A leading neuroscientist returns with a complex exploration of the life of the mind.
Feelings play an unappreciated role in culture and consciousness but turn out to be a universal aspect of life, writes Damasio (Neuroscience, Psychology and Philosophy/Univ. of Southern California; Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain, 2010), who directs the Brain and Creativity Institute. Neuroscience has become a popular genre, so there is a substantial audience for this expert, definitely not dumbed-down examination of the interplay between feelings and the human condition. The author emphasizes that culture is almost entirely a human phenomenon and consciousness entirely so, but these represent only the most advanced neurophysiologic manifestations of feeling that—as emotion—are present in many higher animals. These require a brain, but a nervous system (first evolved 500 million years ago) allows simpler animals to monitor their environments and react appropriately. Absence of feeling is incompatible with life, so even primitive bacteria sense their surroundings, cooperate, and defend themselves in sophisticated ways. Damasio emphasizes that all life aims to stabilize its internal environment (chemical concentration, pH levels, oxygen content, temperature, etc.) in the face of external changes. This is homeostasis, a theme the author returns to repeatedly as the engine of evolution. For nearly 4 billion years species have competed, struggled, and died out as evolution has produced other, often more complex species, including humans. Feelings contribute to homeostasis, but homeostasis applies only to individuals. In a long final section, Damasio wonders how its scientific application might diminish conflicts among movements, cultures, and nations in our increasingly dangerous world. His mildly optimistic conclusion is that there are reasons to hope.
A dense, detailed mixture of hard science, philosophy, and speculation that will reward readers willing to work through the author’s demanding book.