Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain

Antonio Damasio has written two books in one: A tour of his field of active brain imaging science which provide new insights into the dynamic working of emotions and feelings, and a biography of Benedictus Spinoza who three hundred and fifty years ago published exquisite, but very disruptive insights into the nature of man.

The important thing is that Looking for Spinoza, in the end, brings its multiple theses together in a gratifying view of the human condition. It shows not only how much we now know about the function of feelings and emotions, and how they regulate the body. Damasio shows how exquisitely accurate Spinoza’s insights were.
At first, Looking for Spinoza seems a little disjointed – what do brain scans and symptomatic analysis of people with brain lesions have to do with seventeenth century philosophical writings? Well, it turns out, quite a bit. It seems that Spinoza, intuited the functional relationships between emotionally competitent stimuli, emotions and feelings that are only now are being rediscovered by neuroscience.

Antonio DamasioThe development of Damasio’s premise starts by jumping back and forth between Spinoza’s ideas that relate emotions and feelings to the human condition, and a short course on the critical brain structures involved in enunciating emotions and developing feelings. Damasio tries to keep the discussion focused for the layman. The significance of the anatomy of the brain to his discussion virtually requires keeping note cards to keep the functions of the hypothalmus, thalmus, brain stem, insula and all the other brain structures straight while the story of how emotions lead to feelings unfolds. The Tolstoyian effort is worthwhile, because the vision of Spinoza shows true and clear by the end.
The next section of Looking for Spinoza reviews the result of the last twenty years of research into the dynamic operation of the brain. The definition of emotions and feelings are refined and the differences and relationships are clarified. Some of the graphs and charts are a little confusing at first, because as explained later, the operation of the mind often has feedback from one process back to another, or one area of the brain back to another body system. One term Damasio often uses for the relationship between external “reality” and the inner brain representation of that reality is “mapping”. My suspicion is that if he had used “mapping” to describe only the representation of a “reality item” to the internal brain image, and use the term “matched filter” for the lower level neural net functions, his exposition would have been clearer.

Now for the tricky part of the book, done masterfully. Combining the results of scientific research into the dynamics of the brain and mind, and the results of the studies of people with brain injuries and disease to test Spinoza’s pre scientific insights. The research results are confirm most of Spinoza’s theses as presented in Ethics, to the extent of our present knowledge.

Spinoza made extrapolations from his insights about how our bodies and minds interact; how our emotions lead to feelings and how these emotions and feelings regulate the human body for self preservation. From this he showed that feelings such as joy are closely coupled with an optimal state of being for the person, and sadness is coupled to disfunction of the organism. Antonio Damasio clearly agrees with these extrapolations, and I am sure will continue to test the accuracy of Spinoza’s extrapolations.

Damasio finishes the book with a credible condensed biography of Spinoza that illuminates how the time, curcumstances and place of Spinoza’s life permitted him to visualize the state and nature of man more clearly than anyone before or since. The biography alone makes the task of reading the book worthwhile. Spinoza was a hidden genius whose life and works have been suppressed by the power of religion and governments for hundreds of years. Many of our modern ideas come from his through underground reading, but attributing ideas to Spinoza meant censure for generations after his death, so few people knew the source. Looking for Spinoza illuminates a substantial part of his vision, and gives credit to this luminary of modern thought concerning the true nature of man.

Get Looking for Spinoza and read it!