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Review of Antonio Demasio’s Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain

alexandra mnuskin's picture

The scientific community has long considered the study of feelings to be taboo, a subject too elusive and mysterious to be researched or truly understood. In his book, Looking for Spinoza, Antonio Damasio is able to finally shed some light on what feelings are and why we have them. In the first chapter, Damasio writes that main purpose of his work “is to present a progress report on the nature of and human significance of feelings and related phenomena, as I see them now, as neurologist, neuroscientist and regular user”(Demasio 6.) With this purpose in mind, Demasio proceeds to elucidate the very nature of emotions and feelings, cleverly interweaving his solid scientific research as well as his personal interpretation of Spinoza’s somewhat radical philosophy. Demasio never looses track of the ultimate goal, to connect his scientific knowledge with ideas of great human significance. Thus Spinoza’s spirit is present throughout the book, even in the scientifically descriptive passages. His revolutionary ideas, so far ahead of his time, truly foreshadow what we have now come to understand about our feelings, our minds and ourselves.

Demasio spends the second and third chapters explaining the idea he postulates in the very beginning of his narrative quoting Spinoza “love is nothing but a pleasurable state, joy, accompanied by the idea of an external cause” (Damasio 11). Damasio argues that emotions and feeling are in fact separate functions and to understand them in a scientific way they must be looked at separately. He proceeds to clearly define them both and connect them to each other—stressing the point that from an evolutionary prospective, feelings are the result of emotions.

Damasio defines emotions as the physical manifestations of the body striving to maintain homeostasis. Homeostatic regulations begin at the most simple reflexes and metabolic regulations and end with the most complex “emotions-proper” like sadness, love or guilt. Reconnecting with Spinoza, Damasio uses the philosopher’s idea of conatus, the endeavor of each individual not only to preserve itself but to maintain an overall sense of well-being.

Emotions then are physical manifestations of how the body feels. This idea resonates well with how we defined primary emotions in lecture. For example, when we see a little baby on the road we would feel an entire array of emotions, warmth, pity, a maternal instinct, all of them contributing to our sense of happiness and well-being. We then spring to some kind of action, taking up the baby and cuddling it for instance. Demasio would argue that every emotion has some sort of outward manifestation, whether it can be observed with the naked eye or with modern scientific technology as in the case of electrical impulses or chemical signals.

In lecture we came to the conclusion that primary emotions, and the subsequent actions they initiate are done unconsciously, completely without the involvement of the I-function. The I-function’s role is that of a story-teller. It creates a plausible tale from all emotions and subsequent actions that take place. To continue with the baby example, a possible story could be “this is a tiny, helpless baby that’s sitting out on the road. I picked it up to protect it and help it find its mother”.

Although he never uses the term “story-teller”, Damasio concept of feelings plays very much the same role. He defines a feeling as conscious thought about the state of the body and the emotions being experienced by the brain. The reader get a clear vision of the homeostatic process, stimuli creating emotions that in their turn lead to conscious feelings about the state of the body. The main point is that feelings are always internal and result from emotions, and not the other way around as some may believe. Damasio then proceeds to give clear descriptions of the body of clinical research available to support his claim.

The fourth chapter of the book, “Ever since feelings” further explores the evolution of feelings as well as their function in our lives. Damasio argues that the ability to processes emotions into conscious feelings accounts for the existence of such concepts as altruism and ethics. Although more complex, these ideas are just an extension of the more primitive self-preservation instinct, what Spinoza would call the conatus of every individual to be happy. People with certain damage to the areas of the brain responsible for feelings are unable to function properly in society due to an inability to access the proper emotion related memory and to envision a solution to a problem in terms of emotion and feelings.

In the fifth chapter, “Body, Brain and Mind” Damasio explores the conflicts between Spinoza and his famous contemporary René Descartes. The dilemma posed by Damasio echoes the very first discussion in our Neurobiology class about whether the Emily Dickinson model or the Descartes model seemed like the best story for explaining the brain. Descartes’ theory, that the body and mind are two separate entities dissatisfies both Spinoza and Damasio. The philosopher and the neurobiologist believe the human mind to be in essence the “idea of the human body” (Damasio 211). Emotions are the body’s reactions to the world, both to outer and inner stimuli. Through feelings the conscious mind is able to interpret these emotions and tell the story of the body. Spinoza and Damasio achieve what Descartes never accomplished, linking the processes of the body and the mind together.

One of the most interesting parts of this chapter is the quote from Spinoza’s ethics “the human Mind does not perceive any external body as actually existing except through the ideas of modification (affections) of its own body” (Damasio 212). This quote implies that the mind and body are linked and that without the body there can be no emotions, no feelings and no mind. The two are interwound and as Damasio himself puts it “ the body shapes the mind’s contents more so than the mind shapes the body’s” (Damasio 217). Not only does this idea link the mind and body as one, it confirms the Emily Dickenson model of the brain that contains everything with ease—that the mind is able to read all the signals in the form of emotions and to consciously feel a joyful or sorrowful.

One critique of the book is the slight departure from emotions and feelings in chapter six, “A visit to Spinoza”. It might be argued that this change to a historical description of Spinoza’s life and times lessens the general flow of the book. However, the sight abruptness of this chapter does not depreciate its value. Not only is the information interesting for the reader who knows little about the philosopher and his work, it is essential for understanding Damasio’s own personal journey in his search for Spinoza.

Despite the philosopher’s sad and reticent life, his image in my mind is of a joyful person who truly loved life and whose philosophy inspires hope in Damasio himself as well as in the reader. The book ends with a discussion of free will that brings us back to the concluding lecture of neurobiology. It is the linkage of the unconscious emotions and the conscious feelings that make free will possible. Spinoza stresses the freedom of the human being above all things—the freedom to pursue happiness and to feel joy. What can be more uplifting? To conclude, Damasio achieves everything he set out to do in the beginning of the book. He illuminates the function of emotions and feelings and their relation to each other. His style is elegant, yet even the descriptions of his research are accessible to someone with out a strong science background. Throughout the book, Damasio never looses sight of Spinoza. By applying his scientific discoveries to Spinoza’s more grandiose theories on humanity he not only finds the philosopher for himself but allows the reader to discover him as well.