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Victor S. Johnston
Why We Feel: The Science of Human Emotions

Conscious experiences, such as our sensations and feelings, are nothing more than evolved illusions generated within biological brains. (p. viii)
It's all about (exaggerated) hedonic tones created via evolutionary processes to help further the replication of our selfish genes... or so Victor S. Johnston would have the reader believe. And I do.

If you read Unweaving the Rainbow and found Chapter 11 on the virtual reality that exists between your two ears to be intriguing, but somehow incomplete or explained too quickly, then Johnston will put together some more pieces of the puzzle for you. Why We Feel offered both more and less than I was expecting. More in that several ideas and experiments that I had never heard of before are presented, and less in that too many barely relevant tangents are touched upon.

For instance, one of the tangents that I thought deviated a bit too much from a title like Why We Feel was the second discussion Johnston does of his FacePrints software program on beauty vs. age. While it was interesting, and was not a complete and total tangent from the topic of emotions, it tended to dwell more on other aspects of perception--rather than true 'feelings'. It also seemed to ramble on a bit. Johnston responded to my above (very minor) complaint with

The youth/beauty experiment was included because many theorists (e.g. Doug Jones "Sexual selection, physical attractiveness and facial neoteny" Current Anthropology, 36, 1995) believe that males are attracted to youthfulness (neoteny hypothesis), and that youth is equivalent to beauty. It was important to discriminate between my view (fertility hypothesis) and these other viewpoints.
The prose can be strange when looked at in whole. Johnston is clear and thought provoking most of the time but a bit dense at others. It is almost as if there were multiple authors writing the book. One I liked, and the others I could have done without.

Johnston seems to fit into the sociobiology camp although he never mentions the word or E.O. Wilson specifically. It would be interesting to hear what Johnston thinks about memetics--specifically Blackmore's critique of sociobiology and the 'altruism trick'.

Another minor tangent from feelings is the frequent detour into consciousness. Johnston hammers home the recurrent theme that consciousness is an 'emergent property' of biological brains. This emergence is what separates some of the animal kingdom--and especially humans--from the most powerful of computers. As he states on page 182

Most of us believe that the world is full of light, colors, sounds, sweet tastes, noxious smells, ugliness, and beauty, but this is undoubtedly a grand illusion. Certainly the world is full of electromagnetic radiation, air pressure waves, and chemicals dissolved in air or water, but that nonbiological world is pitch dark, silent, tasteless, and odorless. All conscious experiences are emergent properties of biological brains, and they do not exist outside of those brains.
So how do these waves, chemicals, etc. get translated into sights, sounds, tastes, etc.? Good question. I won't spoil you with the full answer. Johnston's book goes into far more depth and detail than I can in this short review, but the brief answer is as follows: Natural selection caused us (and other animals) to evolve hypersensitivities within the virtual world of our minds to things that would provide better survival and reproductive advantages to our ancestors. A very clever computer simulation 'evolves' such a species of dog called the 'Sniffer' in Chapter 4. After numerous generations the in the computer dogs that are most sensitive to the 'smells' and that are the best at learning which smells to seek or avoid are those that have passed on their genes and hence have characteristics reflective in the later species. It isn't enough to be aware of these smells (or feelings in the case of the analogy Johnstone is creating). To be overly sensitive creates the optimal survival ability and offspring. This can sometimes backfire in the form of mental disorders and phobias. But generally, our frequently hyper fears, desires, and feelings are a product of their usefulness at some point in our genetic history.

Despite the minor critiques included above--especially the fact that I would have liked to have seen more of the book focus specifically on emotions and feelings, Why We Feel is a very good book. If nothing else, it will give the virtual world that is your mind a new room to browse around in.

How could mere molecules transmute base matter into tastes and smells, sounds and sights, passions and desires? Don't look for the answers in books of magic, myth, or superstition, for they dwell instead within the intricate biological processes of our natural world. (p. 182)
Victor sent me the following short summary (in the form of a Shakespearean Sonnet) for those with a dominant right hemisphere.

"Why We Feel" for the Right hemisphere.

What love is this that floods my conscious mind
and strips my senses of the waking day?
How can illusions such as this arise
in worthless mortals made from star-born clay?

Ancestral struggles on an ancient earth
bequeathed emergent feelings to my brain.
Discordant voices from a distant past
now scream or whisper; passion, love, and pain.

Who planned this folly that we call a life?
Was it mere chance, or was it god divine?
Should we rejoice and taste each conscious hour,
or dull each senseless moment with red wine?

Such things men often ponder, but this I can decree.
When I had sex with Alice, it all made sense to me!

from the publisher:
A new theory of why we have feelings--and why we need them to survive.

Why do we think some people are beautiful? Why do orgasms feel good? Why do we get angry? Anxious?

In this intriguing book, biopsychologist Victor Johnston explores the origins of human emotions. Drawing on computer science, neurobiology, and evolutionary psychology, he shows us that emotions are not some strange accident of nature, but are instead the basis of learning and reasoning, and help us to adapt to a complex, rapidly changing environment.

In the process, he offers a radical new view of reality: What we see, hear, smell, feel--even what we consider beautiful--is not an accurate representation of the world around us; rather, our feelings are illusions, shaped by millions of years of evolution.

In clear and colorful prose, Johnston helps us navigate the intimate relationship between our private conscious feelings and our biological survival--and tells us what this means for human creativity, innovation, and free will.

Victor S. Johnston is a professor of biopsychology at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. His research on beauty has been featured in Newsweek and in "The Science of Sex," a Discovery Channel documentary.

"Entertaining and enlightening... Johnston provides important insights into the feelings that make us human."
-- Gary Cziko, author of Without Miracles: Universal Selection Theory and the Second Darwinian Revolution
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