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Minding the Brain

As organisms evolved, new ways of self-regulating, and the organs for so doing, evolved too. And these organs would, to use a metaphor, monitor what was going on in the body, and feed back into it in such a way as to further increase the tendency of the creature to keep on living.

Comparative anatomy provides some evidence for the order in which organs evolved. When Damasio sees physiological evidence for a more recently evolved layer of the brain that is doing specific work, he wants a word for what is going on there. Hence his forced and artificial splitting of meanings of words such as emotion and feeling. What he chooses to call emotions come first, historically speaking, in the history of evolution, and they are first causally, as the items that instigate a cycle of responses within the body. They produce feelings in another part of the brain, one that evolved later, and are in turn monitored and used in what he calls mind.

Emotions start with an “emotionally competent stimulus,” which is an object or situation actually present or remembered. Damasio chooses pleasant seascapes. He leads us to his view of the evolution of emotions by inviting us to imagine what we feel when pleasantly sitting at the beach (his patter here is oddly identical to New Age relaxation tapes that teach you how to get in touch with your feelings). We monitor our body, we sense it at rest, which induces a harmonious feeling, which tends to leave the body alone, in a stable state, homeostatic, until a new cool breeze or the memory of an obligation disturbs the state. Equilibrium is always the goal. Joy, according to Damasio, is the name for the sense of harmony when we are in a state of equilibrium.

Descartes’ error (to use the title of Damasio’s first book) was not so much to insist that there are two “substances,” namely thinking mind, and body occupying space. It was to separate thinking, rationality, the capacity for language, and so on from the body. Hence to isolate them from the passions, including feelings and emotions. Descartes held that our emotional life works in the body, exactly as it does in animals, which have feelings (sentiments in his French) just as we do. The fact that for Descartes the workings of the body, including the passions, were modeled on mechanics and hydraulics is unimportant. It was a best guess, based on the science of the day. But the deep error, the separation of reason from emotion, prevented Descartes from conceiving the entire organism as a thinking, feeling being. Damasio finds in Spinoza an almost biological (as opposed to mechanical) vision of the human being. And so we turn to the other side of Damasio’s book, which is in part a personal quest, almost for his own kin.


Damasio received excellent training at medical school in Lisbon and studied widely in Europe before achieving a brilliant name for himself in the United States. The Spinoza family was also Portuguese. Like so many other Jews, they moved to Amsterdam to escape tyranny. They spoke Portuguese at home and named their first son Bento. This became Baruch in the documents with which his synagogue excommunicated him, and Benedictus when he wrote in Latin. All mean “blessed.”

Spinozist,” however, did not mean “blessed.” It was an adjective of insult and condemnation throughout the Enlightenment. Yet practically all agreed that Spinoza was the best of all possible men, more virtuous than mere mortals. It takes some courage to claim such a paragon as your own model. Of course people have done so, among them Goethe, George Eliot, and Gilles Deleuze. When Nietzsche first encountered Spinoza he took it as a magical blessing that he had finally found an intellectual companion; his Einsamkeit (loneliness, solitude, but also oneness) became a Zweisamkeit (or twoness).

Spinoza was a loner who attracts loners. Yes, he had friends and companions, was a good conversationalist, but that is to miss the point. His austere system is for those who think alone, who stand alone. Long ago as a post-adolescent do-gooder I worked in a farmhouse shared by two groups, one a group of murderers who had served their time and the other a group of idiots. (All lovely men, if odd.) One of the former, a defrocked Jesuit who had killed his mother, found me reading Spinoza at night and spoke (as he rarely did): “Ah, the great Spinoza. Only he understood freedom and necessity.” A moving statement by a solitary man who had paid his dues.

Spinoza said some very unusual things about the mind. You need to be embedded in the seventeenth-century discourse of substance and ideas in order to venture a confident opinion about what the historical Spinoza meant. Damasio candidly says he is not a scholar of Spinoza and his period. Certain phrases of Spinoza’s have long lingered with him. “Consider Spinoza’s exact words,” he writes, “The object of the idea constituting the human mind is the body.4 A number of other exact words are quoted, in much the same vein. They appeal to Damasio. Some two pages later:

From my current perspective, to say that our mind is made up of ideas of one’s body is equivalent to saying that our mind is made up of images, representations, or thoughts of our own parts of our own body in spontaneous action or in the process of modifications caused by objects in the environment.

