Review of "Looking for Spinoza" by Antonio Damasio

Antonio Damasio is a neurologist known for his writings and experiments on emotions. His best known previous book is Descartes' Error, which argued that emotions have an important role in rational decision-making, and presented evidence that people who suffer damage to the brain centers that generate emotions become seriously impaired in their decision-making ability. His most recent book, Looking for Spinoza, concentrates specifically on the conscious aspect of emotions.

Damasio's main thesis in the book consists of two basic claims. The first claim is that emotions are connected to states of the body and are an integral part of the biological process of homeostasis--maintaining the internal conditions necessary for the continuation of life.  Damasio presents empirical data about how the brain processes emotions, including data from brain imaging about what happens in the brain when emotions are triggered, experimental data on how emotions can be triggered by electrically stimulating specific areas of the brain, and data on how damage to specific areas of the brain can make a person incapable of certain emotions, or, conversely, cause certain emotions to be triggered periodically with no apparent cause. The presentation of empirical data is the most consistently interesting and informative part of the book; and it supports Damasio's claim by demonstrating that the process of monitoring the body's internal state by the brain and the process of generating emotions are closely connected and involve the same brain areas.

  Damasio's second main claim is that feelings are about one's own internal state and only indirectly about the external world--a thesis that is not supported by any of his empirical data, and, as we'll see, is the result of unidentified philosophical premises.

A major drawback of the book is that Damasio writes in a roundabout, sometimes ambiguous style that makes his claims hard to identify. Many parts of my analysis below really are my best guess as to what he means, and given his lack of clarity, I recognize it is possible I misunderstood him.

The lack of clarity is worsened by Damasio's confusing terminology; he uses the word "emotion" to refer widely to all action by living organisms aimed at maintaining homeostasis, but excluding all elements of conscious experience involved in such action; the conscious experience is termed "feeling", and distinguished from "emotion". All behaviour (of animals or human beings), as well as lower-level physiological processes such as metabolic regulation and the operation of the immune system, are classified as types of emotion. When referring to actual emotions, e.g. joy, sorrow, or fear, he refers to the related physiological processes and behaviour (but excluding the conscious experience) as "emotions-proper", and to the conscious experience as "feelings." While he explains this idiosyncratic terminology in detail at the beginning of the book, it does not accomplish anything of value, and it requires extra effort on the reader's part in continually reminding himself of this new terminology while struggling to understand what Damasio is saying.


Damasio is clearly fascinated with Spinoza, and devotes a large section of the book--70 pages out of a total of 355--to biographical material about Spinoza. He sees two points in Spinoza's philosophy as revolutionary for their time and as precursors of his own thesis.

The first is Spinoza's concept of conatus--an internal drive of every being towards self-preservation--and his view that emotions are manifestations of conatus. Damasio is correct that Spinoza's view of emotions as having a teleological role in maintaining one's life was indeed revolutionary, against the traditional view of emotions (associated with Plato and with Descartes) as primary, irreducible drives, unrelated to any biological purpose. Damasio also sees the conatus as a precursor of the modern understanding in biology of the maintainance of homeostasis in living organisms. While there is an intriguing parallel here, there is a crucial point of difference that Damasio ignores: Spinoza regarded the conatus as operating in all entities in the universe, including inanimate ones; it is not a biological process, but a metaphysical one. This makes its alleged parallel to homeostasis superficial only.

Damasio also connects his theory with Spinoza's view that mind and body are integrated and that emotions are ideas of bodily modifications. However, Spinoza regards mind and body as parallel attributes of an underlying substance, attributes that operate in parallel but cannot causally interact with each other. When Spinoza describes emotions as ideas of bodily modifications, he does not regard the bodily modification as either causing the emotion or caused by it; rather, the emotion and the bodily modification are two parallel aspects, in the mind and in the body, respectively, of the same event in the underlying substance. Damasio, in contrast, regards feelings as effects in the mind which are caused by bodily processes; and which themselves, in turn, have further physical effects in modifying one's behavior. Thus, Damasio's view is centrally based on causal interactions between mind and body, which Spinoza's philosophy rules out, and it is a misunderstanding of Spinoza to see any parallels between them.

