William H. Calvin, review of Antonio R. Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens for the New York Times Book Review (24 October 1999). See also

This is the original 1800 words, shortened to 1430 words by the time it was squeezed into one page of the book review
Webbed Preprint Collection
This 'tree' is really a pyramidal neuron of cerebral cortex.  The axon exiting at bottom goes long distances, eventually splitting up into 10,000 small branchlets to make synapses with other brain cells.
William H. Calvin

University of Washington
Seattle WA 98195-1800 USA

Antonio R. Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness . This is clearly a must-read book for anyone wanting a neurologist's perspective on one of the greatest of the unsolved mysteries, human consciousness and the ways in which it exceeds that of the other apes. By the author of Descartes' Error.


By Antonio R. Damasio
Illustrated, 384 pp. New York
Harcourt Brace & Company, $28.


William H. Calvin is a University of Washington neuroscientist and the author, with Derek Bickerton, of the forthcoming Lingua ex machina: Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain (MIT Press, 2000).

This decade has seen a number of books tackling consciousness from various angles, ranging from Dan Dennett’s Consciousness Explained, with its top-down demolition of the little person inside, to my bottom-up attempt in The Cerebral Code at a contemplative neural circuitry using Darwinian processes.

Until now, none have really approached consciousness from the standpoint of why it feels the way it does -- surely a livelier question to the nonexpert. I formerly dismissed such "qualia" issues as mere subject-object confusions engendered by our language habits, but Tony Damasio (the Portuguese-educated Iowa neurologist, known to a half-million readers as the author of Descartes' Error) has now persuaded me to pay attention -- and in a way that few philosophers could have done, by citing many examples of neurology patients with odd limitations, ones that show useful distinctions.

It’s not the sort of humanistic-detective book that Oliver Sacks writes, almost novelistic in its insights. Instead, Damasio is trying to piece together a big story, one that philosophers have long struggled with. He has one of the best brain stories of the decade and, fortunately for us, we don’t have to struggle through prose reminiscent of a technical manual in translation. Damasio writes well, his patients seem to come alive on the page, and the theory itself makes a lot of sense – though I suspect he might occasionally be making a distinction without a difference when he talks of "knowing." This is clearly a must-read book for anyone wanting a neurologist’s perspective on one of the greatest of the unsolved mysteries, human consciousness and the ways in which it exceeds that of the other apes.

Neurologists usually confine themselves to commenting on the simplest of all aspects of consciousness, the spectrum from coma to stupor to wakefulness to fully-oriented-in-time-and-place. This can, of course, be studied in most animals fancier than a jellyfish; some of us are fond of saying that calling this "consciousness" confuses the light switch with the light. Neuroscientists occasionally venture into the other approachable aspect of the C word, selective attention -- for which fish might suffice as subjects. Damasio puts such foundational aspects in their place, and then builds atop them, all of the way up to the autobiographical self and its relation to consciousness, even considering (all too briefly) creativity and conscience. Whatever your favorite connotation of the C word, it is likely that The Feeling of What Happens covers that base, a unique accomplishment among the consciousness books.

But Damasio’s really impressive feat is that he integrates all of this with emotions and feelings, making them play a central role in the experience of consciousness. He doesn’t confine himself to the emotions that an external observer could detect, but addresses the feelings that only exist internally, often in the background but occasionally in the foreground. The title of this book is not only paraphrased poetry. It is also meant to be taken literally: the feeling of what happens during the foreground of conscious contemplation.

Editors are always encouraging authors to write a bang-up first chapter that "signposts" the rest of the book – which is invariably stuck on, in front of the old beginning chapter. The tradition goes back to the Old Testament, where the opener’s man-on-the-sixth-day is followed a page later by a less poetic alternative beginning, God fashioning man from the soil amidst a rising flood. Both of Damasio’s beginnings are excellent. Thereafter, reminiscent of all those family trees in the rest of Genesis, the terminology of neuroanatomy and neurology starts to creep in (while the hard parts can always be skimmed, those who wish to get up to speed will find a useful tutorial in the back of the 370-page book). Damasio’s consciousness genesis even has the "begats": "The nonconscious neural signaling of an individual organism begets the proto-self which permits core self and core consciousness, which allow for an autobiographical self, which permits extended consciousness. At the end of the chain extended consciousness permits conscience."[p.230]

Consciousness is more than just being awake, as one of Damasio’s patients illustrates: "Were you to have interrupted the [epileptic] patient at any point during the [absence-automatism] episode, he would have looked at you in utter bewilderment or perhaps with indifference. He would not have known who you were [nor] who he was or what he was doing…." He might turn on a faucet or open a door, but temporarily "the contents that make up a conscious mind would have been missing.… There would have been no plan, no forethought, no sense of… wishing, wanting, considering, believing. There would have been no sense of self, no identifiable person with a past and an anticipated future…. In other words, the patient would have had some elementary aspects of mind… but he would not have had the contents of mind I call consciousness."

