All in the mindWhy am I me, and not you? How do we sense the blueness of the sky? Does a snail think ? Such riddles abound in Antonio R. Damasio's provocative work, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. In this follow-up to his best-selling Descartes' Error, Damasio confronts some of the most elusive problems of modern science as he searches for clues to the creation of consciousness. We don't smell it or taste it, see it or hear it. Yet consciousness is what makes us uniquely who we are, setting the stage for the stunning performance of the human mind.
Equipped with insights from his own experiments as head of the department of neurology at the University of Iowa Medical Center, Damasio takes us spelunking in the mind's dark cavities. We drop into the abysses between neurons, noticing the flash of neurotransmitters that light up the mind like jolts from a sparkplug. We explore the hypothalamus, looking for traces of language, and the cortex, seeking the wellsprings of conscience. Throughout, Damasio argues that the essence of consciousness is the feeling of what happens, or the mind noticing the body's reaction to what we see, hear, or touch. More than mere wakefulness or attentiveness, consciousness is the magical act of the mind observing itself. This two-part division of the brain's functions makes for some unexpected discoveries. Damasio's research indicates, for example, that emotion proves central to making rational decisions. Far from being the mischief of some devious mental sprites, our emotions are shown to buttress the logic of survival. It may seem odd to argue that emotion improves our ability to make decisions, but just ask anyone who's ever instinctively pulled back in fear from a roused rattlesnake. Without our emotions, we'd be evolutionary toast. Unfortunately, contends John Horgan in his wryly skeptical The Undiscov-ered Mind: How the Human Brain Defies Replication, Medication, and Explanation (The Free Press, $25, 0684850753), most mind science does nothing to change the fact that I'm still me and you're still you. Despite the promise of aiding the 1.2 billion people now suffering a behavioral or neuropsychiatric ailment, Horgan says, neuroscience may never solve the intricate problems posed by the brain. A longtime staff writer at Scientific American, Horgan cuts a swashbuckling path through the fields of psychoanalysis, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence. The claims of Freudians and social Darwinists alike are dispatched with precise counterexamples, while sparks fly as he takes on some of the most distinguished figures in American science. We're told that the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker dishes Darwinian rhetoric and shoot-from-the-hip speculation, while Peter Kramer is Prozac's poster boy. What bothers Horgan most is that physics has its fundamental quarks and electrons, biology has its DNA, and even Darwin had his unifying process of evolution. But mind scientists seem lost somewhere in the boggling recesses of the brain's 10 trillion synapses. Instead of the simplicity found in the hard sciences, mind scientists have run up against spiraling complexity. They've hit what Horgan calls the Humpty Dumpty dilemma : scientists have figured out how to break the mind into pieces, but they have no idea how to put it back together again. Moreover, those who claim they've found genes for high IQ, homosexuality, sadness, and even pathological gambling are, in Horgan's estimation, peddling little more than scientific snake-oil. Refusing any reductive solution to the mind's riddles, Horgan offers a tonic of hopeful skepticism that serves as an excellent if irreverent introduction to the state-of-the-art in cognitive research.
Jeff Byles is a writer and also editor of Publishing Trends, a monthly newsletter for the book trade.