Antonio Damasio takes neuroscience back to its philosophical origins in Spinoza's "mind-body" and reveals the "embodied consciousness" of artby AS Byatt / June 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2003 issue of Prospect Magazine
Book: Looking for Spinoza
Author: Antonio Damasio
Price: Heinemann, £20
In his book “Descartes’ Error”, Antonio Damasio took issue with two aspects of Descartes’s thought-his use of clockwork as a metaphor for the mind, and his statement of priorities: cogito ergo sum. Damasio reverses this, and shows how the life of the mind arises from the life of the body. He finds the idea of mind as computer programming, as hard-wiring, to be a misleading descendent of the clockwork metaphor. He deals in the “wet stuff” of the living tissues of body and brain. In “Descartes’ Error”, he gave us a plausible and beautiful idea of how our sense of self and our thought processes arise out of a series of nervous mappings of the body by the brain-from the unconscious visceral reporting to the conscious appetites, to memory and reflection. He does this partly by showing us what happens in brain-damaged people, distinguishing between those who live in vegetative states, those who have lost certain precise things (the left side of the body, or short-term memory, or a sense of responsibility) and those who think and feel more or less as most of us do.
In “Looking for Spinoza”, he extends his researches into the contribution of emotions and feelings to the constitution of our selves. My only real problem with this book is with the ordinary language slipperiness of two words which Damasio uses very precisely. “Emotions,” for Damasio, are involuntary responses like pleasure, pain, disgust and fear, which arise with the appetites early in the life of the body (and which in some cases are innate). “Feelings” are maps and images in the brain of its responses to sensory and emotional stimuli, both external and internal. Both emotions and feelings are an inextricable part of the way we take in the world-including the way we think. Damasio is very persuasive on how we could not survive without the social emotions that have evolved within us. But his greatest skill is making his readers feel the process by which our nervous system maps our body, its surroundings, its history, its needs and its decisions at every moment in our brains. He disposes elegantly of the idea that a metaphorical homunculus sits in our skulls making immutable representations of things to some inner eye, and replaces him with a shifting stream of signals, reinforcing, correcting, congregating into ideas of things and ourselves.