Emotion: all in the body or in the mind?

Looking for Spinoza
June 25, 2004

Scientific progress depends on different types of scientists: the cautiously critical and parsimonious in the interpretation of data before them, as well as the inventively intrepid, who take flying leaps so as to, as Dirac is said to have said, "imagine what the universe is like".

Antonio Damasio takes one such leap and elegantly presents his ideas on emotion in the compellingly written Looking for Spinoza . The ideas that Damasio presents are largely along the lines of the James-Lange theory.

This well-known theory of emotions, which William James and Carl Lange (independently) proposed in the 1880s, states that feelings are simply mental representations of bodily states: when we see a bear, we run, and therefore we feel afraid. It was seriously challenged by the Cannon-Bard theory in the 1920s. Here we feel first: we feel afraid and then physiological changes in the body (sweating, muscular tension) happen.

The James-Lange theory has not been a satisfactory theory of emotions to many. Wittgenstein, for example, rebutted it, asserting "the horribleness of my grief when someone I love dies cannot be explained as the horribleness of the sensations I feel in my body". However, most psychology textbooks continue to summarise the James-Lange theory, and it has influenced subsequent theories such as Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer's proposal that emotions are cognitive interpretations (or "labels") of physiological arousal.

Damasio does not simply rehash the James-Lange theory, he adds an interesting twist. Rather than being direct representations of body states by the brain, the feelings are representations of a map of the body states.

Damasio also posits that the brain can do more than produce straight mappings of the body. It can modify these maps in (hundredths of) milliseconds, and it also allows hallucinations of certain body states. To substantiate his case, Damasio does a commendable job of presenting contemporary neuroscientific research in accessible terms. Certainly, many of the "cautiously critical" would perhaps take issue with some aspects of Damasio's bold push of the edge of the envelope to construct compelling narratives, but few would be left uninterested.

Spinoza is the starting point for Damasio. With his interests in intention and emotion, Spinoza seems to have presaged ideas concordant with the James-Lange theory, bringing in the centrality of the body. Damasio presses the case for Spinoza here, attempting to show how many modern neuroscientific findings fit Spinozian ideas.

Damasio takes us along on his trip, his personal quest to understand Spinoza the man and his philosophy. An engaging travel companion Damasio proves to be, with well-read riffs, for example, on W. G. Sebald's take on The Anatomy Lesson . Damasio fleshes Spinoza out with biographical details, in a charming and compellingly personal fashion. He visits Spinoza's house in The Hague. "Would I have liked the 'brilliant and exasperating'

Spinoza?" he asks. Those acquainted with Damasio's Descartes' Error and The Feeling of What Happens will find Looking for Spinoza familiar - in part because of the themes, in part because of Damasio's engaging style. It is an enthralling read nonetheless, to quite some extent because it strongly conveys a personal element.

Spinoza, along with Leibniz, is considered to have carried the mantle of the tradition of continental rationalism from Descartes. Yet, Spinoza, when presenting his version of Descartes' Principia , stated clearly in the introduction that he did not share Cartesian views (while making clear in the brilliant scholarship that he understood it well enough). Refuting the Cartesian dualism, he developed his version of non-dualism, as it were - startlingly similar (at least superficially) to philosophies such as Advaitic (non-dualist) Vedantism, and certain aspects of Buddhist thought.

Indeed, some have called it Spinoza's version of Buddhism.

A distinct notion of what it means to be a feeling, thinking human follows from the implications of Spinoza's philosophy, which Damasio tries to flesh out. This is the first of two shortcomings of this book: philosophers and others will take issue with Damasio's outline treatment of Spinoza's philosophy, superficially surfing over the complexity ("there is no better age to read Spinoza [than as an adolescent]", he remarks). But perhaps Damasio is not attempting to produce a comprehensive, dense tome. Instead he does an excellent job of producing an accessible volume.

The second, rather more serious flaw is not specific to Damasio's book; it is endemic to many examples of a whole class of writing that seeks to explain neuroscientific research findings. In general, the narratives that attempt to make sense of a diverse set of findings of modern neuroscience research are not primarily neuroscientifically driven but borrow from literature, philosophy and, most commonly, psychology.

Given the nature of modern neuroscience research, there are two problems with such borrowing: first, these fields all face difficulties with rigorous definition of the framework elements such as the intuitive concepts of joy, sorrow or compassion. Second, such frameworks have their own lexicons and intrinsic structures specific to the fields they are derived from, and therefore not prone to easy borrowing. In an instance of this, Damasio borrows a framework from literature; looking to Shakespeare, he uses Richard II's speech to the assembly to distinguish between (and thus define) feeling and emotion. But the basis for such classification (which is used to "uncover something about the biology") is shaky because it is in the very nature of literature to allow multiple interpretations of Richard's speech.

Richard, later in the play, says that he plays "in one person many people" and even makes a dualistic split between brain and soul: "My brain I'll prove the female to my soul; My soul the father: and these two beget a generation of still-breeding thoughts." Indeed, if Shakespeare had to be used, the main theme of Damasio's book might be bolstered by using Henry V's speech rallying his company "unto the breach", urging them to "create" the emotion of martial rage by the appropriate physiological changes - stiffening the sinews, setting teeth, widening nostrils, summoning up the blood, o'erwhelming brows and all.

However, neuroscience, though a growth industry, is relatively young. One has to begin somewhere, even if by borrowing frameworks that can be disproved or improved upon. Damasio skilfully and with elan presents provocative ideas that are well worth thinking about; his Looking for Spinoza is an excellent read.

A. K. Prashanth is a research scientist at the University of California, Davis, US.

Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain

Author - Antonio Damasio
Publisher - Vintage
Pages - 355
Price - £8.99
ISBN - 0 09 942183 6

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