Damasio’s Strange Order of Things

I actually finished reading Antonio Damasio’s book, The Strange Order of Things:  Life, Feeling and the Making of Cultures, a few weeks back.  While reading I thought of several things about which to blog but I was very busy on the farm.  Now I have gone back over my highlights and will write a review about it, but I seem to have lost several of my ideas from before.  Let that be a lesson to me—write down thoughts even if not enough time to work up a proper post.

If you have read any of Damasio’s other books or any of my posts about them here, you already know that he thinks that we conceptually slight feelings and emotions, that these are really the foundation of our mental life and that thinking follows feelings’ lead.  This is quite in line with Susanne Langer’s notion that our minds are based upon feeling, thus the title of her magnum opus, Mind:  An Essay on Human Feeling, so I really appreciate Damasio’s conceptualization.  (He does not cite Langer; very, very few do and I find that regrettable). And in Strange Order he makes an even stronger statement, oh boy!

A couple of quotes will frame his view for us.  Damasio sees “the roots of human cultures in nonhuman biology” and he finds that “the conventional contrast between affect and reason comes from a narrow conception of emotions and feelings”.  His understanding rests upon the central importance of homeostasis, that function wherein life maintains itself within healthy parameters.  Our emotions and their mental derivatives, feelings, are in his view our response to changes in homeostasis.  For example, consider how our impulse to be sociable varies with our homeostatic status.  When we are sociable, our homeostasis becomes more stable, and when we feel unsociable, our homeostasis grows more vulnerable.  Thus, a key factor in the health and continued longevity of elders is their social contact.  Remember as well that married people (really those in a close, stable relationship) generally enjoy greater health.  Damasio even makes the argument that  religious beliefs and practices function to ensure that humans are sociable and thus enjoy more stable vitality.  That is what feelings and culture do for us.

Damasio sees such phenomena as basic to life, i.e., evident throughout different evolutionary complexity.  Bacteria in a resource rich environment that enables easy homeostasis go their own individual ways, but in a resource poor one they clump together for support. Some use chemical signaling to monitor how many conspecifics are around just in case.  Likewise, human “cultural instruments first developed in response to the homeostatic needs of individuals and of groups”.  Damasio understands that “feeling and subjectivity are old abilities” and not dependent upon the evolution of brains with cortex.

He gives a complex and sophisticated explanation of how our mental subjectivity developed.  He says that the basic unit of the mind is the image and that our particular (I want to say ‘special’ but this is fraught with anthropocentric connotations.  I would mean ‘special’ in the sense that it denotes a feature specific to a species.  Thus I could also write about the special feelings and subjectivity of planaria) subjectivity comes from our talent for imaging our own internal workings, e.g. our gut has an enteric 2ndbrain with many neurons and more dopamine, and our external world, and then integrating the two into one mental image of our experience as we incidentally form a narrative with our feelings as our life unfolds.  I must say this is a rich and concise formulation of our mentality.

I see life functioning to mitigate exigencies and exploit chance; that is what we animate beings do (this following Heraclitus and Monod).  Damasio formulates it slightly differently, that life sustains itself by countering, i.e., he says ‘resisting’, entropy and continuing the life stream into the future.  And he emphasizes that our humanity is yet another iteration of this. “In the end human creativity is rooted in life and in the breath taking fact that life comes equipped with a breathtaking mandate:  resist and project itself into the future”.

This book covers a great deal of scientific and philosophical ground and that gives me plenty to ponder and learn.  Damasio is a big fan of Spinoza (see his earlier book on this) and he also cites Nietzsche saying that humans are “hybrids of plants and ghosts”.  That is a lovely and funny metaphor.  Damasio discusses our evolution and appreciates our control of fire not just to cook food and so support our homeostasis that way but also to provide the hearth environment for socializing and so support our vitality thusly.  One more point: he discusses anger as a negative emotion that has functioned quite well and adaptively over the course of our evolution but asserts that it now poses diminishing returns for our species, i.e., our anger is more destructive of our ability to live together than constructive in maintaining our lives.