Thus the sections of the book that discuss Spinoza are interesting but off-topic. Damasio’s interest seems to be mostly the result of taking some bits of Spinoza's philosophy out of context.

Feelings and states of the body

As I note above, Damasio's first main thesis in the book is that feelings are connected to states of the body, part of the biological system for maintaining homeostasis. He sees emotions (or "emotions-proper," as he refers to them) as the top of a hierarchy of control mechanisms directing the organism's actions towards maintaining the internal conditions for survival. The simplest of homeostatic mechanisms are metabolic regulation, basic reflexes, and the operation of the immune system; at a more complex level there are physical pain and pleasure; at a still more complex level there are drives such as hunger and thirst; and, at the highest level, there are "emotions-proper." Each level in the hierarchy is aimed at the same basic goal: internal evaluation by the organism of the state of its well-being, helping to direct the organism's actions towards improving its well-being; and the control machinery of each level is used as a component in producing the next more complex level.

Damasio notes that the physiological processes that are part of an emotional reaction are, in evolutionary terms, prior to feelings, i.e. to the concious element of the emotions, and can be found even in very simple animals that as far as we know do not have anything equivalent to feelings. He also notes that the brain centers that process information about the internal state of the body are also central to generating feelings; and sensing of one's body state is, in most cases (though with some significant exceptions), a central part of the process of generating these feelings. For example, when a person feels fear, the physiological changes of an accelerating heartbeat, increased adrenalin, etc., will in most cases occur before the conscious feeling of fear begins; and the process of producing the feeling of fear will involve sensing by the brain of these internal physiological changes.

In discussing what can trigger emotions, Damasio notes that the more complex the animal, the more complex the potential triggers for emotions. In lower animals, emotions can be triggered only by directly perceived objects. In human beings, capable of abstract thinking, an emotion will often be triggered by a thought. Some emotions, e.g. fear, can be triggered in human beings either by thought or by some directly perceived object; other emotions - Damasio mentions pride and shame as examples - require thought for their triggering. When thought is involved in triggering an emotion, the thought will usually cause the physiological component of the emotion first, which will in turn cause the feeling.

Damasio's representationalism

Damasio's integration of feelings with all the other biological processes aimed at sustaining the organism's life at the physical level is consistent with a biocentric philosophy of mind and is supported in depth by the evidence he discusses. The same can’t be said for his second main thesis: that  feelings are about one's own internal state and only indirectly about the external world.

From the fact that the brain constantly receives information about internal states of body, Damasio concludes - with no further evidence, evidently feeling that it immediately follows - that the brain maintains a map of the body. And, from the fact that the information about internal body states is part of the process of generating feelings, he concludes - again, with no further evidence - that feelings are about the brain's map of the body, and only indirectly about the external world.

Damasio refers to all sensory states as "images of the body”. These”images of the body” include sensations that are directly about the state of the body, such as physical sensations of pleasure or pain; and they also include perceptions of the external world, which Damasio refers to as “images from special sensory probes”. Perception of the external world is, for Damasio, simply a special case of an internal state of the body mapped in the brain; and all feeling, whatever its apparent object in the external world, actually has such a map of the body as its object.

Damasio does recognize that in some cases sensations or feelings can be produced entirely in the brain with no relation to states of the rest of the body. He notes cases of emotional reactions that do not involve any measurable event in the body outside of the brain. He also notes, at the level of physical sensations, examples in which the brain suppresses the sensations that the state of the body would normally lead to; e.g. when pain from an injury is not felt while running away from danger. These seem like clear counter-example to the idea that all feelings are about the brain's map of the body, but Damasio begs the question by referring to such feelings as "false maps", "simulated body states".

Damasio is taking for granted that the only way the brain can perceive or use any information is by constructing an internal image or map, and our perception is then of this internal map and only indirectly of the object of the information. Thus, if the process of the generation of feelings involves information received by the brain about internal body states, this has to mean that the feelings are perceptions of the brain's internal map of the body; any relation of a feeling to the external world can only be indirect, through the brain’s mapping of “images from special sensory probes”. This is the doctrine of representationalism (discussed and refuted in detail by David Kelley in The Evidence of the Senses), which Damasio accepts as an unidentified, unquestioned premise. This makes him unable to see that feelings, mediated by physiological events and by feedback to the brain about these physiological events, can have an external entity or event - one with relevance to one's well-being - as their object.

