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Looking for Spinoza Paperback – 6 May 2004
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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.
"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)
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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
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This transition in historical thinking has some interesting clinical applications. By considering feeling as a result of emotions experienced in response to environmental stimuli we can break down client's experience into two categories; what is happening to them and what they experience as a result of this. Similar ideas are put forth in Cognitive Behavioral Therapies (CBT) that attempt to separate and understand how thoughts can lead to emotions. Newer waves of CBT such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy advance this idea further by acknowledging that we can be observers of our own experience and choose the level at which we will either attend to or feel the stimulus we receive. Damasio's differentiation of emotion and feeling can be applied in a similar way to a client who has been the victim of trauma, or suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This client may have a natural emotional reaction of fear to certain environments or stimulus that are similar to the one where the trauma was initiated. The client may have learned from their prior trauma that following their natural fear response they are overcome with shame or guilt. Working with this client you can begin to separate their shame from their fear response and bring awareness to them that their feelings are a result of an external emotional reaction and not the result of internal unchangeable characteristics. This distancing of the emotion and the feeling can be helpful as the client and therapist work to learn and develop a new feeling to utilize in response to same emotional reaction (fear). This is beneficial for the client as they may realistically be unable to avoid the stimulus causing their fear response.
Damasio blends his ideas of philosophy and neurobiology in a manner that is accessible to more advanced readers who have a basic understanding of neurobiological and philosophical concepts. Damasio's conversational style of writing was a refreshing break from more dense texts, although the more relaxed writing style did not make the more philosophical and advanced ideas easier to grasp. Given the strong philosophical bent of Damasio's writings, discussion on the concept of consciousness itself was mysteriously absent. Although this is currently may be out of the reach of current neuroscience, it would have been nice to cut off some of the more rambling chapters to include one dedicated the direction of future research beyond the current cutting edge. Overall, this book was a welcome break from the monotonous other cognition texts and a breath of fresh air for those looking to expand their integration of philosophy and science. After reading this book, I may not be reading as clearly as the astronomer on the cover in the daylight, but perhaps I have managed to light a few more candles.
As a therapist, I have found that negative feelings are 99% of what brings a client into therapy and Damasio's manuscript is highly relevant in demonstrating a need to identify where certain feelings are located so that they can be treated effectively. He articulates this need as he describes how feelings are manipulated to great efforts with substances, sexual activity, and other hedonistic practices. We want to increase pleasure and decrease pain and Damasio advocates for Spinoza's view that the best way to combat a negative feeling is to overpower it with a positive feeling based in reason. I see the relationship of this philosophy in clinical practice with cognitive behavioral techniques and the power of changing your thoughts.
Since we go to such great lengths to escape our emotions, I find this material highly relevant to clinical practice because if we can alter our emotions through neuromapping breakthroughs, then maybe those with long-term depression or anxiety or psychosis for that matter, do not have to endure the pain and stigma of psychopharmacological treatments where the side-effects can be life altering. Most people spend most of their life ignoring their feelings when we need to realize that in accordance with Damasio's view that they can be seen as "revelations of the state of life within the person" which is direct line with Rogerian and client-centered therapy.
Damasio did an excellent job exploring the biological basis of feelings and conveyed the material in a thought provoking and comprehensive manner. He uses case studies, experimental results, and his own experiences in bring Spinoza's work to life. Well done.