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A neuroscientist on the science of reading

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio.Luiz Carvalho

In his new book, “Feeling & Knowing,” the prominent Portuguese-American neuroscientist Antonio Damasio explores how emotions play a central role in what we do, how we think, and who we are. This has been a longtime subject of his research and books, and one that has long challenged scientists as well as philosophers. In the book Damasio boils down his answers to 48 very short chapters to explain how reason and emotion are inseparable. Damasio holds a chair in neuroscience at the University of Southern California, where he also directs the school’s Brain Creativity Institute.

BOOKS: What are you reading?


DAMASIO: These are some of the books on our coffee table. I have a 1,000-page biography of the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa by the English author Richard Zenith. Pessoa was a strange and admirable person who is also famous for having all of these aliases. People thought he’d written under three pen names when he actually used 46. One alias was South African. I also have the French edition of Edgar Morin’s “Lessons of a Century of Life,” which my wife and I are reading at the same time. He’s a remarkable French philosopher and essayist who is 100 years old.

BOOKS: What else do you have there?

DAMASIO: I have “I’ve Been Walking,” by Janet Sternburg, who is a photographer and essayist. It’s a book of the photographs she took around LA during the COVID lockdown. There are no people, just landscapes, such as a shuttered shop. It’s an interesting vision of what a city looks like during a period of upheaval. I just got Jorie Graham’s last poetry collection, “Runaway.” I picked it up because she had a recent poem in The New Yorker that was fantastic. I want to compare that to her work in “Runaway” to see if her work has changed.


BOOKS: How much fiction do you read?

DAMASIO: I think I mostly reread fiction. The last author I did that with was Hemingway. It did not come as well as when I was 15. I was astonished at how problematic Hemingway sounds to me today. Fitzgerald comes off way better.

BOOKS: When you were growing up in Portugal did you read American authors as part of your education?

DAMASIO: Yes, but you also tended to read foreign authors on your own. One of my heroes in adolescence was Faulkner. I remember reading “As I Lay Dying” in Portuguese. I liked it so much that I wanted to read the original but I couldn’t find an English edition. I finally found it at the US Embassy library in Lisbon. It read even better in English. I also read “The Sound and The Fury” and “Sanctuary.” I still have those copies I bought in Portuguese then.

BOOKS: Did you read a lot when you were young?

DAMASIO: I did. I read quite a lot of the cartoon [series] “Tintin, “which I read in French. That had enormous influence on me. I think my passion for cinema came from that way of constructing story with images.

BOOKS: Have you found novels and poetry that explore the same subjects of your research?

DAMASIO: Yes, so much of what novelists and poets write about touches on the centrality of feeling, especially on the polar opposites of feeling joy or suffering. I think great books, and movies too, touch on humanity so deeply. Their topics are the ones I chose for my research.


BOOKS: As a neuroscientist can you explain why we have so much trouble remembering the titles of books we read?

DAMASIO: We only have a limited capacity to remember everything promptly. It’s called crowding. When you asked me about Portuguese authors I was trying to think of current authors, and I was having a lot of trouble. That’s perfectly normal. If you had to remember just five titles, you could, but we have hundreds of titles in our head. And those names are acquired at different times in our life in different circumstances. It’s perfectly fine not to be able to recall them immediately. We have to pay for our pleasures.