Emotions and decision-making

In explaining the role of feelings, and the reason why they evolved, Damasio builds on the view associated with William James: that consciousness is necessary in higher animals in order to deal with the greater range of information they receive from the environment and the greater number of possible actions they have to choose from. Damasio sees feelings as the basic function for which consciousness evolved, bringing emotions into conscious awareness, and thus making it possible to control the execution of emotional actions. For example, animals that have the physiological machinery of emotional reactions but no feelings would automatically flee when perceiving a predator; higher animals that do have feelings will feel fear, but may perceive other relevant information that will affect whether they actually flee or not.

For human beings, with their ability for abstract thinking and decision-making, feelings also have the role of bringing emotions into the rational decision-making process. As he did in his previous book, Descartes' Error, Damasio discusses patients who suffered damage to regions of the brain necessary for generating certain classes of emotions. Even though their reasoning abilities and specific skills seemed unaffected, they became severely impaired in their ability to plan their activities, manage their finances, reliably keep their obligations, and, in general, make decisions significantly affecting their lives.

This evidence leads Damasio to conclude that emotions - and specifically their conscious component, or "feelings" in his terminology - play a central role in rational decision-making. But when he tries to specify just what that role is, he generates the most confusing section of his book. Damasio clearly recognizes that both feelings and reasoning have roles in decision-making. He recognizes that the role of feelings in decision-making comes from their nature as signals evaluating what is for or against the person's life. He further recognizes the crucial role that memories play in triggering feelings, and, consequently, the fact that feelings have an important role in bringing lessons from past experience to bear on decision-making; but he cannot explain just why there would be such a connection between feelings and memories. Beyond these isolated insights, Damasio finds it difficult to come up with a coherent theory of what roles reasoning and emotions respectively play in decision-making, and what the relation is between them.

On this issue, Objectivism provides some crucial insights that are needed to complete Damasio's theory and to integrate his various insights to each other.

Objectivism and the role of emotions

The Objectivist theory of emotions is described by Ayn Rand in "The Objectivist Ethics", in The Virtue of Selfishness, pp. 27-28; and developed in more detail by Nathaniel Branden in The Psychology of Self Esteem. The theory consists of two main ideas:

1. The basic goal of emotions is to help maintain one's life by identifying and evaluating what is for or against it. Emotions are thus extensions of the physical pleasure-pain mechanism, serving the same basic goal at a more complex level.

2. The specific content of emotions is the result of conscious identifications and evaluations that the person has made in the past and that have become automatized.

The first of these ideas is shared by Damasio, and is central to his theory. A major value of Damasio's discussion for Objectivists is in demonstrating how the Objectivist view of emotions is supported by the scientific data on the operation of the brain.

The second idea - the connection of emotions to automatized identifications and evaluations - is an important insight that Damasio is missing for understanding the relation of emotions to rational decision-making. It is especially important for making clear the connection of emotions to memories, and why emotions have a role in applying lessons from past experience.

(The idea that emotions result from automatized thinking is also accepted by psychologists of the cognitive therapy school; see, for example, Aaron Beck, Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders. The cognitive therapy theories, however, treat emotions purely as a source of disorders; they do not provide any positive role for emotions in rational decision-making. Objectivism's combination of both these ideas on the nature of emotion is needed to explain the positive role of emotions.)

As an example, consider one common characteristic of the brain-damaged patients Damasio has studied: their inability to perform the jobs in which they were previously successful. After suffering the brain damage, while their specific job skills were not affected, they became unreliable in doing the tasks they were responsible for, often getting distracted after starting a task, neglecting to complete it, and instead wasting their time on some irrelevant activity that caught their interest. When questioned after such incidents it became clear that they intellectually knew what was needed to complete the task, and that their responsibilities required them to complete it; and yet they did not act on this knowledge. A responsible worker has automatized his evaluation of the importance of completing his job tasks reliably and on time; and, when he becomes familiar with a type of task, he automatizes his identification of the actions needed to perform and complete the task. These automatic identifications and evaluations result in emotions that direct him to complete the tasks he is responsible for; if, while there is an important task to be done, he gets distracted and starts wasting his time on something irrelevant, he will quickly experience an uneasy feeling that will lead him to return to the task. These feelings are what is missing for Damasio's brain-damaged patients.

