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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.

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. 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.

  4. 4

    Spinoza, Ethics, II, Proposition XIII.

  5. 5

    Spinoza, Ethics, II, Proposition XXVI.

  6. 6

    Spinoza, Ethics, III, Proposition VI.

  7. 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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