The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness / Edition 1

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Antonio Damasio examines the biological roots of consciousness and its role in our survival in The Feeling of What Happens.

How is it that we know what we know? How is it that our conscious and private minds have a sense of self? A gifted medical clinician and scientific thinker, Damasio helps readers to ask and answer questions about what it is to be human. His elegant investigation of feeling and emotion offers a new understanding of the conscious mind and, as the New York Times has noted, “will change your experience of yourself.” 

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
In 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

From the Publisher

"One of the best brain stories of the decade...A must read book for anyone wanting a neurologist's perspective on one of the great unsolved mysteries."—The New York Times
"Stunning...Unashamedly grapples with these issues, and in the process provides the first truly compelling neurobiological account of the self."—Nature
"Both Descartes' Error and The Feeling of What Happens are essential reading. They are ground-breaking classics of psychology and neuroscience. These are books to buy, keep and ponder upon."—Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine
"A tour de force of intuition, investigation and integration."—Sunday Times (London)
"What makes his views so noteworthy is that they're grounded not in theoretical musings but in years of clinical research."—Time
"This is not casual reading, but eventually anyone can master it; it will change your experience of yourself."—The New York Times Book Review, Editors' Choice
"A landmark in the interdisciplinary project of consciousness research."—Scientific American
"Damasio is just the one to show you how fascinating you really are."—The Bloomsbury Review
Bruce G. Charlton
If I were able to nominate one individual for the Noble prize it would be Damasio...both Descartes' Error and The Feeling of What Happens are essential reading. Although they masquerade as 'popular science' they are ground-breaking classics of psychology and neuroscience. These are books to buy, keep and ponder upon. Do so, and you will be ahead of the ruck by at least a decade
Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine
Anthony Clare
..a monumental book rich in a profusion of testable hypotheses, invigorating findings and clinical narratives, written in a language that manages simultaneously to be sturdily hard-headed and gloriously poetic; a gem of a work indeed.
Sunday Times (London)
William H. Calvin
This is a must-read book for anyone wanting a neurologist's perspective on one of the greatest unsolved mysteries, human consciousness and how it exceeds that of the other apes.
NY Times Book Review
J. Madeleine Nash
In a new book titled The Feeling of What Happens, the noted neuroscientist not only argues that human consciousness is comprehensible but offers an arrestingly original explanation of its workings. What makes his views so noteworthy is that they're grounded not in theoretical musings but in years of clinical research on patients who are epileptic or have suffered brain damage through strokes, disease or traumatic injuries.
Time Magazine
Thomas Metzinger
...I believe that the book's clear, beautiful language, its fascinating case studies and the way in which it brings difficult scientific issues to life for readers with many different interests may actually make it a landmark in the interdisciplinary project of consciousness research.
Scientific American
Dan Stern

I remember wondering as I took my Intro to Bio midterm why I couldn't answer certain questions about the brain. The very machinery that had told me to put one foot in front of the other in order to get me to that classroom was now holding out on me about its own nature. "What are the components of neurons?" Not a clue. What was relaying this question through my mind? Neurons. It doesn't get much more paradoxical than that.

Consciousness -- our sense of self-identity or self-awareness -- eludes us in the same bizarre manner. We experience it as the voice inside our head that contemplates our own existence and makes us who we are; but what, exactly, consciousness is remains a mystery. Talk about not knowing yourself. The fashionable new field of consciousness studies -- which at this point is as primitive as physics was prior to Newton -- has given rise to practically as many theories of the mind as there are cells in the brain.

Some say there is no mystery at all -- that consciousness studies is simply what students from the psychedelic '60s entertain themselves with now that they are the professors and researchers of the neural '90s. Skeptics say that science isn't even capable of dissecting this subjective phenomenon. And others proceed cautiously, equipped with the latest neuroimaging techniques and insight gleaned from case studies of neurological impairment (Alzheimer's, epilepsy, amnesia), in the process gradually learning the neurobiology behind the conscious self. Antonio Damasio, a renowned neuroscientist, belongs to this latter camp.

In his bestselling Descartes' Error, Damasio illustrated the significance of emotion in reasoning, doing away with the Cartesian dualism of rationalist philosophy, which separated the body from the mind. In his new book, The Feeling of What Happens, he fleshes out this premise and attempts to merge body and mind in a unified theory of consciousness. His central claim here: Consciousness is the feeling of what happens -- the mind noticing the body's reaction to stimuli.

There is a difference, he states, between a "feeling" and "knowing that we have a feeling"; we can have feelings without an awareness of them. His neurobiological breakdown of the way we achieve this feeling of a feeling, which he defends like a long, technical proof, forms the bulk of the book. The prose this time is less appropriate for a lay audience than for an academic one -- certainly you need a basic knowledge of the brain and an intense passion for the subject matter. It's not beach reading.

