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Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Human Brain [Hardcover]

Antonio R. Damasio
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Jan 2003
Damasio, an eminent neuroscientist explores the science of human emotion and what the great Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza can teach of how and why we feel. Damasio shows how joy and sorrow, those most defining of human feelings, are in fact the cornerstones of our survival and culture.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 355 pages
  • Publisher: Harcourt Brace International; First edition (Jan 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0151005575
  • ISBN-13: 978-0151005574
  • Product Dimensions: 23 x 15.8 x 3.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 230,670 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

Internationally renowned neuroscientist Antonio Damasio says in Looking for Spinoza that "feelings of pain or pleasure or some quality in between are the bedrock of our minds." Feelings were considered to be beyond the competence of science, even by neuroscientists until very recently. Damasio has been in the vanguard of those who realised that the neurobiology of feelings was no less viable than that of vision or memory.

Damasio has found an historical figure he can identify with in the 17th-century philosopher Bento Spinoza--a Portuguese Jew living in Holland, who, without any of the benefits of neurobiological understanding, nevertheless did come to understand the unification of body and mind and the role of emotions in human survival and culture. As the title suggests, Looking for Spinoza, includes Damasio's personal exploration of what Spinoza achieved and his desire to bring this long forgotten hero of the mind back into view.

Damasio found himself coming face to face with patients with various kinds of localised brain damage. They could not feel particular emotions such as happiness or sadness in the way that they had been able to before the damage occurred. His was forced to conclude that different brain systems controlled different feelings. When patients lost the ability to express a certain emotion, they also lost the ability to experience the corresponding feeling. But the opposite was not true. Patients who had lost the ability to experience certain feelings could still express the corresponding emotion. Damasio had to ask himself whether emotion was born first and feeling second?

Looking for Spinoza is the third in Damasio's beautifully written trilogy (including Descartes' Error and The Feeling of What Happens) that combine accounts of his personal professional explorations of the mind and what it means to be human and how our ideas about humanity have evolved through the philosophical tradition. What always comes across is his compassion and humanity whilst still being a very practical medical scientist trying to do his best for real people with very real problems. Damsio's account of his researches that have built on Spinoza's ideas, using the hard data of modern science is never less than fascinating and thought provoking. It's the sort of book that frequently makes the reader pause and look into space as the implications of what Damasio has written slowly sink in. The "sciency" bits are perfectly managable (aided by appropriate diagrams) for the general reader and there plenty of backup notes for those who want to explore further. --Douglas Palmer --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

"Big claims, well made: it is a rare pleasure to pick up such a rigorous and readable book about scientific advance that is so firmly anchored in philosophical history" (Time Out)

"Virtually all the interesting philosophy today is done, not by professional philosophers, but by scientists like Damasio... The map may be incomplete, but thanks to Damasio we do at least know the principal landmarks" (New Humanist)

"Damasio's book interweaves lucid and fascinating explanations of neurological findings with historical and philosophical ruminations on Spinoza... Rich and informative" (New Scientist)

