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Minding the Brain

Antonio Damasio is a distinguished neuroscientist with a flair for writing about science and an enthusiasm for philosophizing. For decades, students of mind and brain concentrated on “cognition”—perceiving, recognizing, naming, classifying, speaking, generalizing, reasoning, solving problems—and on various types of memory. Damasio pioneered the neurology of another aspect of our nature, the emotions. This is his third book in a sequence that presents recent discov-eries, his own hunches, and a phil-osophy of mind. First came Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (1994). Then The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Conscious-ness (1999). Note the nouns: Body, Brain, Consciousness, Emotion, Feeling. And, in the new book, Joy and Sorrow.

Damasio is also fascinated by his philosophical forbears. We infer that Descartes was wrong from the title of his first book, Descartes’ Error, and that Spinoza was right from the French title of the new one: Spinoza avait raison. You can read this book for its very personal glimpses into Spinoza himself—as I do, in the second part of this review. Yet Damasio is, to use old labels, a physiologist, an anatomist: his neuroscience is not “cognitive science” but the anatomical study of the brain and its functions.

The dust-jacket comments are written by famous people ranging from Oliver Sacks to Peter Brook, and include such phrases as “the boldest, the most satisfying,” “enticingly original,” “huge and most impressive accomplishment,” “brilliant intellectual exercise,” “beautifully written and deeply, incisively….” Yet as soon as the book came out, a distinguished philosopher of mind, Colin McGinn, trashed it in The New York Times Book Review.1 More recently, the conclusions drawn from neuroscience by Damasio and neuroscientists with similar concerns have been dismantled in a book of 275,000 words written jointly by M.R. Bennett, a neurologist, and P.M.S. Hacker, a philosopher.2 What is going on, that prompts such admiration and such animosity? It is possible to sum up an answer in a dozen dense sentences. First I shall state them, and then try to explain them. According to Damasio:

A human being is a three-part organism consisting of body, brain, and mind, all of which are flesh and blood. One part of the human organism, the brain, monitors the whole body, and helps to keep it in equilibrium. Another part, the mind, monitors the brain and the way it monitors the body. The brain is literally in the body; we all understand that. The mind is part of that part of the body that is the brain. In the history of animals, the body evolved first, then more and more complex brains. Finally there evolved, perhaps only in man, the possibly even more complex part of the brain that Damasio calls mind. He makes his own distinction between emotions and feelings. “Emotions play out in the theater of the body. Feelings play out in the theater of the mind.” Both are for (Damasio’s italicized word) “life regulation” but feelings do it at a higher level. Joy is the feeling of life in equilibrium; sorrow of life in disarray (“functional disequilibrium”).

Two key ideas here are: (1) A person is a “nested triad” of mind in brain, and brain in body. (2) In the background there is always a story of natural selection about the evolution of this triadic structure. In what follows, I will try to see what all this amounts to.


Brain science will be the most popular science of the early twenty-first century. There are bad reasons for this. (Among them are human narcissism and the fear, on the part of the older people who hand out research grants, of the grim reaper popularly called “Alzheimer’s.”) A good reason is that a flourishing new technology is leading to new understandings of the brain right down to the level of cells and molecules. Until recently we could not decently investigate a living human brain.3 We had to rely on accidents. A person’s brain would be damaged by a wound or disease, and the victim would lose some abilities or display other anomalies. After the patient died, we would find which part of the brain was hurt or destroyed, and correlate the damaged area with the faculty that failed. That is how Paul Broca, publishing in 1861, located a region of the brain essential for speech—by autopsy of a speech-impaired patient with a lesion in the third left frontal convolution of the brain.

The walking wounded, impaired in life, and dissected in death, were our primary clues to where and how parts of the brain work. Damasio began his first book with the tale of one Phineas Gage who, while working on the railroad in 1848, inadvertently caused a tamping iron to blast through his head. He amazingly lived, but his entire emotional life changed. Moreover he was unable to make sensible choices or to plan ahead, a failing that fascinates Damasio. He could reason well enough, and tell people what would be the consequences of their actions. But somehow it was as if there was no connection between his emotions and his reasoning. A continuing thesis of Damasio’s is that emotions are biologically necessary for making reasonable decisions: if a part of the brain needed for emotions is missing, decisions will not be reasonable.

Today we do not need to wait until the patient is dead to examine lesions of the brain in detail. We have wonderful new instruments such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET scans). They not only can show exactly what bits of the brain are injured but also can indicate the parts of a healthy or damaged brain that are active, or responding to a particular stimulus, or, perhaps, are engaged in thinking, although this claim remains to be established. Many of the inferences from these images are still pretty crude. We imagine that a region of the brain is active when more blood gets there, quickly. But amazing levels of sophistication are opening up.

