I Feel, Therefore I Am

New York Times, 19 April 2003. [online edition].

Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times
Dr. Antonio Damasio, siding with Spinoza over Descartes, argues that mind and body are unified.

In the middle of the 17th century, Spinoza took on Descartes and lost.

According to Descartes' famous dualist theory, human beings were composed of physical bodies and immaterial minds. Spinoza disagreed. In "The Ethics," his masterwork, published after his death in 1677, he argued that body and mind are not two separate entities but one continuous substance.

As for Descartes' view of the mind as a reasoning machine, Spinoza thought that was dead wrong. Reason, he insisted, is shot through with emotion. More radical still, he claimed that thoughts and feelings are not primarily reactions to external events but first and foremost about the body. In fact, he suggested, the mind exists purely for the body's sake, to ensure its survival.

For his beliefs, Spinoza was vilified and for extended periods ignored. Descartes, on the other hand, was immortalized as a visionary. His rationalist doctrine shaped the course of modern philosophy and became part of the cultural bedrock.

But it seems history may have sided with the wrong man. For more than a decade, neuroscientists armed with brain scans have been chipping away at the Cartesian façade. Gone is Descartes' lofty Cogito, reasoning in pristine detachment from the physical world. Fading fast are its sophisticated modern incarnations, including the once-popular "computational model," according to which the mind is like a software program and the brain like a hard drive.

Lately, scientists have begun to approach consciousness in more Spinozist terms: as a complex and indivisible mind-brain-body system. And now Dr. Antonio Damasio, the head of neurology at the University of Iowa Medical Center in Iowa City and leading anti-Cartesian crusader, says that Spinoza was right in other ways as well. In particular, Dr. Damasio argues in his new book, "Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain" (Harcourt, 2003), the philosopher anticipated one of brain science's most important recent discoveries: the critical role of the emotions in ensuring our survival and allowing us to think. Feeling, it turns out, is not the enemy of reason, but, as Spinoza saw it, an indispensable accomplice.

"Science is proving Spinoza more current," Dr. Damasio said over tea at his hotel during a recent visit to New York. "He intuited the basic mechanism of the emotions."

A slight, fine-featured man with elegant manners and a shock of white hair, Dr. Damasio, 58, exudes old-world charm. His conversation is a velvet murmur that hints at his Portuguese roots; his passion is in his hands, which slice the air in quick, graceful movements as he speaks.

And these days, his pronouncements carry considerable weight. His theories are technical (he distinguishes between feelings and emotions and talks of an elaborate "body loop"). And in their details they are sometimes controversial. But his general emphasis on affect or feelings strikes most experts as beyond dispute. "His contributions at the human level have been remarkable," said Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist and director of Affective Neuroscience at the Falk Center for Molecular Therapeutics at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "He's done some of the most spectacular brain-imaging work that shows us what emotions are like in the brain."

In short, Dr. Damasio is at the forefront of what neuroscientists are calling an "affect revolution" that is turning decades of scientific wisdom on its head and reverberating through other fields as well.

"Academics are throwing themselves into the study of emotion with the rapturous intensity of a love affair," The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in February, in an article that included a list of 25 recent scholarly books, from philosophy and history to literature and political science, all devoted to affect in one way or another.

And while Dr. Damasio hardly deserves all the credit for this trend, thanks to his breakthrough research and two previous, surprisingly accessible books "Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain" (1994) and "The Feeling of What Happens, Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness" (1999) he can take a good deal. He is required reading in literature seminars. Writers like Ian McEwan and David Lodge have acknowledged his work in their novels. He's even inspired a piano concerto, "Body Loops," and a quintet that was given its premiere at Lincoln Center last week..

"For students of the humanities, the key neurophysiological insight of our time is that which has been so eloquently expressed by Antonio Damasio," declared Jonathan Bate, a Shakespeare scholar at the University of Liverpool in the Times Literary Supplement last December. "The division between reason and passion, or cognition and emotion (an opposition that goes all the way back to Aristotle), is, from a neurological point of view, a fallacy."

Dr. Damasio and other researchers, he added, "have brought us close to the possibility of a scientifically verifiable investigation of the hypothesis which in various forms has a very long history that literature may have been genetically evolved to do cognitive work precisely by stimulating the emotions."

