotions made conscious through the experience of feeling, humans are able to achieve not only a "concern for the individual self" but with "sufficient integration of the now, the past, and the anticipated future" a more effective game plan for survival and well-being. (p. 178) Feelings signal the conscious mind to become involved and this has proven adaptive.

What I think is profound about this argument is how naturally it would have arisen from the evolutionary experience. Before humans and other sophisticated animals arose, most creatures probably made little or no distinction between themselves and their environment. Their responses were mostly automatic and they had no sense of self. Along comes this great leap forward called consciousness and it works because it makes us more effective at protecting ourselves. It also makes us more fearful of death, of course, which is part of the human predicament.

Despite some difficulties, I am very much impressed with Damasio's effort, and I think that his approach from neuroscience and biological evolution, and through the use of scientific experiment, is eons ahead of the old schools in psychology which attempted to understand human beings based on arbitrary models such as psychoanalytic theory or on limited approaches such as behaviorism. But it must be realized (as I'm sure Damasio does) that we are at a tentative stage of understanding. Some even say that we will never be able to completely understand how our brain works. Some even cite Russell's paradox and Godel's proof about the limitations of self-referential systems (the brain/body is such a system) and deny that it is even theoretically possible for us to completely understand ourselves. Maybe only our artifacts, our computers will be able to understand us.