Then comes Damasio’s succinct summary of the mental process that consciousness entails: "He would not have developed… an image of knowing centered on a self; an enhanced image of the objects he was interacting with; a sense of the appropriate connection to what went on before each given instant or what might happen in the instant ahead."[p.98-99]

When Damasio talks of enhancement of some images over others, he avoids the commonplace analogy to a stage spotlight, with its unfortunate baggage: a stagehand to point it. A slightly better technological metaphor is the black-and-white movie scene in which one actor becomes colorized, gradually standing out – until another actor develops color and the first fades back to grayscale. Damasio’s symphonic notion of how higher-order brain maps interact to achieve such shifting emphasis is far more sophisticated than my colorization metaphor. Happily, his "orchestra" doesn’t really require a conductor, not any more than a string quartet does.

We do, nonetheless, have the illusion of a little conductor inside, and Damasio suggests how it might arise: "The images in the consciousness narrative flow like shadows along with the images of the object for which they are providing an unwitting, unsolicited comment. To come back to the metaphor of movie-in-the-brain, they are within the movie. There is no external spectator."[p.171] And later: "The story… is not told by some clever homunculus. Nor is the story really told by you as a self because the core you is only born as the story is told, within the story itself. You exist as a mental being when primordial stories are being told, and only then; as long as primordial stories are being told, and only then. You are the music while the music lasts."[p.190]

Core consciousness is closely related to such prominent background feelings as excitement, fatigue/energy, wellness/sickness, tension/relaxation, surging/dragging, balance/imbalance, and harmony/discord. If this core is the indispensable foundation of consciousness for Damasio, extended consciousness is its glory. "When we think of the greatness of consciousness we have extended consciousness in mind. [It] goes beyond the here and now of core consciousness, both backward and forward. The here and now is still there, but it is flanked by the past, as much past as you may need to illuminate the now effectively, and, just as importantly, it is flanked by the anticipated future…. The time scale is no longer the fraction of a second that characterizes core consciousness."[p.195, 197]

Extended consciousness, Damasio notes, is not the same as intelligence. "Extended consciousness has to do with making the organism aware of the largest possible compass of knowledge, while intelligence pertains to the ability to manipulate knowledge so successfully that novel responses can be planned and delivered." [p.198] However, Damasio generally chooses not to complicate his extended consciousness story with all that language adds. Thus, in this book, there is little elaboration about how consciousness is further expanded by structured thought processes, the sort of thing we see best in language with syntax, alternative agendas, games with arbitrary rules, chains of logic -- and our fascination with discovering hidden patterns, whether in listening to music or doing puzzles or laughing at the punch line. Most of what Damasio treats would apply equally well, in my opinion, to the less structured consciousness of chimpanzees and bonobos.

Damasio’s "autobiographical self" is always under reconstruction. This poignant passage recalls his earlier description of Alzheimer’s dementia: "When we discover what we are made of and how we are put together, we discover a ceaseless process of building up and tearing down, and we realize that life is at the mercy of that never-ending process. Like the sand castles on the beaches of our childhood, it can be washed away. It is astonishing that we have a sense of self at all…, [astonishing that we have the] continuity of structure and function that constitutes identity [and the] stable traits of behavior we call a personality."[p.144] Because this easily tipped balance between creation and destruction is likely to underlie our mental life and memories, I am skeptical of proposals to resurrect conscious persons in silico after death – even though, as Damasio notes, it ought to be possible, building from scratch, to achieve some form of machine "consciousness."

And speaking of a mind without a body, there is a memorable discussion of the locked-in syndrome, where consciousness is preserved in spite of total paralysis (except for eyelids and vertical gaze). It has some speed bumps for the neuroanatomy-challenged, but no one should skim the wrap-up chapters that follow them. "The drama of the human condition comes solely from consciousness. Of course, consciousness and its revelations allow us to create a better life… but the price we pay for that better life is high. It is not just the price of risk and danger and pain. It is the price of knowing risk, danger, and pain. Worse even: it is the price of knowing what pleasure is and knowing when it is missing or unattainable." [p.316 last page]

Books mentioned and their links:

Antonio R. Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens:
Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness

Antonio R. Damasio, Descartes' Error (1994).

Daniel C. DennettKinds of Minds (1996).

Daniel C. DennettConsciousness Explained (1991)

William H. Calvin, The Cerebral Code (1996)

William H. Calvin and Derek Bickerton,
  Lingua ex Machina: Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain  
(MIT Press, 2000).

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