Damasio’s work relies on evolving technologies, but his books are not important as dispatches from the medical front. They are reflective attempts to put recent findings together, both to direct future research and, far harder, to incorporate bare facts into our ways of thinking about our fellows and ourselves. His books are fairly easy to read the first time around. Examples and anecdotes about cases like that of Phineas Gage and the sheer charm of the author’s voice help us to glide along. The text is not so easy the second time. The problem is not to grasp the parts of the brain, their names, and their functions. Rather it is the non-technical arguments of the book that raise questions. Damasio works hard, behind his own scenes, to mold the way in which we will talk about feelings, emotions, mind, joy, and sorrow. The difficulty with so courteous a guide is to understand where one is being led, how one is being encouraged to talk and think.

If you are a skeptical reader you might not make it past the first two sentences:

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.

Here one wants to say to Damasio, “Hey, wait a minute! To be honest with you, my attention is seldom overburdened, the way it might be if I had to teach primary school and had thirty cacophonous little voices to deal with. And I rarely have images of words, let alone sentences. The schoolteacher is trying to pay attention to her children, their antics, and their wants, and not to mental images of them (unless she shuts her eyes and plugs her ears). And I do not understand your metaphor of mental bedrock, especially if, as we soon gather, you think that the mind is a sort of organ in the brain.”

Bennett and Hacker, mentioned above, go to town, in a more careful way than that, on a good many sentences earlier written by Damasio and his colleagues. I share their scruples. It is weird to find Damasio cheerfully writing, early in his second book, of our sensory experience as “the movie-in-the-brain” when on the very same page he denounces as foolishness the metaphor of a little man inside us in charge of knowing what is going on, what he calls the “homunculus creature.” Hey, wait a minute! Who, after all, is watching the movie-in-the-brain?

Is Damasio telling us what emotions and feelings, the self and consciousness, or joy and sorrow “really are”? Not exactly. He peremptorily announces what he means by his words. We commonly put the words “emotion” and “feeling” to different uses, but they are close kin, and often not readily distinguished. The OED definition of “emotion” (sense 4.b) begins “a mental ‘feeling’….” It defines feelings in the “collective sense” as “emotions.” Is grief an emotion or a feeling or both? What of awe or love? Damasio, however, declares that emotions and feelings are entirely distinct physiologically. Emotions come first, and in the most direct sense: you first have an emotion, and then have a feeling. But also first in the history of the human race, for the ability to have emotions long preceded the ability to have feelings.

A feeling is produced by an emotion. Both feelings and emotions are states, conditions, or processes in the body. An emotion such as pity “is a complex collection of chemical and neural responses forming a distinctive pattern.” Moreover, for Damasio, there is nothing cognitive about this, and nothing “outer-directed.” Ordinarily, for example, I pity my aunt, whose husband is in a coma. But in Damasio’s account of emotions there is no mental “representation” (favored word in cognitive science) of my aunt or uncle. For him pity is not of or about someone. And emotions seem to be caused by changes in my body; I become aware of my sad look and the low physical spirits caused by being with my aunt and uncle, and that is what induces pity, rather than my emotion of pity making me look sad.

A first reaction is that this is a false theory about emotions—that is the view of Colin McGinn, mentioned above. Or an inadequate theory, for you cannot have emotions without cognitive input, e.g., knowledge of my uncle being in a coma—that is perhaps the majority opinion of neurologists. One could say Damasio’s theory is simply not a theory about emotions, but about something else. I think it is more than any of these reactions suggests, but what?

To learn from Damasio we have to start with the big picture. What is life? Here is a one-sentence stab at recent biological metaphysics. A living being is a self-regulating organism that so regulates itself that it tends (a) to go on existing and (b) to generate other creatures much like itself. We have heard much recently of the latter, of “selfish genes,” of the collective. Damasio, an anatomist and physiologist of the brain, deals in individuals and their body parts. He thinks of mind, brain, and body and their parts as involved in the self-regulation that enables the organism to go on existing as its environment changes and its energy store needs refilling. Emotions, mind, and even the self are ingredients of a homeostatic system.

  1. 1

    Fear Factor,” February 23, 2003.

  2. 2

    Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003). Bennett is a distinguished Australian neuroscientist, and Hacker is the Oxford author of an invaluable many-volume line-by-line analysis of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.

  3. 3

    The first recognizable brain science began with the man who identified the nerves and many of their functions, Herophilus of Chalcedon (335–280 BCE). He learned a lot about the nervous system by practicing vivisection on condemned criminals, experiments that do not bear thinking about. Wilder Penfield (1891–1976), preeminent among twentieth-century neurologists, relentlessly used electrodes to test responses in the exposed brains of patients under local anesthetic. Thank goodness for ethics committees.

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