"There is much in this book to please Damasio's fans. He is a lively and humane writer, and ranges easily across a wide variety of topics" (Independent) --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
3.8 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
66 of 67 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A window on emotions 6 Jun 2005
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME
Format:Paperback
Damasio has leapt almost to the top of the philosophical pyramid with his books on feelings and consciousness. Unbound by consensus thinking, he shows how the brain and body collaborate in forming what we call the "mind". In this book he reaches back in time to the works of Baruch Spinoza, perhaps the first philosopher with insights on emotions and will. Spinoza roundly refuted the separation of mind and body postulated by Descartes - a thesis with amazing tenacity. Damasio wants to revive the teachings of Spinoza in light of modern research's recent findings verifying and enlarging the Dutch philosopher's ideas. He possesses a unique style in supporting his campaign, with an ability to mix conversational and clinical presentations with fluid ease. This is his finest effort.
Damasio blithely overturns traditional philosophy by giving the body a primary role in developing emotions. What the mind feels, the body has already expressed. Because the body and brain are so deeply integrated in their functions, the combined signals are manifested as "emotion". Our feelings of joy, sorrow and the host of other classifications we use in defining ourselves are the expressions of the interactions. What we say about feelings may be applied to the entire realm of what we call "awareness". In short, the mind represents the body - we react to its actions. Spinoza, without realizing it, was far in advance of his contemporaries.
Damasio uses the wealth of research he and others have obtained over many years to support his contentions. In line with those in the forefront of "neurophilosophy", Damasio attributes evolutionary roots for his proposal. Other animals, he reminds us, react in similar ways to similar stimuli.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars excellent synthesis 29 April 2013
By Prof H
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is an excellent book, a good precursor to reading the latest work in neuroscience by the likes of Steven Rose, who is also keen on making links between neuroscience and philosophy. Ignore the reviewer at the bottom who gave it 1 star - absolutely ridiculous.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Historical Philosophical Neurobiology 6 Jun 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
At times technical and complex,especially when describing neurological functioning,which requires the re-reading of some passages which frustrates progress.However the enmeshing of Spinoza's ethics and the way he preempted the findings of neuroscience more than redeems the short comings of the more technical sections.Having read the other two books in this trilogy I'd say this one offers the more complete overview of Damasio's theories of the emergent self and gives a suggestion of how these theories can benefit society as a whole,through better understanding of the processes and outcomes of feeling and emotion.
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3 of 26 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Boy was I bored!!! 18 Jan 2010
Format:Paperback
With my favourite philosopher "Spinoza" and with an interesting subject "feeling and the brain", I thought this book will be an interesting read. Boy was I wrong, it was depressing, boring...the author tried his best to make the subject sound complicated, there is no flow in the writing. Its a mind cluttering book. Avoid.
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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  42 reviews
111 of 119 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Humanism from a neurobiologist 17 Dec 2003
By Dennis Littrell - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Part of this is a celebration of the 17th century Rationalist philosopher Baruch Spinosa whose world view is very much in concert with that of Antonio Damasio. Spinosa's demolition of Descartes' mind/body duality is the thread that Damasio takes up and weaves into this graceful and agreeable narrative. Furthermore, it is Spinosa's recognition that we are part of, and contained within, nature and not materially different from nature (another of Descartes' errors) that attracts Damasio's admiration for Spinosa.

Leaving aside this framing device I want to concentrate on Damasio's argument about the nature of humans based on his experience as a neurobiologist, which is really the core of this book.

Damasio recognizes that feelings, like consciousness itself, are perceptions, not states of mind. What is being perceived is the state of the body itself, and what is doing the perceiving is the brain. In this understanding--and I think it is a felicitous one--the brain operates as a sixth sense, something like the so-called third eye of the Hindus. It is not, of course, a supernatural sixth sense, but a sense organ in addition to the other five whose job it is to perceive the homeostasis of the organism, a sense organ that looks within instead of without. Instead of the sensation of color or sound, the sixth sense perceives emotions.

Of course the Van Allen Distinguished Professor of Neurology at the University of Iowa Medical Center does not use such a term as "sixth sense" nor would he allude to the third eye of the Hindus. He is a neurologist, a scientist and (despite his demurral) a philosopher. I mention these other ways of "knowing" in an attempt to provide a larger context for Damasio's argument.

This argument is not original with Damasio (and I don't think he would claim it is). In one sense it is derivative from the growing understanding that consciousness itself, a kind of meta-awareness, is actually a perception. Damasio's "feelings" are part of this consciousness.

A further part of Damasio's argument is that emotions are prior to feelings. First there is an emotionally competent stimulus (ECS). Then there is an "appraisal" of that stimulus which results in appropriate and automatic emotion, followed by feelings based on a perception of the emotion and the external situation. This is on-going, and we usually don't notice it. In extreme cases, such as danger, our feelings are more pronounced. In Damasio's scheme, an ECS might be a grizzly bear come upon suddenly while hiking. The "appraisal" would be the recognition that this is a bear, that it is big and it is potentially dangerous. The "emotion" would be all the systemic glandular, chemical and muscular responses in preparation for the flight or fight response. The "feeling" itself would be what we call fear.

