Book review

Antonio G. Damasio: Feeling and knowing. Making minds conscious

Publication Date: 01.09.2022
Swiss Arch Neurol Psychiatr Psychother. 2022;173:w03254

Andreas Steck


Little, Brown and Company, 2021.

256 Seiten.

Preis: 29.90 CHF.

ISBN 978-1-4721-4733-2.

Antonio Damasio is one of the leading neuroscientists. His field of research is behavioral neurology. In the last 30 years he has made seminal contributions to the understanding of brain processes underlying emotions, feelings, decision-making and consciousness. He is the author of numerous scientific articles, but he is also well known for describing his discoveries in several books that have been acclaimed worldwide.

In his newest book Feeling and Knowing. Making Minds Conscious, he is revisiting the relationship between the brain and consciousness. To say it upfront, while there are many theories and writings about consciousness, most failing at making the problem of consciousness solvable, Damasio proposes a convincing and understandable approach. In forty-eight brief chapters, he brings us a rare understanding of how consciousness relates to the mind. He achieves it by taking a stepwise approach, introducing basic concepts with the aim of linking biological mechanisms with functions, starting first with bacteria, and going up in evolution to mankind. Damasio’s book begins with the simplest ­level, stating that sensing exists in mindless ­organisms, giving them a non-explicit, ­non-conscious intelligence. This non-explicit variety of intelligence animates even viruses, as exemplified by the tragic consequences of the current pandemic. The appearance of the nervous system, rather late in evolution, gave living organisms functions that were not present before, such as explicit reasoning and feelings. Eventually, the fabrication of ever more complex minds culminated in homo sapiens; at this point Damasio quotes a poem of Emily Dickinson starting with “the brain is wider than the sky”.

While the brain plays an indispensable role, it requires input from non-neural tissues of the organism’s body proper. This exchange between our physical organism and the brain gives rise to feelings. The origin of feelings is explained by the fact that the nervous system has direct contact with our insides and outsides and vice versa. Feelings eventually give the mind an incentive to act according to the positive or negative signal of their messages. Feelings are not purely mental; they are hybrids of mind and body; they move with ease from mind to body and back again.

Damasio then turn his efforts to solve the “hard problem” – that is, how to explain consciousness. He recognizes that consciousness is not an exclusively human trait; he grants a type of consciousness to ants and bees. The classic void that separates physical bodies from mental phenomena is bridged thanks to feelings, making feelings a foundational component of consciousness. He states that instead of only looking at physical processes in the brain to understand conscious experience, we have to consider the important contribution of the organism’s body. Consciousness is a gathering of knowledge sufficient to generate, in the midst of flowing images, the notion that these representations are mine. Our mental experiences are best described as experiences of “being”. Conscience minds are substrate dependent, the substrate being the organism of the person who is experiencing the story and reacting to it affectively.

Finally, the author turns to anatomy, to lay out the different roles of the cerebral cortices and the brain stem in the making of consciousness. Clinical examples of loss of consciousness – to be found in a state of coma or compromised consciousness under a variety of drugs – are among other conditions discussed and will be of particular interest to neurologists and psychiatrists. Damasio is a profound thinker, familiar with multiple disciplines, and his work represents as much a philosophical as a scientific project. A clear prose, enhanced by rewarding insights and penetrating observations, will make this short book appealing to all scientifically interested readers.

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