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From Barnes & NobleIn The Feeling of What Happens, Antonio R. Damasio, a world-renowned neurologist and the author of the bestselling Descartes' Error, provides readers with more striking illuminations regarding how the "three pounds of flesh" we all carry inside our skulls functions. In Descartes' Error, Damasio made a compelling argument for the inclusion of emotion, along with cognition, as a significant component of the reasoning process. In The Feeling of What Happens, he examines the mystery of consciousness.
Damasio, the Van Allen Professor and head of the Department of Neurology at the University of Iowa Medical Center, breaks what he terms "the problem of consciousness" into two parts. The first is the question of how each of us forms a continuous "movie in the brain." The second is the question of how the brain becomes cognizant of the formation of this "movie in the brain," and in the process, gives rise to a "sense of self in the act of knowing."
The Feeling of What Happens is a fascinating and haunting quest to solve these riddles. One of the keys to unraveling these mysteries of consciousness, Damasio posits, lies in perspective. Damasio shows convincingly that the brain and the rest of the body, as they interface with the material world, give rise to the individual's sense of self, as well as to emotions and cognition. In doing so, he explodes what he terms the "homunculus" model of consciousness.
The homunculus model, toward which Damasio evinces a pronounced disdain, purports that somewhere in the brain exists an entity -- envisioned as a sort of mini-person -- in charge of knowing and using knowledge to interpret data in the form of images. According to the model of consciousness set forth by Damasio in The Feeling of What Happens, consciousness is felt, continuously and spontaneously, rather than relayed by some shrunken third party -- which would, after all, have to have a consciousness itself. And what would that consciousness consist of...yet a smaller homunculus?
Damasio shows that consciousness has played a role in our evolutionary development and is seated deeply at specific, elaborately interconnected sites in the base of the brain. This essential sense of self is not a simple thing. It is rather a richly layered and nuanced interplay of mental patterns. It is informed (and to a certain extent defined) by stimuli in the material world and in the body and by feelings, which effect changes in its constitution that we ultimately come to "know," and finally come to know that we know.
Clinical writing for a wide audience is an art, and Damasio, who is a groundbreaking researcher as well as a bestselling author, is a master of this form. His writing combines an intimate and expansive grasp of his subject matter, an effusive and contagious enthusiasm, and a knack for explaining sophisticated concepts clearly. Readers familiar with works by such authors as Lewis Thomas and especially the masterful Oliver Sacks will find Damasio on equal footing with these writers in his ability to convey sophisticated science without oversimplification or -- worse -- dense tedium.
Oliver Sacks comes to mind because he, like Damasio, writes about patients with lesions in their brains that deactivate some function the rest of us take for granted, such as the ability to access long-term memory or to recognize faces. Damasio and Sacks approach this subject from very different angles, however. In such works as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars, Sacks's tactic is to start with a particular individual with a compelling neurological syndrome and to draw wide-reaching implications regarding how the rest of us function. One of the reasons Sacks does this is because until very recently, observing how the brain works (or how a part of it fails to work in the normal way) could be accomplished only by observing the behavior of individuals or by conversing with them. Actually getting inside the skull and examining the living brain was impossible then.
While case studies of patients with brain lesions are important components of Damasio's arguments, his pioneering research entails an entirely new way of investigating the conundrums that these patients (and "normal" subjects) present. Current medical imaging technologies have allowed Damasio and his collaborators (including his wife, Hanna, who is also a world-renowned neurologist) to directly observe the mechanisms of consciousness itself -- the inner lives of others.
While one can't really know any consciousness but his or her own, magnetic resonance imaging, positron emission tomography scanning, and other techniques provide snapshots of the brain's inner workings. The result is that where Oliver Sacks would start with observations of quixotic behavior and build up to more general questions about the inner workings of the brain, Damasio provides a detailed description of the mechanical mind and uses clinical studies of individuals to make discrete points and illustrate his arguments.
But although he can, in a certain sense, probe inside their skulls, Damasio shows a profound and catching affection for the human clinical subjects of his and others' research. This is particularly evident in his descriptions of patients with various degrees of amnesia, and of David, a 46-year-old man who, because of the ravages of encephalitis, is incapable of learning any new facts.
Damasio, in posing the question of whether or not David is conscious, (the answer is a resounding affirmative), helps illustrate that long-term memory is not a prerequisite to consciousness. In further investigations, Damasio argues that consciousness, on the other hand, is a prerequisite not only to long-term memory, but to cognition as well. Intriguingly, Damasio asserts that emotions are a more fundamental level-of-life regulation than even consciousness.
Damasio's explorations of the levels of being that form the self will be fascinating to anyone with an interest in the workings of the mind or philosophy. In The Feeling of What Happens, Damasio attacks the question of who we are with a passion and vigor that make his quest as engrossing to the reader as it is to the author.
—--David S. Rossmann