So the Objectivist theory of emotions explains why a responsible worker will have his emotions direct him towards reliably doing his job. But why are such emotions necessary? Since Damasio's patients did intellectually know their responsibilities and the requirements of their tasks, why didn't they act on that knowledge, even without being directed so by their emotions? The key to understanding this is in another central original idea in Objectivism: the role of focus.

 Objectivism identifies the faculty of focus as the seat of free will; man's basic choice is the level at which he will focus his mind, and what he focuses on (see Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand, pp. 55-69). The most important requirement for good decision-making - even more important than the ability to reason logically - is focusing on all the relevant facts and considerations. What someone chooses to focus on is under his control; but he needs a way to guide this choice. A deliberate, conscious effort to think of additional factors, to find anything that might have been missed so far, is important, especially when dealing with new situations, but it is not enough. Emotions help here by automatically directing man's attention to those factors that, based on past experience, are likely to be relevant and that he therefore needs to focus on. This is crucial for making man's control over his faculty of focus manageable; he can generally allow his focus to be guided by his emotions, and only exercise the deliberate, conscious effort to direct his focus when dealing with new and unfamiliar situations, or when some specific problem makes it necessary. The lack of this automatic guide explains Damasio's data about the decision-making problems observed in the brain-damaged patients.

In his previous book, Descartes' Error, Damasio considers Phineas Gage - the first known case of this type of brain-damage - and asks: "May he be described as having free will? ... was he the victim of his new brain design, such that his decisions were imposed upon him and inevitable? Was he responsible for his acts?" (Descartes' Error, p. 19) This is an intriguing question, to which Damasio acknowledges not knowing the answer. Answering it would require understanding the brain mechanisms involved in choosing the level and direction of focus. This would make clear the neurological basis of free will, and what kinds of brain damage make free will inoperative. Such an investigation is needed to complete our understanding of the causes of the phenomena studied by Damasio, and it would need to be done by neurologists informed by the Objectivist theory of free will.

So, considering again the job-performance problems of Damasio's patients, these patients' problem was specifically in maintaining focus. While they knew what was needed to complete their tasks, they did not keep their minds focused on this knowledge, and consequently did not act on it. We do not know - until the sort of study I suggest above is performed - to what extent the free will of these patients has been destroyed; to what extent they have lost the ability to choose the level and direction of their mental focus. What we do know is that to the extent that these patients still had control of their mental focus, that control was much harder for them to exercize, because they lacked the guidance provided by emotions. This provides the explanation Damasio lacks for the causes of the problem.


The relation of mind and body has always been a subject of intense interest to philosophers and scientists. Through most of the history of philosophy, it was almost purely a subject of theoretical debate; but many saw the modern development of the science of biology as promising to bring the subject of mind and body into the realm of science, subject to the scientific method. In recent decades, several writers have claimed to present a scientific approach to philosophical issues of mind and body, integrating these issues with modern science. I have previously reviewed Daniel Dennett's Freedom Evolves, which is an example of that movement at its worst.

Looking for Spinoza, in contrast, represents the movement at its best. It is a serious attempt to consider the philosophical issues on the subject of emotions in a way that is integrated with the scientific data. The focus on the facts results in some good and informative insights, but a flawed philosophical context - the unquestioned acceptance of representationalism, and the lack of the Objectivist insights about the role of focus - results in very confused interpretation.

In considering the relevance of Objectivism to the study of emotions, there are two main lessons to be learned from Damasio's book. The first is that the available scientific, empirical evidence on emotions and their connection to the brain supports the Objectivist view of emotions. The second is that Rand's identification of the role of focus is an insight crucial to understanding the workings of the human mind, specifically to understanding the role of emotions, and to pointing out important directions for further investigation.