Consciousness is not a monolith. Damasio separates it into simple and complex kinds -- namely core consciousness (the fundamental feeling of knowing) and extended consciousness (what most theorists have in mind when addressing the higher-order glory of self-awareness). His breakthrough moment came when he saw consciousness in terms of two players, the organism and the object (e.g., an emotion), and of the relationship between those players.

One of the greatest challenges in consciousness studies is its inherent semantic confusion -- there isn't a shared lexicon to utilize. And though Damasio notes this problem, he adds to the turmoil by introducing several new terms (e.g., "proto-self") and using old ones like "emotion" and "feeling" in admittedly unconventional ways. Emotions, feelings of emotions, awareness of a feeling of an emotion -- this is obscure material, and his argument can be hard to follow.

Damasio seems to have taken a few intriguing case studies and unusual experiments and extrapolated a theory of consciousness from the scant though sometimes compelling evidence they offer. His metaphorical speculations are a necessary step toward decoding consciousness and providing a basis for future research. But have paradigms shifted as a result of this step? As Damasio himself would concede: no. It's far too early to tell whether his theory will hold up or perish like a fleeting image in the brain.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Tackling a great complex of questions that poets, artists and philosophers have contemplated for generations, Damasio (Descartes' Error) examines current neurological knowledge of human consciousness. Significantly, in key passages he evokes T.S. Eliot, Shakespeare and William James. In Eliot's words, consciousness is "music heard so deeply/ That it is not heard at all." It, like Hamlet, begins with the question "Who's there?" And Damasio holds that there is, as James thought, a "stream of" consciousness that utilizes every part of the brain. Consciousness, argues Damasio, is linked to emotion, to our feelings for the images we perceive. There are in fact several kinds of consciousness, he says: the proto-self, which exists in the mind's constant monitoring of the body's state, of which we are unaware; a core consciousness that perceives the world 500 milliseconds after the fact; and the extended consciousness of memory, reason and language. Different from wakefulness and attention, consciousness can exist without language, reason or memory: for example, an amnesiac has consciousness. But when core consciousness fails, all else fails with it. More important for Damasio's argument, emotion and consciousness tend to be present or absent together. At the height of consciousness, above reason and creativity, Damasio places conscience, a word that preceded conciousness by many centuries. The author's plain language and careful redefinition of key points make this difficult subject accessible for the general reader. In a book that cuts through the old nature vs. nurture argument as well as conventional ideas of identity and possibly even of soul, it's clear, though he may not say so, that Damasio is still on the side of the angels. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In his breathtaking Descartes's Error, Damasio linked emotion and feeling to reason. Now he links them to consciousness itself, showing that "consciousness begins as the feeling of what happens" when we see a dazzling shaft of sunlight or feel its heat on our skin. Damasio dazzles us, too, writing with an authority backed by years of research yet so lucidly that we feel it is child's play. (LJ 9/1/99) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Zachary F. Mainen
The Feeling of What Happens clarifies the concept of consciousness and brings it home to biology, laying a vital foundation for future scientific exploration of the subject nature of experience. Damasio's book ought to provide inspiration not only to cognitive neuroscience, but to any discipline concerned with the nature of mind.
Nature Magazine
Kirkus Reviews
The most intriguing unsolved problem in psychology may be the origin of consciousness; here, a noted neurologist proposes that the root of the answer lies in emotion. In Descartes' Error (1994), Damasio argued that the attempt to treat reason and emotion as separate entities was a profound mistake. Now he argues that the body's ability to sense and react to its own processes and its environment holds the key to consciousness. The problem of consciousness can be broken down into two related problems: how the brain engenders images of the outside world and how it engenders a sense of self. In other words, we need to know not only how the brain creates a "movie" from its sensory data, but also how it generates the "audience" that watches the movie. Damasio distinguishes between core consciousness, the nonverbal awareness of one's state of being, and extended consciousness, which entails a sense of other times and places, and which evolves over the lifetime of the creature possessing it. Damasio argues that most higher organisms possess core consciousness and many possess some form of extended consciousness; but in its highest manifestations, such as art and science, extended consciousness is characteristic of humanity. The author fleshes out his arguments with case histories and our current knowledge of the physiology of the brain. Damasio is particularly concerned to distinguish his views from the classical model of consciousness as a sort of miniature person inside the brain. He insists on the role of emotion—the responses of core consciousness to its experiences—in creating extended consciousness, which in one sense is core consciousness augmented by memory. While hisargument demands close attention, it's well worth the effort to follow him. It's clear that he has his finger on many of the key issues of the origins and meaning of consciousness in this fascinating study. (Author tour)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780156010757
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 10/28/2000
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 776,725
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.03 (d)

