Ye Olde Natural Philosophy Discussion Group

Reviews and comments on
Antonio Damasio: The Feeling of What Happens:
Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness

With a couple strenuous exceptions, the general feeling of our group was that this was a mediocre book and a bit of a disappointment. Rosie said she enjoyed the book to around page 157, but not thereafter. John agreed with Rosie, saying that he felt the book included a lot of gobbledygook with some interesting points interspersed.

Kirby thought the theory of consciousness that Damasio presents is on the right track, and would rate it higher if it had been better edited. He grew bored with it. Kevin S. was so bored with it that he stopped reading after chapter one.

Jim read it a long time before the rest of us, and said he had forgotten much of it—which in itself is something of a criticism (since it wasn't good enough to stick in his memory). Being an MD, Jim didn't have the difficulties many of the rest of us had with all the details about brain anatomy that fill the book. However, Jim thinks that really understanding what consciousness is is a very difficult thing to do, and perhaps only someone with an IQ of 160 or more might reasonably attempt it. Kirby and Scott disagreed with that point, however, and believe that we ordinary mortals can understand the nature of consciousness.

Kay thought that there was some good stuff in the book, but became bored with it and angry that she had to read it!

Barbara and Scott, however, had much more positive opinions of the book. Barbara said she read it with zest and vim, and enjoyed learning a lot about the anatomy of the brain.

Scott thinks that the book is important and that its central thesis is even rather profound. He sees it as indispensable for anyone seriously trying to get a handle on what consciousness is all about.

Several people criticized the book for not "building the presentation" from chapter to chapter. But Scott felt that this came from the fact that Damasio was presenting various quite different types of arguments and evidence for his theory in the different chapters. The thing that unifies the book is the central theory of consciousness that he is putting forward, and all the chapters do serve to explicate and support that theory, in one way or another.

Scott thinks that many of the points Damasio presents are essential to understanding the nature of consciousness, including the concept of the proto-self (in which the body unconsciously monitors its status), and the critical concept of having a second order "map" (or representation) of the organism and its relationship to an object which it is conscious of. Likewise the notions of "core consciousness" and "extended consciousness" seem both valid and important. Less convincing, Scott thinks, is the claim that consciousness itself is a "feeling of what happens". Why is consciousness not simply a recognition of the relationship between the organism and the "object"?

Damasio does not connect up his theory of consciousness with any of those which have gone before. It seems to Scott that many of its key elements were at least being grasped at earlier. In the milieu of artificial intelligence research, for example, a popular theory of consciousness is that it consists of having both an internal model of the world, and an internal self-model (of both your body and your mind). Damasio does improve and expand on this in a number of ways, such as by stressing the need to have an internal representation ("model") of your own self before you can even be truly and fully conscious of some external object. But Scott's view is that, despite its importance, Damasio's theory is not the totally new theory that he seems to think it is. Still, no one seems to have elaborated the theory as well as Damasio has, nor connected it up to proven or postulated brain regions to the degree he has.

Despite the criticisms, our group average for the book, on a scale of 0 to 10, was still a respectable 6.1.

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