That is good Damasio, but is it good Spinoza?

One reaction is that it cannot be! A first worry is the exact wording. Spinoza speaks of “the idea constituting the human mind,” and “the body.” Damasio speaks of our minds being made up of, among other things, images (plural) of parts of our own body. That switch in number seems to betoken an enormous change in sense.

An opposite reaction is, we should not worry. Damasio uses certain sentences of Spinoza’s like arrows found by chance in a forest, to be shot into space at his own targets. In the note on the proposition just mentioned, Spinoza wrote that it enables us to understand “the union of soul and body”—but, he continues, you won’t grasp this properly without “adequate knowledge of the nature of our body.” Damasio the anatomist is helping to provide just that knowledge.

He cites with approval Spinoza’s doctrine that “the human mind does not perceive any external body as actually existing except through the ideas of the modifications of its own body.”5 This seems to hit Damasio’s intended mark. When you notice the sharp bend in the dark road ahead, the bend has had an effect on your body, beginning with the visual system and continuing to an arousal of fear, an emotion. The mind (in Damasio’s material sense of the word) monitors those effects on the body in the form of images or patterns. In this case the monitoring mind gives an instruction: Slow down!—Foot goes to brake. Yet it seems quite a leap from what Spinoza meant by “the human Mind” to what Damasio means by “the mind,” which is among other things a material part of the body, located in the brain.

Spinoza experts will have to assess Damasio’s enthusiasm. Some like it a lot, while others find it repugnant. For my part, I gladly say that he went looking for Spinoza, and this is the Spinoza he found, and more power to him.

He also found far more in Spinoza than the statements I’ve mentioned about mind, body, and ideas. From a reading long ago, he remembered something else of Spinoza’s: “Everything, in so far as it is in itself, endeavors to persist in its own being.”6 We need to be careful here. There is deliberate striving: you have fallen off the boat and are swimming as hard as you can, endeavoring to reach shore so you will not drown. That is not primarily what Spinoza meant. For Damasio it means homeostatic regulation: a living being is a self-regulating organism that so regulates itself that it tends to go on existing.

There is a big difference between tending to do something and striving. A central heating system with the thermostat set at 68° F. tends to return to that temperature as the winter night sets in. We may in metaphor say that the furnace is trying hard to keep the house warm, but we do not seriously think that any part of the system is striving to do anything. The word “homeostatic,” adopted in cybernetics for feedback systems in general, originated in 1920s human physiology to name self-regulation of body fluids, digestion, and metabolism.7 One of the first examples was the way our bodies maintain a constant temperature for the blood. We do not say that our metabolic system endeavors to maintain stability, only that by means of feedback controls it tends to a stable state. We do not “anthropomorphize” our digestion any more than we anthropomorphize furnaces with thermostats.

To return to Spinoza and an important Latin word, Damasio repeatedly mentions conatus, which in Spinoza’s writings is usually translated as “striving” or “endeavor.” In fact it got into seventeenth-century English: the OED defines conatus as “an effort, endeavour, striving.” The conatus of a moving body was its disposition to continue in motion unless interfered with. This was long conceived in human terms, as something like a striving of the body to continue. Thanks to monumental efforts by Descartes, Leibniz, and many others, the conatus of moving bodies became two concepts emptied of the notion of purpose or aim, namely momentum and kinetic energy.

That done, Hume was able to go one step further. He thought that we project onto things our own ability to produce changes. Thus when the baseball shatters the window pane, we think the ball caused the window to break. Which it did—but all that the “caused” means here, taught Hume, is that the collision came first, the breaking next, and that balls flying in certain directions are regularly followed by broken windows. In short, Descartes, Leibniz, and Hume “de-anthropomorphized” conatus and causation. I suggest that in effect Damasio, and Spinoza as read by Damasio, are engaged in a more heroic project: to “de-anthropomorphize” anthropos. If not to de-anthropomorphize man himself, at least the human being as an organism. Spinoza, thinker of solitude, was not scared by that thought, but most people are. Let me try to explain.