Meet the Author

Antonio Damasio is the Van Allen Professor and head of the department of neurology at the University of Iowa Medical Center and is an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute in San Diego. Descartes' Error was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and has been translated into twenty-three languages. He lives in Iowa City and Chicago.
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Table of Contents

Pt. I Introduction 1
Ch. 1 Stepping into the Light 3
Pt. II Feeling and Knowing 33
Ch. 2 Emotion and Feeling 35
Ch. 3 Core Consciousness 82
Ch. 4 The Hint Half Hinted 107
Pt. III A Biology for Knowing 131
Ch. 5 The Organism and the Object 133
Ch. 6 The Making of Core Consciousness 168
Ch. 7 Extended Consciousness 195
Ch. 8 The Neurology of Consciousness 234
Pt. IV Bound to Know 277
Ch. 9 Feeling Feelings 279
Ch. 10 Using Consciousness 296
Ch. 11 Under the Light 312
Appendix Notes on Mind and Brain 317
Endnotes 336
Acknowledgments 366
Index 369
About the Author 386
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First Chapter


I have always been intrigued by the specific moment when, as we sit waiting in the audience, the door to the stage opens and a performer steps into the light; or, to take the other perspective, the moment when a performer who waits in semidarkness sees the same door open, revealing the lights, the stage, and the audience.

I realized some years ago that the moving quality of this moment, whichever point of view one takes, comes from its embodiment of an instance of birth, of passage through a threshold that separates a protected but limiting shelter from the possibility and risk of a world beyond and ahead. As I prepare to introduce this book, however, and as I reflect on what I have written, I sense that stepping into the light is also a powerful metaphor for consciousness, for the birth of the knowing mind, for the simple and yet momentous coming of the sense of self into the world of the mental. How we step into the light of consciousness is precisely the topic of this book. I write about the sense of self and about the transition from innocence and ignorance to knowingness and selfness. My specific goal is to consider the biological circumstances that permit this critical transition.

No aspect of the human mind is easy to investigate, and for those who wish to understand the biological underpinnings of the mind, consciousness is generally regarded as the towering problem, in spite of the fact that the definition of the problem may vary considerably from investigator to investigator. If elucidating mind is the last frontier of the life sciences, consciousness often seems like the last mystery in the elucidation of the mind. Some regard it as insoluble.

Yet, it is difficult to think of a more seductive challenge for reflection and investigation. The matter of mind, in general, and of consciousness, in particular, allows humans to exercise, to the vanishing point, the desire for understanding and the appetite for wonderment at their own nature that Aristotle recognized as so distinctively human. What could be more difficult to know than to know how we know? What could be more dizzying than to realize that it is our having consciousness which makes possible and even inevitable our questions about consciousness.

Although I do not see consciousness as the pinnacle of biological evolution, I see it as a turning point in the long history of life. Even when we resort to the simple and standard dictionary definition of consciousness--as an organism's awareness of its own self and surroundings--it is easy to envision how consciousness is likely to have opened the way in human evolution to a new order of creations not possible without it: conscience, religion, social and political organizations, the arts, the sciences, and technology. Perhaps even more compellingly, consciousness is the critical biological function that allows us to know sorrow or know joy, to know suffering or know pleasure, to sense embarrassment or pride, to grieve for lost love or lost life. Whether individually experienced or observed, pathos is a by-product of consciousness and so is desire. None of those personal states would ever be known to each of us without consciousness. Do not blame Eve for knowing; blame consciousness, and thank it, too.

I write this in downtown Stockholm as I look out of a window and watch a frail old man make his way toward a ferry that is about to depart. Time is short, but his gait is slow; his steps break at the ankle from arthritic pain; his hair is white; his coat is worn. It is raining persistently and the wind makes him bend slightly like a lone tree in an open field. He finally reaches the ship. He climbs with difficulty the tall step needed to get on the gangplank and starts on his way down to the deck, afraid of gaining too much momentum on the incline, head moving briskly, left and right, checking his surroundings and seeking reassurance, his whole body seemingly saying, Is this it? Am I in the right place? Where to next? And then the two men on deck help him steady his last step, ease him into the cabin with warm gestures, and he seems to be safely where he should be. My worry is over. The ship departs.

