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

Antonio Damasio
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Aug. 4 2000
Completing the trilogy that began with Descartes' Error and continued with The Feeling of What Happens, noted neuroscientist Antonio Damasio now focuses the full force of his research and wisdom on emotions. He shows how joy and sorrow are cornerstones of our survival. As he investigates the cerebral mechanisms behind emotions and feelings, Damasio argues that the internal regulatory processes not only preserve life within ourselves, but they create, motivate, and even shape our greatest cultural accomplishments. If Descartes declared a split between mind and body, Spinoza not only unified the two but intuitively understood the role of emotions in human survival and culture. So it is Spinoza who accompanies Damasio as he journeys back to the seventeenth century in search of a philosopher who, in Damasio's view, prefigured modern neuroscience. In Looking for Spinoza Damasio brings us closer to understanding the delicate interaction between affect, consciousness, and memory--the processes that both keep us alive and make life worth living.

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As he seeks to unlock the secrets of such things as joy and sorrow, Antonio Damasio pursues a unifying theory in Looking for Spinoza. Why Spinoza? The philosopher, whom Damasio calls a "protobiologist," firmly linked mind and body, paving the way for modern ideas of neurophysiology. Damasio examines this linkage, which ran counter to all scientific and religious thinking of Spinoza's day, and lays out the reasoning and evidence behind its truth. As he has in his previous books on the subject (Descartes' Error and The Feeling of What Happens), Damasio is careful to use clear examples from life to explain the often dry and difficult science of the brain. When he wants readers to understand, for instance, brain stem control of emotions, he offers an Oliver Sacks-style case study of a man whose stroke left him unable to keep from bursting into tears or laughter at inappropriate times.

Damasio also defines his terms, which is crucial, as he means something very specific when he says feeling ("always hidden, like all mental images") instead of emotion ("actions or movements... visible to others as they occur in the face, in the voice, in specific behaviors"). Using an impressive array of biological and psychological research, Damasio makes a compelling case for his idea of the feeling brain as crucial for survival and sense of self. But this isn't just a book about brain science. It's a record of an intellectual journey, a diary of Damasio's musings about history, philosophy, and Spinoza's life, all wrapped up in a simply astonishing explanation of a subject most of us don't give a thought to--the feelings that we live by. --Therese Littleton

From Publishers Weekly

The third in a series that began with Descartes' Error, this book deftly combines recent advances in neuroscience with charged meditations on foundational 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, and the result is Damasio's fullest report so far on the nature of feelings. A Salk Institute professor and head of the department of neurology at the University of Iowa Medical Center, Damasio makes a useful distinction between emotions, which are publicly observable body states, and feelings, which are mental events observable only to the person having them. Based on neuroscience research he and others have done, Damasio argues that an episode of emoting begins with an emotionally "competent" stimulus (such as an attractive person or a scary house) that the organism automatically appraises as conducive to survival or well-being (a good thing) or not conducive (bad). This appraisal takes the form of a complex array of physiological reactions (e.g., quickening heartbeat, tensing facial muscles), which is mapped in the brain. From that map, a feeling arises as "an idea of the body when it is perturbed by the emoting process." Because they "bear witness to the state of life deep within," feelings are a vital guide to decision-making. Damasio goes on to connect his own views to Spinoza's and sympathize with that thinker's "secular religiosity," which identified God with nature. He ends by discussing spiritual feelings, which he relates to "the sense that the organism is functioning with the greatest possible perfection." Given his professional background, it is not surprising that Damasio is more persuasive when talking neuroscience than philosophy. But overall, he succeeds in making the latest brain research accessible to the general reader, while his passionate Spinozist reflections make that data relevant to everyday life.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5 stars
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Reductio ad absurdum July 31 2003
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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars darn good book. June 6 2004
By john
Basicially, Damasio's book provides a solid, testable, specific, plausible and elegant hypothesis about emotion and feeling. I found the book to be fascinating and enlightening.
While I do not agree with everything he says -
(specifically his evidence regarding the difference between 'feeling' and 'emotion' seems to me to point toward 'feeling' occuring earlier, at least in some form)
the science is there to be tried and tested.
The other thing I didn't like about it was the writing style was too much in the philosophical vein for my personal tastes... but then science is philosophy, and the style is conciously chosen for that reason.
Overall a great read, though. The ideas presented far, far *far* outweigh the minor complaints I have about the book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Joy, sorrow and the feeling brain are considered in Antonio Damasio's Looking For Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, And The Feeling Brain, a survey of the impact of feelings on daily lives. Such feelings have often been considered too private for science to explain and have been largely ignored: neuroscientist Damasio draws on his own research and experience with neurological patients to consider how emotions support survival itself.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Damasio selects Spinoza...A great book! Aug. 8 2003
By Fred H.
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:
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4.0 out of 5 stars A great third book. April 22 2003
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.
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