Minding the Brain

Antonio Damasio
Antonio Damasio; drawing by David Levine

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.”…

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