All the talk about affect marks the demise of a long-upheld scholarly taboo. In the late 19th century, science's leading lights regarded feelings as a natural subject for exploration. Darwin devoted a book to emotional expression in humans and animals, Freud based his theory of mental pathology on unsuccessful emotional repression, and the American psychologist William James weighed in with a body-based theory of emotion strikingly similar to Spinoza's own.

But by the early 20th century, science had fallen sway to behaviorism and affect was off limits. Human beings, it was thought, could be understood purely by observing what they did. Internal mental states were dismissed as irrelevant. As Dr. Damasio put it, "Neuroscience gave the cold shoulder to emotion." Feelings, he said, were considered "elusive, indescribable, too subjective."

When Dr. Damasio began to study affect in the late 1980's, it was by accident, not design. He had moved to the United States from Lisbon in the 1970's to work with Norman Geschwind, a Harvard neurologist and expert on brain lesions. In 1976, Dr. Damasio and his wife, Hanna Damasio, also a neurologist, became professors at the University of Iowa, where he acquired a reputation as an authority on language, memory and Alzheimer's disease. But it was his work with brain-damaged patients with impaired decision-making skills that led him to wonder about emotions.

"I was forced to think about emotions because of those patients with frontal lobe damage," Dr. Damasio said. "They had incredible problems with social behavior that had normally been attributed only to cognitive disturbances. I was very struck by the fact that they had clear disturbances of emotion. I started thinking that emotions might play a role in making decisions and choices in a normal way."

Typical of his patients was Elliot, a man in his 30's who had suffered frontal lobe damage as a result of a brain tumor. Elliot performed normally on intelligence tests but could no longer make choices, prioritize tasks, manage his time or as a consequence hold down a job. To make a living, he embarked on hare-brained business schemes with shady partners that ended in bankruptcy.

Then Dr. Damasio discovered that Elliot was unable to feel. He spoke of the tragic events of his life without emotion. Shown pictures of gruesome accidents and natural disasters, he registered no reaction. When Dr. Damasio tested other patients with similar brain damage he found the same striking combination of impaired reason and impaired affect.

When Dr. Damasio presented his findings in "Descartes' Error," the book was greeted as a breakthrough. (An international best seller, it has been translated into 24 languages.) "It's one thing to have a speculative theory about the role of reason and the role of emotions," said Patricia Churchland, a neurophilosopher at the University of California in San Diego. "For the first time, his lab really showed" that "you can't shut off all the emotions from rational decision-making."

Neuroscience has since converged around the idea that emotions are central to cognition and thus survival. But just why and how remain more open questions. In his second book, "The Feeling of What Happens," Dr. Damasio speculated that emotions and feelings were crucial to the evolution of consciousness and, along with it, a sense of self. In "Looking for Spinoza," he tackles the mystery of how affect works.

His theory is both elaborate and counterintuitive, involving a chain reaction that begins when an emotion (defined as a change in body state in response to an external stimulus) triggers a feeling (the representation of that change in the brain as well as specific mental images). In other words, feelings do not cause bodily symptoms but are caused by them: we do not tremble because we feel afraid; we feel afraid because we tremble.

Still more provocative is his Spinozist conclusion, that the mind's primary focus is the body: "The mind exists for the body, is engaged in telling the story of the body's multifarious events, and uses that story to optimize the life of the organism."

Such a notion, he concedes, "departs radically from traditional wisdom and may sound implausible at first glance." After all, he points out, "we usually regard our mind as populated by images or thoughts of objects, actions and abstract relations, mostly related to the outside world rather than to our bodies."

And despite Dr. Damasio's assurances that he has neurobiology on his side, not every expert is willing to endorse the notion yet. Writing in The New York Times Book Review in February, Colin McGinn, a philosopher at Rutgers University, called the theory "unoriginal" and "false," arguing that it had been thoroughly debunked when William James and another psychologist, Carl G. Lange, introduced it 120 years ago.

Scientists, however, have been less dismissive. "Damasio's data is very important and very robust," Mr. Panksepp said. "His theory is more controversial. But his approach, by focusing on the nature of body representations of the brain, is essential to make progress on how affective experience emerges in the mind."

Most delighted, perhaps, are Spinoza scholars. Heidi M. Ravven, a professor of the philosophy of religion at Hamilton College, said his work prompted her to write a 70-page paper on Spinoza and neuroscience. "I realized everything he said confirmed Spinoza," she said. "I was just jumping out of my skin."