The Feeling of What Happens by Antonio Damasio

Antonio Damasio ( and does not claim to have solved the mystery of consciousness in The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. This is fortunate, because in many senses Damasio’s book does not provide much new information about consciousness and why its highest forms occur only in humans.

Instead, Damasio combines a vast range of existing knowledge about the inner workings of the incredibly specialized human brain along with a fascinating look at cases of consciousness disorders due to brain damage he has witnessed in his laboratory to provide a new perspective on consciousness. The Feeling of What Happens is neither a survey of established knowledge in the field of consciousness nor a breakthrough discovery as to what really leads to the wonders of consciousness. However, Damasio’s book is valuable in its creative approaches to developing a new framework under which to examine consciousness.

Much of the reason we know so little about consciousness in comparison to other biological phenomena is that it is an inherently private state. Damasio admits that we cannot directly observe consciousness at work. However, his approach is to use the strong correlation between consciousness and behaviour to glean insights into the biological foundation of consciousness. With our current scientific knowledge, the best way to examine how a particular section of the brain affects consciousness is to observe the behavioural defects that people with damage to that section of the brain suffer. This is why Damasio spends a large portion of his book discussing the unfortunate plights of his patients. Simply put, the mysteries of the specialized human brain force us to work backwards – only when a particular part of the brain ceases to work can we learn its biological purpose.

Deviating from the traditional views of Daniel Dennett and others, Damasio offers a much more inclusive definition of consciousness that goes beyond the view that only includes normal humans. Damasio breaks down the concept of consciousness — the relationship of an organism to the objects in its environment — into what he calls ‘core consciousness’ and ‘extended consciousness.’ Core consciousness consists of the level of the individual’s alertness in interactions of the here and now. Damasio explains that this type of awareness about the environment is present in infants and nearly all nonhuman primates. By examining consciousness in this new light, Damasio has made the radical claim that animals are conscious beings, a view that has traditionally received little support. By contrast, extended consciousness, the type of awareness we normally attribute to humans, requires both memory of the past and anticipation of the future. Thus, according to Damasio, extended consciousness is the result of continued core consciousness and cannot exist without it. Damasio’s studies have shown that whereas core consciousness requires very little of the brain, full-blown extended consciousness employs a majority of the brain.

Damasio’s argument that consciousness can be separated into simple and complex forms may seem arbitrary at first. However, his case presentations support the merits of the new foundation that he has developed to evaluate it. He offers three types of examples from various patients that help the reader to understand when consciousness is present and when it is not. On one extreme, Damasio presents people in deep sleep (without REM) or in comas as examples of individuals with neither consciousness nor wakefulness. Next, and more interestingly, Damasio offers the case of epileptic automatism seizures as an occurrence in which the patient is awake but is without even core consciousness. Although the patient is clearly awake during the seizure, the individual’s actions seem completely random and unrelated to any aspect of the surrounding environment. Damasio explains that this behaviour does not constitute consciousness. Last, Damasio describes the case of David, a patient with one of the most severe cases of global amnesia ever recorded. The damage to David’s brain is so extreme that he is not able to remember any new fact for more than a few seconds. From David’s point of view, every interaction with the environment takes place in a completely unfamiliar setting with unknown people. However, David is still able to interact with the here and now. According to Damasio, David has core consciousness but not extended consciousness. Although it is clear that David does not possess the type of consciousness of normal individuals, it is also obvious that David should still be considered a conscious being and is quite different from a person experiencing an epileptic automatism. The example of global amnesia makes Damasio’s distinction between core and extended consciousness much more clear-cut. Rather than simply providing an arbitrary judgement of consciousness as so many philosophers and neuroscientists have been prone to do, Damasio provides a set of tangible guidelines by which consciousness can be judged.

The Feeling of What Happens attempts to clarify, if not solve, a subject that has long been a scientific mystery plaguing even the most serious thinkers. Bring your consciousness to bear upon it.

Originally published in 1999.

400 pages in Vintage paperback edition

ISBN 978-0099288763

Antonio Damasio

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