The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 15.4 (2001) 323-326
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The Feeling of What Happens:
Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness
The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. Antonio Damasio. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1999. Pp. xi + 386. $28.00 h.c. 0-15-100369-6.
In his magnificent book, The Principles of Psychology (1890), William James drew on the best empirical psychology, biology, and neuroscience of his day to argue for the intimate connection of thought and feeling and to articulate his famous theory of the stream of consciousness. Now, more than a century later, in a spirit much like that of James, Antonio Damasio has made stunning use of recent developments in cognitive neuroscience to probe the role of the body and emotion in thought and to explore the nature and workings of human consciousness. With his earlier book, Descartes' Error (1994), Damasio attracted widespread acclaim with his argument that various kinds of practical and social reasoning depend upon our capacity to experience emotions and feelings. In this new book, he extends his inquiries beyond the role of feeling in thought to take up the problem of what makes it possible for us to experience a sense of ownership of our experiences and thoughts--to have what we call "consciousness." This is obviously an ambitious project, and Damasio tempers his confidence that cognitive neuroscience will light the way to an adequate theory of consciousness with an appropriate humility about how little we actually know at the present time.
Damasio addresses two major problems concerning consciousness. The first is to learn how the brain, operating within an embodied organism that is interacting with its environment, gives rise to mental images (of objects, events, thoughts, feelings, actions). The second problem is "how, in parallel with engendering mental patterns for an object, the brain also engenders a sense of self in the act of knowing" (9). This sense of self is our sense that our experiences and [End Page 323] ideas are ours (that is, are "owned" by us). Damasio's hypothesis is that your sense of self involves the feeling of what is happening to you--the feeling of how "your being is modified by the acts of apprehending something" (10).
Damasio explains that his most significant breakthrough on this difficult problem occurred when he
began seeing consciousness in terms of two players, the organism and the object, and in terms of the relationships those players hold. All of a sudden, consciousness consisted of constructing knowledge about two facts: that the organism is involved in relating to some object, and that the object in the relation is causing a change in the organism. (133)
The story Damasio tells about how we know ourselves via our feeling of ourselves as affected by our interactions with our environment is, as we would expect, a complicated story that is not for the faint of heart. It requires exploratory forays into brain anatomy, neural functioning, the neurochemical basis of emotions, brain lesion studies, philosophy, and psychology. However, the insights gained from this laborious journey through the mind-body clearly justify the effort required to make the trip.
Although even an outline of Damasio's argument would be too extensive for this review, it is possible to indicate some of the general themes that he pursues, as a way of seeing why this book is such an important contribution to our understanding of consciousness. Damasio begins with the fundamental claim that, in order to survive, an organism must maintain within itself a certain homeostatic balance. For example, too little oxygen, too much or too little heat, or insufficient nourishment will lead to the organism's dysfunction or even death. This essential life monitoring of the body's internal milieu is accomplished in higher animals with the aid of emotions. Thus, one of Damasio's pivotal ideas is that emotions are neurochemical processes by which the body monitors changes in its internal situation and is thereby alerted...