--Dennis Littrell, author of "The World Is Not as We Think It Is"
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39 of 41 people found the following review helpful
HALL OF FAMEon September 23, 2003
Damasio has leapt almost to the top of the philosophical pyramid with his books on feelings and consciousness. Unbound by consensus thinking, he shows how the brain and body collaborate in forming what we call the "mind". In this book he reaches back in time to the works of Baruch Spinoza, perhaps the first philosopher with insights on emotions and will. Spinoza roundly refuted the separation of mind and body postulated by Descartes - a thesis with amazing tenacity. Damasio wants to revive the teachings of Spinoza in light of modern research's recent findings verifying and enlarging the Dutch philosopher's ideas. He possesses a unique style in supporting his campaign, with an ability to mix conversational and clinical presentations with fluid ease. This is his finest effort.
Damasio blithely overturns traditional philosophy by giving the body a primary role in developing emotions. What the mind feels, the body has already expressed. Because the body and brain are so deeply integrated in their functions, the combined signals are manifested as "emotion". Our feelings of joy, sorrow and the host of other classifications we use in defining ourselves are the expressions of the interactions. What we say about feelings may be applied to the entire realm of what we call "awareness". In short, the mind represents the body - we react to its actions. Spinoza, without realizing it, was far in advance of his contemporaries.
Damasio uses the wealth of research he and others have obtained over many years to support his contentions. In line with those in the forefront of "neurophilosophy", Damasio attributes evolutionary roots for his proposal. Other animals, he reminds us, react in similar ways to similar stimuli. They haven't the ability to express their reactions in language, but the body language says it sufficiently. Human evolution merely took these root causes a step further. Language, however, and the urge to detach us from the rest of the animal kingdom led us to also separate mind and body. Damasio, following both Spinoza and the finds of cognitive science, seeks to restore the integration.
With an intelligible prose style, enhanced by diagrams and line drawings, this book is a treasure of information. The questions he raises, while jarring to anyone steeped in traditional philosophy, need answering. He's never above noting where more work is required and posits topics to be investigated. The extensive bibliography is valuable in understanding what we know and what remains to be revealed. These revelations, Damasio reminds us, apply further afield than academic disputes over philosophical issues. The view of mind and body underlies most of our concepts of justice, government, public education and social behaviour generally. What gives this book its ultimate value is what basis we apply in addressing these issues. If traditional philosophy's foundation is a false bulwark, we must replace it with a more rational basis. Spinoza had not patience with arguments from ignorance, Damasio states. Nor should you. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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51 of 56 people found the following review helpful
on April 22, 2003
Damasio took on the interaction between emotions and reason, consicousness, and now, with this book, feelings. These are not unimportant, trivial or simple problems for a neurologist to tackle. They are among the greatest mysteries left in science. Now, do not take this to mean I think I agree wholly with Damasio, or that he has solved these puzzles completely. No. But he has made progress, and he has advanced some really intersting hypothesis. Damasio therefore is rightly considered one of the foremost theorethical neuroscienctists, and although seems sometimes to dismiss much of the literature and consider only evidence coming out of his lab, his ability to so easily transform his theories into highly readable popular accounts is scary.
Damasios main concern in this book is to present an neurobiological account of feelings. Now the first move he makes is to distinguish them from the related phenomenon of emotions. These are not to be confused, even when they are highly related. Felling, to Damasio, comes only after the emotion, and is very different from it. Emotions are complexes of chemical and neural patterns that drive the organism by automatical alterations of the state of the body, towards evolutionarily set places of well-being. Fellings are the perceptions of changes in, or the states of the body, and the modes of thinking that these ensue. To Damasio then, the feeling of fear would consist of the infromation provided by the body proper as well as of the way the cognitive mechanism functions because of the changes that are taking place. Since Damasio considers body regulating, homeostatic, and body sensing so important for feelings, he mantains the neurobiological underpinnings of feelings must be structures related to these functions. And he has evidence to support this claim. Imaging experiments show activity in the brain stem, hypothalamus,cingulate cortices and insula correlated with feelings. These structures have in common precicely their activity in regulating or obtaining information of the body. For theoretical reasons, Damasio holds the insula to be the main player here.