The appendix to Part I of Spinoza’s Ethics is a marvelous diatribe against finding purposes in things: against “the notion commonly entertained, that all things in nature act as men themselves do, namely, with an end in view.” When conatus in physics became kinetic energy and momentum, physics ceased to be anthropomorphic. Was Spinoza trying to do the same for living organisms? I am an organism that self-regulates in such a way that it tends to go on existing, feeling joyful. But much can go awry with the organism, externally and internally, inducing sorrow. Did Spinoza mean by conatus not striving and endeavor, as he is always translated, but the brute de-anthropomorphized tendency to continue, a very complex version of the stone that also just tends to continue when you drop it? The organism sleeps poorly, put out of sorts by a bad bed; a part of it monitors this inharmonious state, and acts so as to achieve greater equilibrium. But then what about me, the person who feels uncomfortable, who tries to buy a better mattress? The concept of the mind as a complex piece of metabolism seems to have mislaid the “I.”

The question may lead back to the Spinoza of freshman textbooks, which speak of a “double aspect” theory. Alas, they still say (I just checked) that in Spinoza, mind and body are two aspects of one substance. It would be better to say that personal accounts of how I feel, what I am choosing, and what I am trying to do—and so forth—are one way to express events of my own mental and physical life; I use the same words to describe events in the lives of other people. The words are an excellent, true-and-tested way to express and to describe; they are ever being modified and enriched by poets and novelists. They are not to be dismissed as “folk psychology” by learned ignoramuses. Call such accounts the personal way of speaking, the language of persons.

Then there is an increasingly well informed but different way to describe events of mental and physical life; call it physiological, neurological, and perhaps above all anatomical. It includes talk of homeostasis, and, if Damasio is right, of a series of devices that monitor one another, thus more effectively removing disequilibria that make us less well able to carry on.

As we come to know more and more about the body, brain, and mind we shall of course let our knowledge affect the language of persons. Not by direct pairing of an old word with a new anatomical concept, but more by metaphor, analogy, changes in criteria, and pressures from interest groups. (Look no further than the way “depression” has moved in on us the past twenty years.) Feelings and emotions have been part of the language of persons, both for expressing my self and for describing others. Damasio proposes something different: instant anatomical identification of emotions; this is what they really are, that is what joy is. Yet his story is about internal, hierarchically ordered states within an organism.

Hence as I said earlier, the emotions he writes about are not of, and they differ from emotions as we have long understood them. There is fear, but for Damasio my fear of the customs officer about to take me in for a strip search is merely correlated with something external to me, namely that man in uniform. How different from “my” point of view, where I am terrified of this faceless official. Moreover, there seems in Damasio’s account to be no “I” left who decides how to handle the situation. There is just self-regulating homeostasis going on in this organism.

Damasio will surely go on lobbying for an identification of the personal language with current anatomical conjectures. But I suspect that the internalism of neurologists like him is a bit like the internalism of Descartes: it gerrymanders into existence a problem of reality and all the arid philosophical baggage that goes with it. The problem begins with the first two sentences of Damasio’s book, the weird internalist idea that the schoolteacher attends to images of her thirty children, and images of their shouts, and not to the children themselves and to what they are saying.

  1. 4

    Spinoza, Ethics, II, Proposition XIII.

  2. 5

    Spinoza, Ethics, II, Proposition XXVI.

  3. 6

    Spinoza, Ethics, III, Proposition VI.

  4. 7

    The word “homeostasis” was introduced in 1926 by the Harvard physiologist W.B. Cannon (1871–1945). In 1927 he published one of the classic papers on emotion, an attack on the theory of William James, which is a precursor of Damasio’s approach. An early book was The Mechanical Factors of Digestion (1911); a midlife book was Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear and Rage (1920). My connection between the homeostatic theories of emotions and digestion may be exaggerated, but it is not frivolous.

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