As you read this, at some level you're aware that you're reading, thanks to a standard human feature commonly referred to as consciousness. What is it--a spiritual phenomenon, an evolutionary tool, a neurological side effect? The best scientists love to tackle big, meaningful questions like this, and neuroscientist Antonio Damasio jumps right in with The Feeling of What Happens, a poetic examination of interior life through lenses of research, medical cases, philosophical analysis, and unashamed introspection. Damasio's perspective is, fortunately, becoming increasingly common in the scientific community; despite all the protestations of old-guard behaviorists, subjective consciousness is a plain fact to most of us and the demand for new methods of inquiry is finally being met.
These new methods are not without rigor, though. Damasio and his colleagues examine patients with disruptions and interruptions in consciousness and take deep insights from these tragic lives while offering greater comfort and meaning to the sufferers. His thesis, that our sense of self arises from our need to map relations between self and others, is firmly rooted in medical and evolutionary research but stands up well to self-examination. His examples from the weird world of neurology are unsettling yet deeply humanizing--real people with serious problems spring to life in the pages, but they are never reduced to their deficits. The Feeling of What Happens captures the spirit of discovery as it plunges deeper than ever into the darkest waters yet. --Rob Lightner
From Publishers Weekly
Tackling a great complex of questions that poets, artists and philosophers have contemplated for generations, Damasio (Descartes' Error) examines current neurological knowledge of human consciousness. Significantly, in key passages he evokes T.S. Eliot, Shakespeare and William James. In Eliot's words, consciousness is "music heard so deeply/ That it is not heard at all." It, like Hamlet, begins with the question "Who's there?" And Damasio holds that there is, as James thought, a "stream of" consciousness that utilizes every part of the brain. Consciousness, argues Damasio, is linked to emotion, to our feelings for the images we perceive. There are in fact several kinds of consciousness, he says: the proto-self, which exists in the mind's constant monitoring of the body's state, of which we are unaware; a core consciousness that perceives the world 500 milliseconds after the fact; and the extended consciousness of memory, reason and language. Different from wakefulness and attention, consciousness can exist without language, reason or memory: for example, an amnesiac has consciousness. But when core consciousness fails, all else fails with it. More important for Damasio's argument, emotion and consciousness tend to be present or absent together. At the height of consciousness, above reason and creativity, Damasio places conscience, a word that preceded conciousness by many centuries. The author's plain language and careful redefinition of key points make this difficult subject accessible for the general reader. In a book that cuts through the old nature vs. nurture argument as well as conventional ideas of identity and possibly even of soul, it's clear, though he may not say so, that Damasio is still on the side of the angels. Agent, Michael Carlisle; 9-city author tour. (Sept.)
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