With these thoughts in mind, Damasio lists what he thinks are the necessary and sufficient conditions to have a feeling. THese are a nervous system with a body, a way for that nervous system to map and transform body states in neural maps, and then create out of these mental patterns or images, consicousness, a way for the nervous system to change the state of the body. Dmasio then also discusees the probable functions of feelings, its evolutionary origins, and possible reasons why feelings feel the way they do. The first of these questions he anwers in his first book, Descartes error. The second, because emotions were there as were the neural patterns that mapped body state changes, as well because feelings promoted survival by their function. The third, why feelings feel the way they do, Damasio answers speculatively but very interestingly. The life process, its design in multicellular organisms, the way the life process is altered by changes in the body and thr innate reactions of the body,thenature of the nural medium where these structures are mapped, explain together why feeling feel the way thet do. Damasio also discusses how mental images might arise, speculates about the origins of a mental level of neurobiological phenomena, and discusses mind-body philosophical issues. Also, in between these issues, Damasio devotes roughly a third of the book to his interest on the life and philosophy of Spinoza, who Damasio reads as to have anticipated some of Damasios ideas on the body and the mind.
There remain some problems with Damasios account of course. For example, he seems to say a system that has the necessary and sufficient conditions for feelings but is not alive would not feel. His inclusion of consciousness as a necessary condition makes sense, but also obscures his explanation. Is consciousness itself explained? probably not in Damasios terms, but certainly not in the terms probably most relevant for feelings: qualia. What would life add to a system to make it feel,but qualia, that is, the essence (content?) of a feeling? But why would life bring qualia?if life is a physical process too, so qualia should be a physical process too, and therefore a physical system could have it too. But not necesarily an alive physical system. Damasio also never specifies what takes place between a neural pattern and a mental image for the latter to arise out of the former. This is the qualia problem again. So Damasio does not explain qualia? so what? nobody else has. But it is a reality that feelings will not be explained without a proper account of qualia. There is also the issue of predictions and testability. Will damage to the inusla cause loss of feeling? will a brain in a vat feel? Damasio also gives little space to neurochemistry, and it is obvious that it is a very important part of the making of feelings. How do serotonin, dopamine, acetycholine, and other neuromodulators affect feelings? directly, by changing neurons? Chemicals can alter feelings in predictable ways, so does the insula have special receptors, and if so what are their functions? If feelings require consicousness, and as some mantain, consicousness requires language, does feeling require language? how about the memories of feelings. Do memories of feelings activate the insula too, and if not, can feelings arise then out of association cortex (for memories of feelings bring a little of those feelings into the mind)? These questions are some philosophical and some empirical, but they all have somthing to say about feelings, and Damasio gives us no answers.
The book is a great acomplishment, and anybody interested with the hard problems of neuroscience, consciousness, emotions, the self, will want to read this book. Damasios views are predictable given his other two books, but they are original and very interesting. Few other neuroscientists are as thought provoking, or write as clearly as Damasio does.
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23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on August 8, 2003
Damasio's Looking for Spinoza is another great book with lots of great stuff to ponder; I highly recommend it. Here's one area (of many) I found interesting:
In confronting our suffering and our need for salvation, in addition to Spinoza's requirement that we live "a virtuous life assisted by a political system whose laws help the individual with the task of being fair and charitable to others," Damasio writes (pg 275):
"The Spinoza solution also asks the individual to attempt a break between the emotionally competent stimuli that trigger negative emotions--passions such as fear, anger, jealousy, sadness--and the very mechanisms that enact emotion. Instead, the individual should substitute emotionally competent stimuli capable of triggering positive, nourishing emotions. To facilitate this goal, Spinoza recommends the mental rehearsing of negative emotional stimuli as a way to build a tolerance for negative emotions and gradually acquire a knack for generating positive ones. [Wow!--Exposure/CBT, circa 1670, but without the cognitive distortions.] This is, in effect, Spinoza as mental immunologist developing a vaccine capable of creating antipassion antibodies."
Additionally, Damasio writes: "The individual must be aware of the fundamental separation between emotionally competent stimuli and the trigger mechanism [which, as current neuroscience now shows, includes amgdala, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, cinguate] of emotion so that he can substitute `reasoned' emotionally competent stimuli capable of producing the most positive feeling states."
In an earlier part of the book (pg 58) Damasio discusses triggering and executing emotion and writes that after the presentation of an emotionally competent object, regardless of how fleeting the presentation:
"...signals related to the presence of that stimulus are made available to the emotion-triggering sites....You can conceive of those sites as locks that open only if appropriate keys fit. The emotionally competent stimuli are the keys, of course. Note that they select a preexisting lock, rather than instruct the brain on how to create one. The emotion-triggering sites subsequently activate a number of emotion-execution sites...[which are] the immediate cause of the emotional state that occurs in the body and the brain regions that [then] support the emotion-feeling process."