Damasio attempts to explain the experience of feelings in anticipation of "naysayers" who contend that such things are eternal mysteries. He makes a distinction between what, say, a Boeing 777 with all its sensing devices might "feel" and how humans feel. The crux of Damasio's distinction is the enormously greater complexity of the biological organism. But this argument, beginning on page 126, is not satisfactory because it does not explain the subjective experience of pain, which is what the "naysayers" are really talking about.

What I think Damasio should say is that we can never know what the Boeing 777 is feeling (or if it is "feeling") since feelings are subjective experiences. They can only be recognized in ourselves (if we have them) and identified with in the report of others. It is the same as trying to explain what the color red looks like to a blind person or how strawberries taste to someone who has never tasted one. Analogies and comparisons may be drawn, but there is no way that I can ever be sure that I feel what you feel or that the subjective nature of any sensuous experience between one entity and another is the same.

In the fourth chapter, "Ever Since Feelings," Damasio attempts to account for how feelings arose in an evolutionary sense. He believes they help complex organisms solve complex problems. (p. 177) "Body-state maps" work automatically for most organisms, but, Damasio argues, with emotions made conscious through the experience of feeling, humans are able to achieve not only a "concern for the individual self" but with "sufficient integration of the now, the past, and the anticipated future" a more effective game plan for survival and well-being. (p. 178) Feelings signal the conscious mind to become involved and this has proven adaptive.

What I think is profound about this argument is how naturally it would have arisen from the evolutionary experience. Before humans and other sophisticated animals arose, most creatures probably made little or no distinction between themselves and their environment. Their responses were mostly automatic and they had no sense of self. Along comes this great leap forward called consciousness and it works because it makes us more effective at protecting ourselves. It also makes us more fearful of death, of course, which is part of the human predicament.

Despite some difficulties, I am very much impressed with Damasio's effort, and I think that his approach from neuroscience and biological evolution, and through the use of scientific experiment, is eons ahead of the old schools in psychology which attempted to understand human beings based on arbitrary models such as psychoanalytic theory or on limited approaches such as behaviorism. But it must be realized (as I'm sure Damasio does) that we are at a tentative stage of understanding. Some even say that we will never be able to completely understand how our brain works. Some even cite Russell's paradox and Godel's proof about the limitations of self-referential systems (the brain/body is such a system) and deny that it is even theoretically possible for us to completely understand ourselves. Maybe only our artifacts, our computers will be able to understand us.

