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Book Review

Nelly Khaselev's picture

A Book Review:

The Feeling of What Happens by Antonio Damasio

Nelly Khaselev

The book The Feeling of What Happens by Antonio Damasio uncovers topics of emotions and consciousness. Antonio Damasio realizes that consciousness is a feared topic in neuroscience. Only a couple decades ago, the study of the unconscious and conscious was even considered unscientific because of the difficulty the subject raises. There were no observation that could be made of the unconscious, or so at least everyone thought. Antonio Damasio dares to enter the world of unconscious and create a story, his story relates the perception of the outside world with the perception of the inside world. The book itself is long and dense but very interesting, in my opinion the best part of Antonio Damasio's work, is his extraordinary real life example of patients with unique neurology problems that bring a distinctive outlook on neurobiology.

            Antonio Damasio justifies his study of consciousness by first admitting that consciousness is very much a first person outlook, and can not be observed by an outsider, however, Damasio claims that this should and does not stop restrict neurologist from studying the consciousness. Damasio claims it is "possible to establish a three way link between 1) certain external manifestations 2) the corresponding internal manifestations of the human being having those behaviors as reported by that human being and 3) the internal manifestations that we, as observers, can verify in ourselves when we are in circumstances equivalent to those of the observed individual. This three way linkage authorizes us to make reasonable inferences about human private states based on external behavior" (p83).  In class we discussed science as a story telling and story revising. Damasio's three-way linkage does just that.  He or any neurologist creates observations of the external behavior such as wakefulness, background emotions, and other specific behaviors and adds new observations of the internal behavior of a person's body as reported by the subject, and finally implications are made- new observation fit or do not fit with old observation by Damasio's or any other neurologist's verification of the observation when they themselves are in similar circumstances. As one could see, the concept that science is not linear holds value outside of our class too. "The solution of the methods problem by the privacy of consciousness relies on natural human ability, that of theorizing constantly about the state of mind of others from observations o behaviors, reports of mental states, and counterchecking of their correspondences, given one's own comparable experiences" (p84).

            When neurologist look at patients with specific neurobiology impairment to look at the breakdown of behavior and connect it to the breakdown of cognition and connect it to the area of impairment. Patients with epilepsy are commonly studied. In the beginning of the book Damasio grabs the readers attention with describing a man who had an absent seizure followed by an absence automatism, two affect of epilepsy. Damasio was sitting in a gray room with the subject; he was a wake, talking and conscious. "Suddenly, the man stopped midsentence, and his face lost animation, his mouth froze, still open and his eyes become vacuously fixed on some point on the wall behind me [Damasio]. For a few seconds he remained motionless, I spoke his name but there was no reply. He began to move...he seemed to see a cup of coffee ...he must have because he picked up the cup and drank from it. I asked him what was going on and he did not reply. He turned around and slowly walked to the door. I called his name and he did not reply. I got up and called him again...He stopped, some expression returned to his face. I called him again, and he said what?" (p6).

This description of the man perplexed me. It seemed he was awake, and moving, and conscious of his surrounding, but why did he not reply to his name. Many times consciousness is related to wakefulness. After all it is said, a person is conscious all the time unless is (dreamlessly) sleeping, in a coma, or passed out. The man was both there and not there. "Absent without leave" (p6). Damasio describes the man having been conscious but simply losing his self-conscious. Consciousness is not just the awareness of the surrounding, but also awareness of one's own existence, sensations, and thoughts. In class we defined consciousness by first looking at Christopher Reeves, a famous actor who became paralyzed after a horse riding accident. If Christopher Reeves was to be asked to move his foot, he would respond saying he cannot; but if you tickled his foot, it would fidget. He, unlike the man was conscious of himself, but not his internal body from the neck down. Both these cases show interesting and perplex elements of consciousness.  

The book The Feeling of What Happens by Antonia Damasio uncovers a story of consciousness in a similar way we have been looking at it in class. Science as a story telling, creating observations, adding to old ones, and making implication and finally revising our story. This circular path of science gives neurobiologists and readers of this book a way of understanding consciousness in different point of view, which allows them to add their own perspective too. How is it that we know what we know? How are we aware of our selves? Aware of our emotions? Aware of our feelings during situations? Questions that should be investigated everyday of all people.