Antonio Damasio, the David Dornsife Chair in Neuroscience, as well as Professor of Psychology, Philosophy, and Neurology, at the University of Southern California, in a slim but complex book, attempts to address the conflict between feeling and reason. Do we as human beings represent a feeling species that can think, or are we a collectively thinking breed that can also feel? What is it that makes us experience a contrasting range of emotions such as pleasure, pain, happiness, sadness, good health and sickness? Steering clear from the conventional postulates that involve chemical or neural ‘correlates’ associated with these feelings, Damasio instead focuses on the functional mechanisms that facilitate the human mind to experience processes that are conceived, evolved and played out within the narrow confines of the physical conveyance that is the human body.
For a reader who does not have a basic understanding of the concepts of human physiology or neuroscience the book can pose a veritable challenge. However, Damasio tries his best to keep things as simple as possible by abandoning medical jargon to the greatest extent possible. Beginning at the very beginning, Damasio argues that evolution as we understand the concept, is a subset of three distinctive, and sequential stages: being, feeling, and knowing, in that order.
Initially, singled celled organisms with just a basic physiological structure possessed only the bare minimum ability popularly known as “quorum sensing”. This meant that these organisms were invested with a minimal form of cognition, classic examples of which included “sensing of obstacles or estimating the number of other organisms present at a given moment in a certain space”.
The advent of feelings in the second stage of evolution coincided with and was a direct beneficiary of the appearance of the nervous system. Boasting complicated motor routines, the nervous systems enabled multi celled organisms to enjoy the unique luxury of mental experiences. These experiences in turn morphed into feelings. This elevation from the ‘being’ stage to the ‘feeling’ stage in the evolutionary timeline led to a clear distinction between various attributes and faces such as pleasure and pain, pleasant and unpleasant, light and intense.
At the pinnacle of the evolutionary ladder rests the phenomenon of ‘knowing’. An outcome of the workings of the sensory systems such as vision, hearing, physical sensations, olfactory experience and taste, knowing birthed the creation of “maps and images” thereby resulting in “a most abundant and diverse constituents of mind, side by side with ever present and related feelings”.
Damasio also strives to tackle the “hard problem of consciousness” as posed by David Chalmers, the Professor of Philosophy and Neural Science at New York University. According to Chalmers, the hard problem of consciousness lay in elucidating why and how we have qualia or phenomenal experiences. Chalmers goes on to argue that even if one was to successfully solve this conundrum, the hard problem will “persist even when the performance of all the relevant functions is explained”.
Damasio proposes that the mass of neurons in the physical brain do not generates conscious mental states all by themselves. They require invaluable inputs from “non-neural tissues of the organism’s body proper.” It is from this point on that the book starts becoming dense, esoteric even. Damasio progresses to venture into the domain of intelligence and consciousness. Damasio posits that there exists two discrete types of intelligence – non-explicit and explicit. Also known as recondite, covert, hidden, concealed, non-explicit intelligence represents the prerogative of less advanced animate beings. In direct contradiction to recondite intelligence, overt, manifest, explicit, mapped and mental/minded explicit intelligence is what distinguishes the superior abilities of a human being. Mankind in fact possess the singularly unique advantage of being the beneficiary of both kinds of intelligence to be used as warranted and dictated by the underlying situation/circumstance.
Damasio’s reference to the pioneering and oath breaking research of the French physiologist Claude Bernard, whose contributions to the features of the internal environment of an organism, which led to the present understanding of homeostasis—i.e., the self-regulation of vital processes, marked a seminal point in the annals of Science makes for some riveting reading. Damasio regales the reader on the discoveries of non-minded intelligence in plants that ensured sustained sustenance and survival.
Damasio also engages in an exploratory exercise on the exact functions of human consciousness. According to him, consciousness represents a vehicle for humans to adapt to various threats to their homeostasis. Such a response provides a greater possibility of overcoming the attendant threats. In an extremely interesting fashion, Damasio chooses Emily Dickinson as his ally in parlaying this theory. Drawing the attention of his readers to Dickinson’s “Poem XLIII”, Damasio explains how the poem has at its core a penetrating observations on the human mind”.
“Feeling & Knowing” consists of many chapters that address a particular area of interest in not more than two to three pages. This perhaps is the most endearing aspect of this book. Personally for me the most interesting aspect of the book lies in the elaboration of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Damasio bemoans the paucity of a ‘soft robotics’ approach in the field of Artificial Intelligence. AI experts deem it appropriate to concentrate only on the intelligence factor and unfortunately ignore the feeling stuff. Incorporating this element in the technology of robotics would improve “the quality and efficiency of the response, therefore making the robot’s behaviour more intelligent than it would otherwise be in the absence of guidance from its internal conditions”.
Antonio Damasio has penned a book which is undoubtedly thought provoking both in its intent and content. However, some of the near-to-abstract (abstruse) concepts even laid out therein might induce effects of enervation in the lay reader. However for an expert or a connoisseur of the subject in which Damasio deals with, the book may be a refreshing offering in terms of unconventional thinking and research.
(Feeling & Knowing: Making Minds Conscious by Antonio Damasio will be published by Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group and will be available from the 26th of October 2021)
Thank You Net Galley for the Advance Reviewer Copy.