(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Antonio Damasio is the M. W. Van Allen Distinguished Professor and head of the department of neurology at the University of Iowa College of Medicine in Iowa City. He is the author of numerous scholarly papers and monographs and of the well-received Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (1994), in which he argues that feelings are essential to making good decisions.

The question at the heart of The Feeling of What Happens is how the brain permits the experiencing organism to know that it is having an emotion. Damasio has researched this problem of consciousness from the perspective of neurobiology. He seeks to understand just how the brain engenders the mental patterns that compose the images of an “object,” which is anything from a person to a feeling to a toothache; an “image” here is a “mental pattern” that utilizes any of the senses. In his exposition, he examines several fundamental problems that have occupied philosophers for thousands of years. What “qualia” or sensory qualities are to be found in the object itself? How do people have the sense that their perspective of their experience is particular to their individual nature as a special, unique self and not from a “one-size- fits-all” perspective? How is it that one experiences the presence of one’s self as an image, a feeling that one has when in the process of being modified by acts of knowing and experiencing, a feeling that is always there when one is conscious? To investigate these questions, Damasio researches, observes, reflects on, and theorizes about the neuroanatomical underpinnings of consciousness. Mind considered as neuroanatomy, consciousness considered as the sense of self, and behaviors by which those elements are enacted and reflected to the awareness of the rest of the world are the elements of his analysis. They are also the center of contemporary debate about the subject. “Being conscious,” Damasio argues, “goes beyond being awake and attentive: it requires an inner sense of self in the act of knowing.”

Advances in cognitive neuroscience have enabled investigators to observe the living brain in terms of its structure and to establish connections between those structures and observable behaviors and conditions. Dissection is not limited to postmortem autopsy but can now occur in virtual space on living subjects using such techniques as positron emission tomography (PET) scanning and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanning to connect accurately changes in neural structures (caused by disease and injury in humans) to behavior. Furthermore, the work of Seymour Benzer and many other geneticists of the twentieth century has made gene dissection and genetic manipulation possible in the laboratory; work completed in 1999 on the human genome project provides an additional powerful tool for analysis and understanding.

Damasio very carefully and clearly establishes the experimental and observational procedures by which his research has advanced and acknowledges the connections between his work and the earlier work of philosophers; he also calls for further collaborative efforts. As this research has become increasingly intricate, cross-linkages between disciplines and perspectives are necessary to allow investigators

to establish progressively more detailed theories regarding the relation between certain aspects of mind and behavior and the brain . . . [that] can thus be joined in the adventure of theory, and . . . [the resulting hypotheses of which] can be tested experimentally, judged on their merits, and subsequently endorsed, rejected, or modified.

Damasio has thus summarized beautifully the “scientific method” for all to see and understand.

To the criticism that his argument is “reductionist,” Damasio replies that “nature did it for us,” that “the feeling of what happens is the answer to a question that we never asked, and it is also the coin in a Faustian bargain that we could never have negotiated.” Built with nonverbal signs of body states, consciousness “feels like some kind of pattern built with the nonverbal signs of body states,” a feeling of knowing. Consciousness is the key to creativity, the means to modify human existence, to make it better, but the price is high, for it means knowing risk, danger, and pain, knowing what pleasure is and, worse, knowing what its absence is. Damasio argues, finally, that knowing will help being, that the main consequence of consciousness is civilization—the improvement of the...

(The entire section is 1850 words.)