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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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From Amazon

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
Most helpful customer reviews
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 The clarity of truth July 15 2004
As his 2 other previous books, this book has the clarity and consistency of truth. The insight it gives on our personal mental world is simply beautiful. This is just one of those books that everyone should read.
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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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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Humanism from a neurobiologist Dec 17 2003
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.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Free thinkers March 1 2003
The style of this book is along the lines of Descartes Error and The Feeling of What Happens. The first halve of the book is mildly technical, but once you get over that hump there won't be any further difficulty to the direction that Mr. Damasio leads you. There is a plenitude of insights within for your brain to feed upon. (At least I thought so).

Spinoza is one of the many emerging free thinkers who helped launch the modern era. There were a lot of hero's in such a short period before, during and after his time that had the courage and resolve to break the shackles that religion had used to enslaved the mind of Western civilization with.

Looking for Spinoza is a very good blend of neuropsychology, history and biography. Buy it now and enjoy!
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