--Dennis Littrell, author of "The World Is Not as We Think It Is"
35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A window on emotions 23 Sep 2003
By Stephen A. Haines - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Damasio has leapt almost to the top of the philosophical pyramid with his books on feelings and consciousness. Unbound by consensus thinking, he shows how the brain and body collaborate in forming what we call the "mind". In this book he reaches back in time to the works of Baruch Spinoza, perhaps the first philosopher with insights on emotions and will. Spinoza roundly refuted the separation of mind and body postulated by Descartes - a thesis with amazing tenacity. Damasio wants to revive the teachings of Spinoza in light of modern research's recent findings verifying and enlarging the Dutch philosopher's ideas. He possesses a unique style in supporting his campaign, with an ability to mix conversational and clinical presentations with fluid ease. This is his finest effort.
Damasio blithely overturns traditional philosophy by giving the body a primary role in developing emotions. What the mind feels, the body has already expressed. Because the body and brain are so deeply integrated in their functions, the combined signals are manifested as "emotion". Our feelings of joy, sorrow and the host of other classifications we use in defining ourselves are the expressions of the interactions. What we say about feelings may be applied to the entire realm of what we call "awareness". In short, the mind represents the body - we react to its actions. Spinoza, without realizing it, was far in advance of his contemporaries.
Damasio uses the wealth of research he and others have obtained over many years to support his contentions. In line with those in the forefront of "neurophilosophy", Damasio attributes evolutionary roots for his proposal. Other animals, he reminds us, react in similar ways to similar stimuli. They haven't the ability to express their reactions in language, but the body language says it sufficiently. Human evolution merely took these root causes a step further. Language, however, and the urge to detach us from the rest of the animal kingdom led us to also separate mind and body. Damasio, following both Spinoza and the finds of cognitive science, seeks to restore the integration.
With an intelligible prose style, enhanced by diagrams and line drawings, this book is a treasure of information. The questions he raises, while jarring to anyone steeped in traditional philosophy, need answering. He's never above noting where more work is required and posits topics to be investigated. The extensive bibliography is valuable in understanding what we know and what remains to be revealed. These revelations, Damasio reminds us, apply further afield than academic disputes over philosophical issues. The view of mind and body underlies most of our concepts of justice, government, public education and social behaviour generally. What gives this book its ultimate value is what basis we apply in addressing these issues. If traditional philosophy's foundation is a false bulwark, we must replace it with a more rational basis. Spinoza had not patience with arguments from ignorance, Damasio states. Nor should you. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
46 of 51 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A great third book. 22 April 2003
By Carlos Camara - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Damasio took on the interaction between emotions and reason, consicousness, and now, with this book, feelings. These are not unimportant, trivial or simple problems for a neurologist to tackle. They are among the greatest mysteries left in science. Now, do not take this to mean I think I agree wholly with Damasio, or that he has solved these puzzles completely. No. But he has made progress, and he has advanced some really intersting hypothesis. Damasio therefore is rightly considered one of the foremost theorethical neuroscienctists, and although seems sometimes to dismiss much of the literature and consider only evidence coming out of his lab, his ability to so easily transform his theories into highly readable popular accounts is scary.
Damasios main concern in this book is to present an neurobiological account of feelings. Now the first move he makes is to distinguish them from the related phenomenon of emotions. These are not to be confused, even when they are highly related. Felling, to Damasio, comes only after the emotion, and is very different from it. Emotions are complexes of chemical and neural patterns that drive the organism by automatical alterations of the state of the body, towards evolutionarily set places of well-being. Fellings are the perceptions of changes in, or the states of the body, and the modes of thinking that these ensue. To Damasio then, the feeling of fear would consist of the infromation provided by the body proper as well as of the way the cognitive mechanism functions because of the changes that are taking place. Since Damasio considers body regulating, homeostatic, and body sensing so important for feelings, he mantains the neurobiological underpinnings of feelings must be structures related to these functions. And he has evidence to support this claim. Imaging experiments show activity in the brain stem, hypothalamus,cingulate cortices and insula correlated with feelings. These structures have in common precicely their activity in regulating or obtaining information of the body. For theoretical reasons, Damasio holds the insula to be the main player here.