"...[he goes on to say that these] descriptions sound a lot like that of an antigen entering the blood stream and leading to an immune response....And well they should because the processes are formally similar. In the case of emotion, the `antigen' is presented through the sensory system and the `antibody' is the emotional response. The `selection' is made at one of the several brain sites equipped to trigger an emotion. The conditions in which the process occurs are comparable, the contour of the process is the same, and the results are just as beneficial. Nature is not that inventive when it comes to successful solutions. Once it works, it tries it again and again." Fred Hussey, 8/8/2003
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189 of 248 people found the following review helpful
on July 31, 2003
My biggest question at the end of this book was, "Why was this book so excruciatingly boring for me?" It's not just that I'm a neurologist and know a lot of the material already. I still find books about bizarre perceptual states produced by neurological dysfunction fascinating. Emotional states might make for equally fascinating reading.
Dr. Damasio focuses on some basic points instead. One basic point that he spends over 100 pages illustrating is the distinction he makes between "emotions" and "feelings". The former word he applies to objective emotional experience, such as facial expressions, body postures, measurements of autonomic function and behavior in humans and animals, even fruit flies. The latter applies to human subjective emotional experience. OK, I think most readers knew the difference between objective and subjective before page 1, so what is all this except to introduce the reader to the particular way Dr. Damasio uses a couple of words? Eventually he advances the thesis that "feelings" are secondary to "emotions" something like perceptions are to sensation. Really? Why not the other way around sometimes? Why not something more complex? Certainly perception influences both "emotions" and "feelings". Is it always "emotions" before "feelings"? If that's the case with Dr. Damasio's brain, I might enjoy playing poker with him.
He spends nine pages on an anecdote resulting from treating patients with Parkinsonism by placing electrodes into the midbrain. In one patient, a fluke placement of electrodes produced a profound sadness when stimulated, the emotion ending about 90 seconds after the current is turned off. The patient experienced it as artificial, connected at the time to sad images and desires, but not to any part of her life before or after. OK, sham emotions can be produced in animals with brainstem stimulation. We don't usually do that to humans, but it is interesting to hear someone's subjective experience along with the objective. What does it mean about emotions in general?
Putting great importance on that is like pretending to understand an NFL kicker from having patients wiggle their feet in a doctor's office. We can make someone's leg move from stimulating their spinal cord. I'd bet, though, that the mechanisms that determine who can kick a field goal and who can't are considerably upstream from there.
Dr. Damasio correctly describes the complexity of perception, how the brain is not a camera, not a passive receiver of information. It has our expectations within it, other aspects of attention, as well as the overwhelming complexity of being the organ of our consciousness, as mysterious as that still is. Consciousness remains as necessary a precondition for a subjective visual image as transparent corneas. Yet when it comes to "feelings", Damasio leaves so much out. Where is imagination, inspiration, even the possibility of spiritual influences in the process?
Another thesis Dr. Damasio advances is that the entire brain primarily serves the same purpose as the part of it that regulates body temperature. He describes the entire brain as a homeostatic organ as he goes off into discussing the implications of that for society. Funny, the influence of the one organ in our body that makes us the most human doesn't seem to have kept our society static throughout human history, just the opposite. What is it, the influence of aliens perturbing our natural homeostasis? Devils maybe? Sure our brains keep us alive, but not for everyday to be exactly the same. What with time spent on semantics, inadequate data, and this sort of overreaching, there just isn't that much science in this book.
Spinoza comes up in many ways. The biographical portions of the book are interesting, but pertain to neuroscience mostly as a negative example, I think. Among many quotes here are two. One from page 11:
"Love is nothing but a pleasurable state, joy, accompanied by the idea of an external cause."
The book ends on page 289 with:
"Hope is nothing else but an inconstant joy, arising from the image of something future or past, whose outcome to some extent we doubt."
Is this anything but someone who values intellectual experience over emotional experience by quite a bit? What mechanisms make some love and others not, some loved and others not? What distinguishes that which turns out to be true hope from false hope? It's not all cognitive, I bet.
Damasio isn't as bold as Spinoza, but he doesn't chasten him either. I'm disappointed. I've heard Dr. Damasio give a good neuroscience lecture to a neurological audience. He knows how to do good science. This book is not that.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Antonio Damasio presents a comprehensive understanding of emotions and the feelings by which they are experienced by the conscious mind in "Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain." He outlines the basic issue in the first two pages of the book as:

