Geoff Bond's
Natural Eating


Book Review Index


Looking For Spinoza

Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain

Antonio Damasio

Harvest Books; 2003; 368 pages; $15.00

Spinoza was a remarkable 17th century philosopher whose Jewish family fled the Portuguese Inquisition to find refuge in Holland.

Spinoza held that ‘the mind’ is simply a bodily process: it is not a separate entity from the body. Furthermore, he claimed that emotions, including spiritual emotions, are a body’s signals to the brain: their purpose is to make the brain adjust the body’s activities in ways that will bring it back to a state of balance with its environment.

Spinoza built up a strong case for saying so in various publications[i]. This idea was a direct challenge to the religious authorities. He received 39 lashes and  excommunication from his own synagogue for his pains. After his death, even the tolerant Dutch authorities banned publication of Spinoza’s works.

Nevertheless, his ideas lived on and became a driving force of the Enlightenment a century later.

Antonio Damasio is Van Allen Distinguished professor at University of Iowa College of Medicine. As a neuroscientist in the forefront of modern research, he specializes in finding out how the brain detects both emotion and feeling. The brain is receiving billions of reports every second from every cell in the body. Neuroscientists can record these signals in particular circuits in the brain. The brain integrates these reports and the result is perceived as an emotion.

‘Background’ emotions work at a subconscious level and are noticed as states of well-being, instinctive  dislikes -- and so on. ‘Primary’ emotions are basic ones such as fear, disgust, sadness and happiness. ‘Social’ emotions include shame, pride, envy and indignation.

In turn emotion gives rise to feeling -- an internalized emotion of emotion. All these processes can be recorded as neural maps in the brain as they occur. These emotions and feelings manipulate the body to behave in ways that enhances its self-preservation.

Damasio interweaves his neural science narrative cleverly with the thread of Spinoza’s philosophy. There is a lot still to discover, but neural science is vindicating Spinoza’s hypothesis: that our mental life is shaped by nature to serve the optimum survival of the physical body.

There is a powerful lesson to be drawn: this mental life is designed to work in forager groups in the African Savannah. Our lives today are so far removed from these conditions that we are continuously stressed by emotional signals occurring in inappropriate ways.

Today, we medicate our feelings with alcohol, drugs, and New Age therapies. However, the insights provided by neuroscience point the way to how we might structure our lives in ways that bring our bodies back into a state of harmony with our natures.

Damasio does not venture into how we might do this, but we will address this question in later newsletters.

i] The Ethics. Tractatus Politicus Religiosus