Andy Blunden August 2006

The Feeling Neurobiologist

Looking for Spinoza. Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain. Antonio Dammassio, 2003

On the plus side:

It is good to have an advocate among the neurobiologists for the role of emotions and feelings in rational thought. I certainly think it can be done better and that it should be done differently, but nonetheless, it must be counted as a plus that Dammassio has taken up the challenge. There can be no doubt that both emotions and feelings have a crucial role to play in learning, discovery, persuasion, belief, insight and perception generally; the challenge, which Dammassio is not equipped or inclined to meet, is to define the boundaries of the proper role of emotions in rational thought. It is not at all clear to me how Dammassio would advise members of a jury to weigh the evidence before them ‘dispassionately’. Or perhaps he would advise that they shouldn’t?

Despite the eccentricity of ascribing ‘emotions’ to all organisms from the single cell upwards, I appreciate the distinction Dammassio makes between emotions – dispositions of the body which organisms adopt, more or less automatically, in response to stimuli which serve to promote restoration of homeostasis, and feelings – dispositions of the mind in which perceptions of emotions expressed in the body, in turn modify those same emotions, and for which mental events can also act as stimuli. This sets up the suggestive and useful idea of the ‘brain-body loop’, including the ‘as-if brain-body loop’ where the stimulus is mental.

This conception allows Dammassio to explain how the whole body participates in thinking, by mediating processes in the brain. A feeling causes a change in the body (e.g. a tightening of the stomach in response to some cause of anxiety) which in turn produces the sensation of that same emotion (e.g., you feel your stomach tighten, alerting you to your anxiety). This is a very useful idea, and needs in fact to be generalised. It would seem that the body is able to play this mediating role in brain activity of all kinds, not just feelings and emotions. Dammassio provides a strong argument for insistence on understanding the whole person, at least, as the appropriate unit of analysis for understanding thinking, not just the brain.

On the minus side:

What is it with this mixture of a positivistic, almost Lockean, exposition of human biology, based on ‘the latest discoveries of science’, in the tradition of Auguste Comte, Ernst Haeckel, Konrad Lorenz, Desmond Morris, Robert Ardrey and company, with semi-biographical eulogies over the seventeenth century rationalist philosopher Spinoza? I can’t take this seriously. It’s like the song-and-dance routines put on for pre-match and half-time entertainment at the football. I suspect that Dammassio is relying on a weakness of Spinoza to which he makes a passing reference, namely, that by simply saying that thought and extension are two attributes of the one substance, the difficulty of explaining how thought arises from the activity of material beings is simply by-passed, and doesn’t have to be faced at all. For this is just what Dammassio does.

Like any number of positivists before him, Dammassio finds that ‘the latest discoveries of science’ have at last given us an understanding of how mental images are formed ... all except for just that last step unfortunately, but that last link in the chain will doubtless be discovered within the next decade or two. Dammassio has the same problem as John Locke: if you see thought as simply the product of one material system interacting with other material systems, then you can push the boundary back further and further (either by speculation or by scientific investigation) but sooner or later you get to that point, and you either insert the homunculus to watch the “movie-in-the-brain” (as Dammassio calls it) or you just hope that that last step, which explains how a coherent image is presented to a self-conscious subject, will be achieved by new discoveries of modern science, just around the corner. Dammassio is sophisticated enough to avoid highlighting the contradiction with any reference to a homunculus, or a yet-to-be-discovered ‘control centre’ somewhere in the brain; his ruse is to insert a eulogy to Spinoza in lieu of an explanation.

Dammassio cleverly plays with the idea that all the phenomena of culture and human society are somehow less real than the facts of biology, self-aggrandizing illusions of animals who kid themselves that they have become something more. Thus consciousness and mind are “what we call mind and consciousness,” (p. 207; this phrase ‘what we call’ is used several times). Dammassio is clever enough not, like say Desmond Morris, to be explicit in this ploy, he just suggests to the reader without spelling it out.

And these ‘mirror neurons’, introduced to explain empathy, are complete fiction. This is not a claim that needs to be argued, the idea is pure fantasy and the claim to have found the location where they to be found is outrageous. No-one in the field believes it. ‘Mirror neurons’ are a disturbing step from biological explanation of biological phenomena to biological explanations of social phenomena, and with that, the incipient justification for medical intervention and social engineering as the cure for social problems.

All this could be harmless enough. If the object is to improve understanding of the working of the nervous system for the purpose of curing psychiatric illness or brain injury, it is a very worthwhile exercise. But the ‘mirror neurons’ alert us to the inevitable wider agenda.

For example, he claims:

“The endeavour to live in a shared, peaceful agreement with others is an extension of the endeavour to preserve oneself. Social and political contracts are extensions of the personal biological mandate.” [p. 172-3]

For Dammassio, all social institutions are “mechanisms for exerting homeostasis at the level of the social group” (p. 166), and in fact all social, political and ethical phenomena are “extensions” of these processes within the organism, and have their “forerunners” in the social behaviour of wolves, birds and so on. In other words, puerile social Darwinism of the worst order.

Faced with self-serving na´vitÚ of this breathtaking order, and with obvious fictions like the ‘mirror neurons’ making their appearance in what is presented as hard neuroscientific fact, one is then somewhat hesitant about accepting as good coin the rather appealing ideas about the role of body maps and emotions in the mediation of thought.