"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 overburden attention. ....Of all the mental phenomena we can describe, feelings and their essential ingredients - pain and pleasure - are the least understood in biological and neurobiological terms. .. 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"

Neuroscientists are pushing the envelope today towards a modern science of the conscious mind and its embodied brain that makes this possible. Progress towards a science of consciousness results when neuroscientists are able to incorporate useful concepts from earlier philosophers. Bernard Barrs (In the Theater of Consciousness) refers to theater metaphors that date as far back as Plato. Walter Freeman (How Brains Make Up their Minds) finds St. Thomas Aquinas' concept of intentionality essential for understanding human nature and their meaning making with symbols. Damasio finds that Spinoza (1632-1677) has important things to say about feelings, passions, and emotions - and a modern ethic of virtue based on the mutual needs of members of a group for self-preservation realized by caring and compassionate acts.

I read "Looking for Spinoza" after I read Damasio's later book "The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness." Spinoza has things to say about the philosophy and psychology of consciousness that have influenced Damasio's thinking in a beneficial way. In glad that Antonia Damasio took the time to share his interest in Spinoza's contributions with others, and I found it a very worthwhile read. I look forward to Damasio's upcoming book "The Conscious Brain: Facts and Consequences" with great interest. A science of consciousness needs to account for the rational and irrational mental contents of consciousness. Feeling as a rational valuing function of top-down judgment (in Jungian terms), feelings known in direct conscious experience (bottom up sensation perception in Jungian terms), and emotions need to be properly accounted for in a model of conscious mind. Damasio's contributions make this possible.
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16 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on February 28, 2005
Spinoza was a remarkable 17th century philosopher whose Jewish family fled the Portuguese Inquisition to find refuge in Holland.
Spinoza held that `the mind' is simply a bodily process: it is not a separate entity from the body. Furthermore, he claimed that emotions, including spiritual emotions, are a body's signals to the brain: their purpose is to make the brain adjust the body's activities in ways that will bring it back to a state of balance with its environment.
Spinoza built up a strong case for saying so in various publications. This idea was a direct challenge to the religious authorities. He received 39 lashes and excommunication from his own synagogue for his pains. After his death, even the tolerant Dutch authorities banned publication of Spinoza's works.
Nevertheless, his ideas lived on and became a driving force of the Enlightenment a century later.
Antonio Damasio is Van Allen Distinguished professor at University of Iowa College of Medicine. As a neuroscientist in the forefront of modern research, he specializes in finding out how the brain detects both emotion and feeling. The brain is receiving billions of reports every second from every cell in the body. Neuroscientists can record these signals in particular circuits in the brain. The brain integrates these reports and the result is perceived as an emotion.
`Background' emotions work at a subconscious level and are noticed as states of well-being, instinctive dislikes -- and so on. `Primary' emotions are basic ones such as fear, disgust, sadness and happiness. `Social' emotions include shame, pride, envy and indignation.
In turn emotion gives rise to feeling -- an internalized emotion of emotion. All these processes can be recorded as neural maps in the brain as they occur. These emotions and feelings manipulate the body to behave in ways that enhances its self-preservation.
Damasio interweaves his neural science narrative cleverly with the thread of Spinoza's philosophy. There is a lot still to discover, but neural science is vindicating Spinoza's hypothesis: that our mental life is shaped by nature to serve the optimum survival of the physical body.
There is a powerful lesson to be drawn: this mental life is designed to work in forager groups in the African Savannah. Our lives today are so far removed from these conditions that we are continuously stressed by emotional signals occurring in inappropriate ways.
Today, we medicate our feelings with alcohol, drugs, and New Age therapies. However, the insights provided by neuroscience point the way to how we might structure our lives in ways that bring our bodies back into a state of harmony with our natures.
Damasio does not venture into how we might do this, but I do tackle this question of evolutionary psychology in Deadly Harvest.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on November 10, 2010
This third book in a series continues the author's war against dualism (the idea that mind and body are of two different substances), as well as his exploration of the connection between body, brain, and mind. His main argument is that reason is not something that is separate from emotion, but instead emotions are a necessity for rational behavior (as laid out in his first book "Descartes' Error"). The book is essentially a glimpse into the inner workings of Damasio's mind and feelings as he grapples with Spinoza's writings (and to a lesser degree Descartes). His focus on Spinoza comes from his belief that Spinoza was one of the first to see a mind/body connection, in which Spinoza argued that the mind is something that is actually dependent on the body. However, Spinoza wrote at a time in which reason alone was considered to be at the top of the hierarchy and challenging established thought at the time was something that could bring not only social and academic rejection, but even death. Yet Spinoza was still willing to speak what he believed, no matter what trouble it brought him.

The first part of the book is dedicated to exploring emotions and feelings, while the second half is a further exploration of the connection between body, brain, and the mind, followed by an examination of Spinoza's life and ideas. Damasio's hypothesis is that emotions are actually perceptions. His argument for this is based on the fact that emotions, when they occur are correlated with bodily change, for example chemically, neurally, as well as muscular. One way this connection can be seen is in that emotions are sometimes measured by the change in our physical reactions.