An interesting and richly rewarding read. Keeping with my tradition, I will mention a small quibble about how he verbalizes sometimes about the relation our brains have with our somas, e.g., our brains as independent units. Ugh!  Never will I succumb to that view, nor does Damasio, I think, as he discusses the embodiment of our minds.  Why use that phrasing? I do not know.  Apart from that I found myself extending his analyses by formulating what he wrote into how I see our individual minds as a function of our social and cultural group. That, however, suits my purposes, not his, which was to enrich our impoverished understanding of emotions and feelings.  Wonderful.


What’s is a name? pt 2


“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  I have been reading an introductory text on Aesthetics with short chapters on philosophers known for their work on the topic.  Some are interesting, some not.  One is obtuse to the point of comedy; another shows more command of the obvious even than I have.  All are male, go figure.  

Some raise the curious issue as to whether there is a theoretical difference aesthetically between the beauty found in nature and that found in art.  Again, obviously there is but what is it?  In essence one is based in perception and one is through symbolization, but can natural beauty be sensed without symbolic capacity?



Is the beauty of a rose initiated by a bee’s appreciation of color and nectar?  Does a bird look at this year’s nest as particularly well done?  Does a dolphin thrill with the pirouette it makes or one by its pod mate?  Does a bonobo gaze at the sunlight through the trees?  Does any animal but a human look at backlit clouds over the ocean with an appreciation of its beauty?  We know that male bird songs vary in their power to elicit mating responses by the female but how does this feel?

Symbols carry meaning; they have import, they have significance and this is based upon the empathic sense of our own and of another’s mind.  The name of something is something special.  In some religions the name of god must not be uttered or should not be uttered except in special circumstances.  Representations of god are specially restricted as well.  In some science fiction/fantasy stories, to know the name of something is to have power over it.  And biologically the power of symbolization transforms sentience into consciousness.

Aesthetics, as surveyed in my text, seems closely aligned in modern times with art appreciation and criticism, thus focusing on the aesthetic feelings derived from input.  Some think that the artist’s intent is important, so some attention is paid to aesthetic output.  The difference between natural beauty and art is rather obvious in the latter, but the appreciation, the feeling engendered by beauty, traced from eyes and ears to consciously experiencing the aesthetic, would also seem different.  If we could watch brain activity as we viewed a natural beauty or a painting, we would see differences, and these would reflect our brain’s symbolic ability.  What else is this woman smiling about, eh?


Quibbles, clouds and stars

I have realized that my quibbles are not so much critical of what I have read or seen (like the Cosmos post 3/23/14) as an excuse to talk about broader issues.  So, take Daniel Levitin’s book, This is Your Brain on Music, a good and interesting read.  My first quibble is that you read 3/4 of the book before music is referred to as art, and then it is by quoting someone else.  Prior to that he talked about musical gestalts and communicating emotion in a manner reminiscent of a monkey’s cry about a hawk or tiger evoking the appropriate defensive action.  Art is the epitome of presentational symbolic forms as articulated by Susanne Langer and it is not limited to an emotionally evocative event.  Yes, I understand and appreciate that for science to move forward empirically, some reductionism is required, but Ms. Langer has provided us with a  generous basis for understanding art as a biological act.  I wish more people were acquainted with her opus.  My suggestion: Robert Innes’s excellent book, Susanne Langer in Focus.  To understand our humanity we seek greater or deeper understanding and perspective, like knowing where we are in the galaxy.


My second quibble is also related to the reductionistic bias.  In the orthodox view, for music to be deemed a successful evolutionary development, it must enhance our reproductive success.  Music attracts mates or music provides social cohesion.  However many mutations have contributed to our musical abilities, none were presciently successful or adaptive.  Even now perhaps one of those mutations will contribute to our extinction.  Yes, musical ability, at least virtuoso performing, matures early on and contributes to mating (or so every young guitar or drum player claims, but talk with the accordionists sometime) but much music goes on after mating and child rearing.  We are not salmon expiring having spawned.  Is our extended old age an unintended consequence of some mutations (well, yes actually, all such consequences are unintended), a cultural manipulation for sentimental or historical purposes, a serious adaptation that ensures our species’ survival?  Sure, the gold standard of the biological sciences is evolutionary success but as powerful as that measuring stick is, it does not adequately capture the full range of biological phenomena nor our thinking about it.  Consider the question, “By what do you measure?”  If you want to understand the motions of the stars, watching the clouds flow in the wind, as beautiful as they are, is not that helpful.  We sell our biological understanding too short.