Most helpful critical review
54 of 106 people found the following review helpful
" I emote, therefore I feel " ---- sorry Mr Descartes
on 20 March 2001
Brain science and rocket science have a lot in common. They are often seen as the epitome of high-order human endeavour. The astronaut explores outer space and the neuroscientist looks into the world of human inner space.
Antonio Damasio is a neurophysiologist who puts a great emphasis on the hardware side of the human thinking process. His clinical studies often seem to revolve around cases where the patients have had some trauma or have had a part of the brain removed or modified. The conclusions drawn from this approach are reminiscent of the backyard TV repairman without a circuit diagram who starts pulling components off the circuit boards to see what happens. NASA wouldn't try this method on the space shuttle "Challenger".
Damasio emphasises the architecture of the brain. Brain chemistry and the processes and controls at work are surely of equal or greater importance. As an example, we are given only a passing reference to the function of serotonin, which is now recognized as one on the key neurochemicals. Damasio dedicates a large part of his book to discussing the links between emotion, feelings and consciousness. His neglect of the reality that our physicians are prescribing huge amounts of psychotropic drugs for mood disorders is a yawning omission.
Damasio's previous book, "Descarte's Error" ran the argument that an emotional component is an important element in the reasoning process. In "The Feeling of What Happens" he goes one step further and builds a distinction between our emotions and our feelings and how they link to the state of human consciousness. He puts feelings above emotions on a hierarchical table of "Levels of Life Regulation". (page 55). His attempts to define the difference between emotions and feelings become very tenuous. His arguments are often circular and fall into a morass of semantic subtleties. His acknowledgment at an early point in his book (p42) that emotions and feelings may in fact be part of a continuum shows what follows, is perhaps no more than a contrived argument to push some fanciful ideas.
Damasio's position that emotions and feelings are different beasts can lead to some strange conclusions. He tells us that emotions are more fundamental than feelings and they are typically induced. He sees external stimuli as the prime input to our emotional behaviour. Where does this leave mental states which have an almost certain endogenous cause and at the same time make billions for the pharmaceutical corporations? Feelings, he tells us are things we internalize, whereas emotions are externalized. Damasio argues that emotions are public property and readily observable, but on the other hand our feelings are private and internalized. Something doesn't mesh here. Surely, things that are externalized are more readily controllable and capable of being masked. This goes contrary to his argument that emotions are inherent and therefore less malleable.
Damasio's definition of a mood is a sustained emotional state. We hear all the time about the great modern affliction of mood disorders. If we follow Damasio's line this pathology would be a prolonged, externalized emotion. When you consider the internalized, private world of feelings ( according to Damasio) surely our mental health practioners should be looking to diagnose "feeling disorders". Now, they sound really painful and personal, but surely less embarassing and inconvenient to onlookers than mood disorders.
Another notable gap in Damasio's work is any detailed discussion of that greatest and least attainable emotion, happiness. Despite the advances of brain imaging technology and the widespread use of antidepressant and mood altering drugs, there is no real roadmap out there showing us the way to a sadness free existence.
If you follow Damasio's classification, pleasure would be an emotion and happiness a feeling, but try telling that to a dog wagging his tail. Trying to bundle our emotional states into the same sort of pigeonholes as bodily functions cannot work. Why is happiness such a transitory, difficult to attain state (particularly if you work on it too hard), but on the other side, why can sadness be such an insidious almost cancerous condition for some people?
Damasio is on the right path, however he needs to better integrate his work with the other great advances in understanding the human condition. His contrived classification of the most vicarious of our emotional states can only lead to a blind alley. Perhaps a solution is close at hand. Maybe recognition of the happiness gene is all that is required?