Damasio does not stop with this thinking though, and he goes on to explain that emotions are also more than just neurological events, for they give rise to phenomenological experiences as well, for feelings are the perception of an emotion. This though is where the weakest point in his writing lies, for he never clarifies what we are to take from this claim. What is not clear is whether feelings are nothing more than perceptions of a bodily state or are they something that are "caused" by perceptions of our bodily states and thus made up of our perceptions. The full connection between perceptions and phenomenological experiences appears to be glossed over and leaves us with unanswered questions. But considering this is not a scholarly work but instead part of the authors thinking process, essentially his hobby, this may be something he will further explore in a future book. We will just have to wait and see.

When I first read "Descartes' Error" I had a very hard time with his hypothesis regarding the necessity of emotions for rational behavior. Now I have come to a point in which I can critically reflect on the arguments that he has already laid out, and that he continues to flesh out in "Looking for Spinoza." While it appears to fly in the face of all I learned while studying philosophy, I have to now admit that his ideas hold a lot of weight. A lot of this seems to have come from my current training in clinical psychology. The one theory that comes to mind is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Working in this modality one quickly learns of the triangle that consists of thoughts, feelings and emotions, and behaviors or actions. Damasio's books bring together something psychologists seem to have started to notice quite some time ago. The problem in clinical psychology, though, is that we still tend to separate the three, focusing either on the phenomenological experience of emotions, on the cognitive thought processes, or on behaviors. I think CBT comes close to making the connection that Damasio discusses, but in the therapy room each area is usually examined separately with emotions being something that are seen as stemming from our thinking. The "fight or flight" response is the common example utilized whenever discussion of this connection arises. I will say, though, that Damasio's writings have impacted me the most in that, with the clients I work with, I have learned to not focus on cognitive processes at the expense of their emotions, but instead I try to utilize their emotional experiences, their cognitive processes, and to a lesser degree their somatic experiences while working with them. I think as the connection between emotions, thought, and the body are further explored this will open doors in the area of psychotherapeutic thinking that may allow for a better understanding of the human experience.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on November 6, 2010
When I picked up this book for the first time, I was not sure what to expect. Was this a text on philosophy, science, literature or psychology? To my pleasant surprise, I found all of these components in Damasio's discussion of the feeling brain. He artfully leads the reader through the basic structure of the emotional self and delineates the reciprocal neurocognitive interaction between the brain and our experience of feelings. I appreciated the way he grounded his discussion in science and research while enhancing the hypotheses with theory and philosophy. Overall, this book was interesting, accessible and extremely thought provoking.

I particularly enjoyed his writing style as he walked the reader through the complexities of a neuroscientific conceptualization of emotions. Throughout the book, it feels as if the reader is being led through Damasio's thought process as he "thinks out loud" and navigates various explanations of feelings and perception. I also found myself pulled into the stories he intertwined among the dense neuroanatomy and cognitive science. His use of classic historical cases and philosophical works to illustrate these themes created a reading experience that was much more engaging than I would anticipate from such high-level scientific investigations.

I was particularly intrigued by his discussion on spirituality and consciousness. Damasio respond to the ever present question; "what is the spirit?" As he has done throughout the book, he investigates what it is like to have a spiritual experience and decides that it is ultimately the experience of harmony dominated by joy. I agree with his argument that experiencing this profound form of joy can contribute to greater functioning and even flourishing. After reading this section, I contemplated Damasio's assertion and how it relates to my responsibility as clinician and mental health provider. Feelings and emotions are like the bread and butter of clinical interactions; we are trained to attend to the emotional context of our client's narrative so much so that we could do it in our sleep. However, the spiritual experience of the client is so often neglected as a legitimate and profound contribution to overall emotional well-being. Also, as Damasio notes, spirituality and the awareness of moral responsibility can lead to conflict or negative emotions in the form of guilt or shame if the client perceives their actions as incongruent with religious expectations. The implication: spirituality must be assessed in clinical settings as a potential resource or source of conflict for the client.

The contextual component of spirituality leads to an interpersonal and systemic interpretation of spiritual experience. As Damasio elucidates, seeking joy and avoiding guilt or shame requires an awareness of social norms and the motivation to conform to behaviors that lead to positive emotions. It follows that client's can seek out spiritual experiences and consciously increase their level of spiritual joy, thus utilizing control over their emotional well being and overall mental health. As clinicians, we may be able to encourage this "intentional" experience of spirituality in clients who are emotionally disconnected or overwhelmed by negative emotions.