Now let your mind wander and consider that, without consciousness, the old man's discomfort, perhaps humiliation, would simply not have been known to him. Without consciousness, the two men on deck would not have responded with empathy. Without consciousness, I would not have been concerned and would never have thought that one day I might be him, walking with the same pained hesitation and feeling the same discomfort. Consciousness amplifies the impact of these feelings in the minds of the characters in this scene.

Consciousness is, in effect, the key to a life examined, for better and for worse, our beginner's permit into knowing all about the hunger, the thirst, the sex, the tears, the laughter, the kicks, the punches, the flow of images we call thought, the feelings, the words, the stories, the beliefs, the music and the poetry, the happiness and the ecstasy. At its simplest and most basic level, consciousness lets us recognize an irresistible urge to stay alive and develop a concern for the self. At its most complex and elaborate level, consciousness helps us develop a concern for other selves and improve the art of life.


Thirty-two years ago, a man sat across from me in a strange, entirely circular, gray-painted examining room. The afternoon sun was shining on us through a skylight as we talked quietly. Suddenly the man stopped, in midsentence, and his face lost animation; his mouth froze, still open, and his eyes became vacuously fixed on some point on the wall behind me. For a few seconds he remained motionless. I spoke his name but there was no reply. Then he began to move a little, he smacked his lips, his eyes shifted to the table between us, he seemed to see a cup of coffee and a small metal vase of flowers; he must have, because he picked up the cup and drank from it. I spoke to him again and again he did not reply. He touched the vase. I asked him what was going on, and he did not reply, his face had no expression. He did not look at me. Now, he rose to his feet and I was nervous; I did not know what to expect. I called his name and he did not reply. When would this end? Now he turned around and walked slowly to the door. I got up and called him again. He stopped, he looked at me, and some expression returned to his face--he looked perplexed. I called him again, and he said, "What?"

For a brief period, which seemed like ages, this man suffered from an impairment of consciousness. Neurologically speaking, he had an absence seizure followed by an absence automatism, two among the many manifestations of epilepsy, a condition caused by brain dysfunction. This was not my first exposure to impaired consciousness but it was the most intriguing yet. From a first-person perspective, I knew what it was like to dissolve into unsolicited unknowingness and to return to consciousness--I had lost consciousness once, as a kid, in an accident, and I had general anesthesia once, as an adolescent. I also had seen patients in coma and observed, from a third-person perspective, what a state of unconsciousness looked like. In all of these instances, however, as well as in falling asleep or waking up, the loss of consciousness was radical, something like a complete power outage. But what I had just seen that afternoon in the gray circular room was far more startling. The man had not collapsed on the floor, comatose, and had not gone to sleep, either. He was both there and not there, certainly awake, attentive in part, behaving for sure, bodily present but personally unaccounted for, absent without leave.

This episode stayed with me and it was a good day when I felt I could interpret its meaning. I did not think then, but I think now, that I had witnessed the razor-sharp transition between a fully conscious mind and a mind deprived of the sense of self. During the period of impaired consciousness, the man's wakefulness, his basic ability to attend to objects, and his capacity to navigate in space had been preserved. The essence of his mental process was probably retained, as far as the objects in his surroundings were concerned, but his sense of self and knowing had been suspended. The shaping of my notion of consciousness probably began that day, without my noticing it, and the idea that a sense of self was an indispensable part of the conscious mind only gained strength as I saw comparable cases.

Copyright © 1999 by Antonio Damasio, published by Harcourt, Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 9, 2008

    Read the book

    This book is a mind opener. Read it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 14, 2005

    Too wordy

    I found this book to be too wordy. The author has trouble getting to the point. This book is one of the recommened books for the B&N University online class: The Brain and How It Works. Great class but book is way too technical for beginners. Hard to follow and hard to stay focused. Mapping the Mind, also recommended for this class, is much more interesting.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 21, 2004

    Damasio clarifies the backgrounds of our identity

    With a few words I would express my feeling of Damasio as being one of the great writers of our age helping us to understand ourselves and also the development of our children. To remember, that the proto-self beginns its construction already with the life of the featus in the womb would let the becoming mother more carefully to think, how. And to understand the role of the objects to the differentiation and individuation of the child´s self, would interest the parents more carefully to follow the development of their child before the first year. Not to speak of the last layer of the self, the individual, autobiographical self, which comes into being, when the child lives his life with the people and the surroundings, playing and learning, meeting people and places, growing outside in to a personality.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 4, 2003

    As a man thinketh ( SO IS HE )

    when a man takes his thoughts so far as to his heart, What I mean by heart is with everything within to where he acts upon it. ( Emotions )or( Creation ) Things will happen Good or Bad depends on his thoughts. I do believe we have 7 senses, and the title of this book makes me believe it even more. THANK YOU VERY MUCH.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 29, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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