With these thoughts in mind, Damasio lists what he thinks are the necessary and sufficient conditions to have a feeling. THese are a nervous system with a body, a way for that nervous system to map and transform body states in neural maps, and then create out of these mental patterns or images, consicousness, a way for the nervous system to change the state of the body. Dmasio then also discusees the probable functions of feelings, its evolutionary origins, and possible reasons why feelings feel the way they do. The first of these questions he anwers in his first book, Descartes error. The second, because emotions were there as were the neural patterns that mapped body state changes, as well because feelings promoted survival by their function. The third, why feelings feel the way they do, Damasio answers speculatively but very interestingly. The life process, its design in multicellular organisms, the way the life process is altered by changes in the body and thr innate reactions of the body,thenature of the nural medium where these structures are mapped, explain together why feeling feel the way thet do. Damasio also discusses how mental images might arise, speculates about the origins of a mental level of neurobiological phenomena, and discusses mind-body philosophical issues. Also, in between these issues, Damasio devotes roughly a third of the book to his interest on the life and philosophy of Spinoza, who Damasio reads as to have anticipated some of Damasios ideas on the body and the mind.
There remain some problems with Damasios account of course. For example, he seems to say a system that has the necessary and sufficient conditions for feelings but is not alive would not feel. His inclusion of consciousness as a necessary condition makes sense, but also obscures his explanation. Is consciousness itself explained? probably not in Damasios terms, but certainly not in the terms probably most relevant for feelings: qualia. What would life add to a system to make it feel,but qualia, that is, the essence (content?) of a feeling? But why would life bring qualia?if life is a physical process too, so qualia should be a physical process too, and therefore a physical system could have it too. But not necesarily an alive physical system. Damasio also never specifies what takes place between a neural pattern and a mental image for the latter to arise out of the former. This is the qualia problem again. So Damasio does not explain qualia? so what? nobody else has. But it is a reality that feelings will not be explained without a proper account of qualia. There is also the issue of predictions and testability. Will damage to the inusla cause loss of feeling? will a brain in a vat feel? Damasio also gives little space to neurochemistry, and it is obvious that it is a very important part of the making of feelings. How do serotonin, dopamine, acetycholine, and other neuromodulators affect feelings? directly, by changing neurons? Chemicals can alter feelings in predictable ways, so does the insula have special receptors, and if so what are their functions? If feelings require consicousness, and as some mantain, consicousness requires language, does feeling require language? how about the memories of feelings. Do memories of feelings activate the insula too, and if not, can feelings arise then out of association cortex (for memories of feelings bring a little of those feelings into the mind)? These questions are some philosophical and some empirical, but they all have somthing to say about feelings, and Damasio gives us no answers.
The book is a great acomplishment, and anybody interested with the hard problems of neuroscience, consciousness, emotions, the self, will want to read this book. Damasios views are predictable given his other two books, but they are original and very interesting. Few other neuroscientists are as thought provoking, or write as clearly as Damasio does.
23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Damasio selects Spinoza...A great book! 8 Aug 2003
By Fred H. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Damasio's Looking for Spinoza is another great book with lots of great stuff to ponder; I highly recommend it. Here's one area (of many) I found interesting:
In confronting our suffering and our need for salvation, in addition to Spinoza's requirement that we live "a virtuous life assisted by a political system whose laws help the individual with the task of being fair and charitable to others," Damasio writes (pg 275):
"The Spinoza solution also asks the individual to attempt a break between the emotionally competent stimuli that trigger negative emotions--passions such as fear, anger, jealousy, sadness--and the very mechanisms that enact emotion. Instead, the individual should substitute emotionally competent stimuli capable of triggering positive, nourishing emotions. To facilitate this goal, Spinoza recommends the mental rehearsing of negative emotional stimuli as a way to build a tolerance for negative emotions and gradually acquire a knack for generating positive ones. [Wow!--Exposure/CBT, circa 1670, but without the cognitive distortions.] This is, in effect, Spinoza as mental immunologist developing a vaccine capable of creating antipassion antibodies."
Additionally, Damasio writes: "The individual must be aware of the fundamental separation between emotionally competent stimuli and the trigger mechanism [which, as current neuroscience now shows, includes amgdala, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, cinguate] of emotion so that he can substitute `reasoned' emotionally competent stimuli capable of producing the most positive feeling states."
In an earlier part of the book (pg 58) Damasio discusses triggering and executing emotion and writes that after the presentation of an emotionally competent object, regardless of how fleeting the presentation:
"...signals related to the presence of that stimulus are made available to the emotion-triggering sites....You can conceive of those sites as locks that open only if appropriate keys fit. The emotionally competent stimuli are the keys, of course. Note that they select a preexisting lock, rather than instruct the brain on how to create one. The emotion-triggering sites subsequently activate a number of emotion-execution sites...[which are] the immediate cause of the emotional state that occurs in the body and the brain regions that [then] support the emotion-feeling process."
"...[he goes on to say that these] descriptions sound a lot like that of an antigen entering the blood stream and leading to an immune response....And well they should because the processes are formally similar. In the case of emotion, the `antigen' is presented through the sensory system and the `antibody' is the emotional response. The `selection' is made at one of the several brain sites equipped to trigger an emotion. The conditions in which the process occurs are comparable, the contour of the process is the same, and the results are just as beneficial. Nature is not that inventive when it comes to successful solutions. Once it works, it tries it again and again." Fred Hussey, 8/8/2003
181 of 238 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Reductio ad absurdum 31 July 2003
By David C. Derrington - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
My biggest question at the end of this book was, "Why was this book so excruciatingly boring for me?" It's not just that I'm a neurologist and know a lot of the material already. I still find books about bizarre perceptual states produced by neurological dysfunction fascinating. Emotional states might make for equally fascinating reading.
Dr. Damasio focuses on some basic points instead. One basic point that he spends over 100 pages illustrating is the distinction he makes between "emotions" and "feelings". The former word he applies to objective emotional experience, such as facial expressions, body postures, measurements of autonomic function and behavior in humans and animals, even fruit flies. The latter applies to human subjective emotional experience. OK, I think most readers knew the difference between objective and subjective before page 1, so what is all this except to introduce the reader to the particular way Dr. Damasio uses a couple of words? Eventually he advances the thesis that "feelings" are secondary to "emotions" something like perceptions are to sensation. Really? Why not the other way around sometimes? Why not something more complex? Certainly perception influences both "emotions" and "feelings". Is it always "emotions" before "feelings"? If that's the case with Dr. Damasio's brain, I might enjoy playing poker with him.
He spends nine pages on an anecdote resulting from treating patients with Parkinsonism by placing electrodes into the midbrain. In one patient, a fluke placement of electrodes produced a profound sadness when stimulated, the emotion ending about 90 seconds after the current is turned off. The patient experienced it as artificial, connected at the time to sad images and desires, but not to any part of her life before or after. OK, sham emotions can be produced in animals with brainstem stimulation. We don't usually do that to humans, but it is interesting to hear someone's subjective experience along with the objective. What does it mean about emotions in general?
Putting great importance on that is like pretending to understand an NFL kicker from having patients wiggle their feet in a doctor's office. We can make someone's leg move from stimulating their spinal cord. I'd bet, though, that the mechanisms that determine who can kick a field goal and who can't are considerably upstream from there.
Dr. Damasio correctly describes the complexity of perception, how the brain is not a camera, not a passive receiver of information. It has our expectations within it, other aspects of attention, as well as the overwhelming complexity of being the organ of our consciousness, as mysterious as that still is. Consciousness remains as necessary a precondition for a subjective visual image as transparent corneas. Yet when it comes to "feelings", Damasio leaves so much out. Where is imagination, inspiration, even the possibility of spiritual influences in the process?
Another thesis Dr. Damasio advances is that the entire brain primarily serves the same purpose as the part of it that regulates body temperature. He describes the entire brain as a homeostatic organ as he goes off into discussing the implications of that for society. Funny, the influence of the one organ in our body that makes us the most human doesn't seem to have kept our society static throughout human history, just the opposite. What is it, the influence of aliens perturbing our natural homeostasis? Devils maybe? Sure our brains keep us alive, but not for everyday to be exactly the same. What with time spent on semantics, inadequate data, and this sort of overreaching, there just isn't that much science in this book.
Spinoza comes up in many ways. The biographical portions of the book are interesting, but pertain to neuroscience mostly as a negative example, I think. Among many quotes here are two. One from page 11:
"Love is nothing but a pleasurable state, joy, accompanied by the idea of an external cause."
The book ends on page 289 with:
"Hope is nothing else but an inconstant joy, arising from the image of something future or past, whose outcome to some extent we doubt."
Is this anything but someone who values intellectual experience over emotional experience by quite a bit? What mechanisms make some love and others not, some loved and others not? What distinguishes that which turns out to be true hope from false hope? It's not all cognitive, I bet.
Damasio isn't as bold as Spinoza, but he doesn't chasten him either. I'm disappointed. I've heard Dr. Damasio give a good neuroscience lecture to a neurological audience. He knows how to do good science. This book is not that.
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