Although this review focused mainly on a single theme in Damasio's exploration of feelings and emotions, he raises a multitude of intriguing applications related to the scientific investigation of the feeling brain. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in further understanding their own emotional experience.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on October 24, 2011
Having first read Professor Damasio's fourth book in this series "When self Comes to Mind," and having been so impressed with that book (which pulls together a lot of the materials appearing in this book), no one should be surprised if this one seemed a bit anti-climatic to me. That said however, the author at this point in his development, had set out to get his hands fully around the emotions/feelings nexus and to better understand the role they played in the brain/mind (or mind-body) dichotomy. In his later book mentioned above, the mind-body problem was effectively resolved.

The short story of this book emerges unmolested and almost directly from "damaged" and "split-brain" surgery and research, where it became imminently clear that different brain systems controlled different feelings. Corresponding to this weighty finding was the fact that when certain patients lost the ability to express certain emotions, they also lost the ability to experience the corresponding feelings. However, the opposite did not hold. Patients that lost certain feelings still could experience the emotions associated with the missing feelings.

One conclusion that could be drawn from this asymmetry is that emotions must have a prior existence to feelings. Another conclusion that can be drawn, one that is supported by the author's surgery and research as well as strongly implicated by the asymmetry mentioned above, is that "emotion related reactions" are aligned almost entirely with the body, and feelings are aligned almost entirely with the mind. That is pretty much the end of the short story.

The longer story, which makes up the body of this book, attempts to confirm these and other initial hunches, and also tries to put them into some larger meta-theoretical order and context whose primary end value will lie in better understanding the human condition. For all of the obvious reasons, this longer story is a great deal more complex, as it involves trial and error, cycles of hypothesizing and otherwise trying to understand how the mind processes emotions and feelings -- as well as thoughts and other mental desiderata.

Critical to understanding this longer and much deeper story is Damasio's invention of the idea of "neural maps," a meta-theoretical concept of a very high order and level of abstraction, a conceptual construct as it were that has the feel of giving the mind a central control center at the brain/mind interface, one that summarizes the mental screen onto which are projected the many complex processes that we have come to associate with consciousness -- ongoing processes that are constantly in progress at any given moment in time. The only way to simplify this complex picture, this longer story, is through the kind of seat-of-the-pants conceptualizations Professor Damasio has proven to be very adept at, both here and in his succeeding books.

Using the ideas of the great philosopher Spinoza as his launching pad, Professor Damasio, shows that Spinoza's ideas already were well advanced and that they had prefigured what Damasio and other modern neuroscientists are finding out only now: that not only do emotions and feelings affect the way the mind is organized, but also that this organization itself, effectively makes the Cartesian formulation of the mind-body problem a moot point.

But more importantly, the author's groundbreaking neuroscience fills in a gapping (and an embarrassing) hole in our understanding (or misunderstanding) of the role that emotions and feelings play in biology and neuroscience. The primary two, the most essential ingredients of our mental machinery: feelings of pleasure and pain, uncharacteristically are the least understood? By taking these, the most obvious aspects of our mental functioning, and making them a seamless part of the science of our brains, the author has done yeoman's work in the field of neuroscience.

But in addition to this very high level neuro-scientific detective work, there is also, as mentioned above, the connection he makes with the history of ideas about the brain and emotions. In Damasio's reading of the great philosopher Spinoza, Spinoza's refusal to separate mind from body, sets the parameters and guides the research given here. Both Spinoza's philosophy and neuroscience, for this author, are obviously labors of love. Here Damsio's passion shows in his groundbreaking science, both Spinoza's stubborn philosophical entreaties and Damasio's passion, come together in an intellectual tour de force that brings us all closer to understanding not just the full meaning of consciousness, but also the full meaning of man. In a detailed (not so) non-technical step-by-step way, Professor Damasio walks the reader through several decades of neuroscience development. Five stars
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