Antonio Damasio

Antonio R. Damasio is a neurobiologist, and one of the scientists whose work has seemed most provocative and interesting to me recently. I just finished reading is new book, Looking for Spinoza

Damasio is not afraid to propose large-scale hypotheses about the brain, but unlike the cognitive scientists and evolutionary psychologists, his hypotheses are grounded in research on what happens in the brain on the level of individual neurons, and of the structures they make and the interconnections between them. (The cognitive scientists and evolutionary psychologists never propose any plausible physical mechanisms for the “mental modules” they hypothesize).

Damasio’s work centers around the role of the emotions in mental activity. He forcefully argues that cognitive models of the mind are deficient, because without the guidance of the emotions judgment and cognition could not happen at all, nor could we develop the sense of having a unified “self.” And he suggests that the neural basis of (unconscious) emotions and (conscious) feelings is the brain’s mapping of the internal states of the body, its registering of changes in bodily functions. Damasio thus updates, in contemporary neurological terms, William James’ theory of emotion as grounded in the body–and opposes the cognitive psychological model of emotions, which claims that they are predominantly evaluative. For Damasio, as for James, the evaluation implicit in an emotional response is a consequence of the physiological event that the emotion first of all is; rather than, as cognitive scientists claim, the physical sensation being a consequence of the intellectual evaluation.

Even more valuably, Damasio suggests that sensation and perception–our modes of registering and representing the outside world–can themselves be understood in emotional terms, before they are defined cognitively. Emotions register physiological changes in our bodies, and particularly our viscera and internal organs. But perception is also a physiological event: it is a modification of our eyes, ears, fingers, or other specialized organs. Damasio doen’t pursue the suggestion, but I think that such a theory of perception would help us to get away from the Cartesian notion of the mind as an inner theater of representations–a notion which remains all too alive in theroetical accounts today, despite its having been critiqued again and again. A theory of perception as physiological modification, mapped by the brain in the form of emotion, is the missing link that could establish on a much firmer basis the deficient theories of perception in my own book, The Cinematic Body.

All this said, Looking for Spinoza is not without its flaws. On the whole, it seemed to me less substantial than Damasio’s two previous books, Descartes’ Error and The Feeling of What Happens. Part of the problem is that Damasio strikes me as, well, somewhat philosophically naive. When he talks about philosophers–Descartes in his first book, Spinoza to a far greater extent in this one–his comments on their arguments are a bit simplistic. It’s not that he’s wrong, exactly: in fact, I like his proposal that Spinoza’s parallelism of mind and body is not only a non-dualistic alternative to Descartes, but also anticipates the findings of contemporary neuroscience. He’s also right in calling attention to Spinoza’s truly profound analyses of the passions. But, although Damasio is on the right track with Spinoza, many of his actual comments on the philosopher are rather trite, making it painfully obvious that Damasio does not have the knowledge of philosophy that he does of neuroscience.

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