As he seeks to unlock the secrets of such things as joy and sorrow, Antonio Damasio pursues a unifying theory in Looking for Spinoza
. Why Spinoza? The philosopher, whom Damasio calls a "protobiologist," firmly linked mind and body, paving the way for modern ideas of neurophysiology. Damasio examines this linkage, which ran counter to all scientific and religious thinking of Spinoza's day, and lays out the reasoning and evidence behind its truth. As he has in his previous books on the subject (Descartes' Error
and The Feeling of What Happens
), Damasio is careful to use clear examples from life to explain the often dry and difficult science of the brain. When he wants readers to understand, for instance, brain stem control of emotions, he offers an Oliver Sacks-style case study of a man whose stroke left him unable to keep from bursting into tears or laughter at inappropriate times.
Damasio also defines his terms, which is crucial, as he means something very specific when he says feeling ("always hidden, like all mental images") instead of emotion ("actions or movements... visible to others as they occur in the face, in the voice, in specific behaviors"). Using an impressive array of biological and psychological research, Damasio makes a compelling case for his idea of the feeling brain as crucial for survival and sense of self. But this isn't just a book about brain science. It's a record of an intellectual journey, a diary of Damasio's musings about history, philosophy, and Spinoza's life, all wrapped up in a simply astonishing explanation of a subject most of us don't give a thought to--the feelings that we live by. --Therese Littleton
From Publishers Weekly
The third in a series that began with Descartes' Error, this book deftly combines recent advances in neuroscience with charged meditations on foundational 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, and the result is Damasio's fullest report so far on the nature of feelings. A Salk Institute professor and head of the department of neurology at the University of Iowa Medical Center, Damasio makes a useful distinction between emotions, which are publicly observable body states, and feelings, which are mental events observable only to the person having them. Based on neuroscience research he and others have done, Damasio argues that an episode of emoting begins with an emotionally "competent" stimulus (such as an attractive person or a scary house) that the organism automatically appraises as conducive to survival or well-being (a good thing) or not conducive (bad). This appraisal takes the form of a complex array of physiological reactions (e.g., quickening heartbeat, tensing facial muscles), which is mapped in the brain. From that map, a feeling arises as "an idea of the body when it is perturbed by the emoting process." Because they "bear witness to the state of life deep within," feelings are a vital guide to decision-making. Damasio goes on to connect his own views to Spinoza's and sympathize with that thinker's "secular religiosity," which identified God with nature. He ends by discussing spiritual feelings, which he relates to "the sense that the organism is functioning with the greatest possible perfection." Given his professional background, it is not surprising that Damasio is more persuasive when talking neuroscience than philosophy. But overall, he succeeds in making the latest brain research accessible to the general reader, while his passionate Spinozist reflections make that data relevant to everyday life.
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