I Feel, Therefore I Am: Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio on Consciousness and How the Feeling-Tone of the Body Underscores the Symphony of the Mind


“Ultimately, we are puppets of both pain and pleasure, occasionally made free by our creativity.”


I Feel, Therefore I Am: Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio on Consciousness and How the Feeling-Tone of the Body Underscores the Symphony of the Mind

“A purely disembodied emotion is a nonentity,” William James wrote in his revolutionary theory of how our bodies affect our feelings just before the birth of neuroscience — a science still young, which has already revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos inside the cranium as much as the first century of telescopic astronomy revolutionized our understanding of our place in the universe.

Meanwhile, ninety miles inland from William James, while Walt Whitman was redoubling his metaphysical insistence that “the body includes and is the meaning, the main concern… and is the soul,” Emily Dickinson was writing in one of her science-prescient poems:

The Brain — is wider than the Sky —
For — put them side by side —
Each will have its own contents
With ease — and you — beside —

The Brain is deeper than the sea —
For — hold them — Blue to Blue —
The one the other will absorb —
As sponges — Buckets — do —

Margaret Cook’s art from the 1913 Edition Leaves of Grass. Prints available

The task and destiny of science is to make concrete with evidence what the poets have always inferred and visualized in abstraction. We are infinitely greater and less important than we think. While the universe beyond, from which we and all star-dusted molecules of our consciousness were created, is more complex and ever-vaster than we imagine it to, the universe within which is the source of the universe is infinitely more dense and complex and which renders reality as we see it through the telescopic lenses of our consciousness, remains ever-vaster.

Antonio Damasio is a neuroscientist who, a century and half later than James, picks up an empirical baton that Dickinson left behind a torch to intuition. His revelatory book Feeling & Knowing: Making Minds Conscious (Public library), he makes the bold case that consciousness — that ultimate lens of being, which shapes our entire experience of life and makes blue appear blue and gives poems their air of wonder — is not a mental activity confined to the brain but a complex embodied phenomenon governed by the nervous-system activity we call feeling.

Toni Morrison praised the body’s supreme power and worthiness, and neuroscience confirms this: the body, as an instrument for feeling, is what makes consciousness possible. The feelings that arise from the interplay between the nervous system and the body are not byproducts of consciousness. They made consciousness. (Twenty years earlier — an epoch in the hitherto lifespan of neuroscience — the uncommonly penetrating Martha Nussbaum had anticipated this physiological reality through the lens of philosophy, writing in her superb inquiry into the intelligence of emotions that “emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.”)

One of neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s little-known drawings of the brain.

Damasio’s premise rises from the flatland of earlier mind-based theories by a conceptual fulcrum both simple and profound:

Sensations gave birth to consciousness. They also gifted it to the rest.

This perspective defies the extremes of our current models of consciousness. Each extreme is unimaginative or intellectually unambitious in their own ways. Materialism, which restricts it to neural activity in the brain, and Mysticism which puts it completely outside of the boundaries of the body. Scientific investigation cannot reach it. Damasio writes:

The nervous system must be considered in any attempt to explain the existence of mind and consciousness. Any theory that ignores it is bound to fail. It is crucial for the creation of consciousness and minds as well as the creativity that they permit. However, any theory that delves into the brain is doomed to failure. Exclusivelyrely on the nervous system as a mechanism to explain minds and consciousness, it is bound to fail. This is true of most current theories. It is partly due to the inexplicable belief in consciousness that it cannot be explained by nervous activity alone, that many hopeless attempts at explaining consciousness have failed. While it is true that consciousness, as we know it, only fully emerges in organisms endowed with nervous systems, it is also true that consciousness requires abundant interactions between the central part of those systems — the brain proper — and varied non-nervous parts of the body.

Damasio draws on native poetry from our physiology and offers a definition for consciousness.

Consciousness… is a particular state of mind resulting from a biological process toward which multiple mental events make a contribution… These contributions converge, in a regimented way, to produce something quite complex and yet perfectly natural: the encompassing mental experience of a living organism caught, moment after moment, in the act of apprehending the world within itself and, wonder of wonders, the world around itself.

One of the doodles Darwin’s kids left all over his manuscript of The Origin of Species.

A century and a half after Darwin scribbled a note to himself in the margin of one of his manuscripts — “Never say higher or lower in referring to organisms… Say more complicated.” — Damasio details the levels of complexity by which various organisms manage the living wonder of themselves. Every life form, including bacteria, shares a fundamental mechanism of stimulus-detection. Sensing. Organs that have nervous systems can do this. Mindfulness — the nurobiological process of mapping information into patterns and translating it into mental images.

These images furnish representations of the world, making it comprehensible and therefore survivable as the organism navigates that world by a sort of native biological intelligence that powers the basic self-care necessary for maintaining homeostasis — maintenance that eventually comes aglow with Feeling. Higher-level organisms are able to modify those images by integrating them in a system we refer to as knowledge. Our nervous system makes this explicit by creating patterns that can be stored and then committing them for future reference.

Ultimately, feeling conspires with minding and knowing to give rise to the system-level phenomenon of consciousness from the infrastructure of the nervous system and the body: Our perceptual senses — sight, touch, hearing, smell, taste — render the external world in mental images; our feelings render the internal world, representing in our own minds the state of our bodies — those roiling inner worlds in which all sense of wellbeing is won or lost. From this sense of ownership of ourselves arises the phenomenon of consciousness — the functions that makes possible the novel responses we call adaptation, or art.

Damasio writes:

Consciousness combines the pieces of sapience which reveal the mystery of belonging by virtue of their co-occurrence. They tell me — or you — sometimes in the subtle language of feeling, sometimes in ordinary images or even in words translated for the occasion, that yes, lo and behold, it is me — or you — thinking these things, seeing these sights, hearing these sounds, and feeling these feelings. The “me” and “you” are identified by mental components and body components.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Big Wolf & Little Wolf by Nadine Brun-Cosme

These are the most important bits of sapience. They manifest in mental images created by interactions between body and mind.

Transform a brain inside out, and you will find its secrets. What will you find? What do you find? This is the very “stream” that immortalized William James and gave fame to the word “consciousness” because the two words were so often paired in the phrase “stream of consciousness.” But… the stream… is simply made of images whose near-seamless flow constitutes a mind.

[…]

We create new images when we combine and translate images within our imaginations. We expand the mental archive we have, and we can draw many more future mental contents as we go.

But it is the feeling coloring these mental images that makes our consciousness what it is — every perceived and stored scene or song, landscape or idea, is already infused with affect in the jar of memory, and that is what makes it shimmer with meaning.

Insisting that “we should celebrate the wealth and the messiness we have been gifted by affect,” Damasio writes:

All of the different mental processes that can produce affective reactions as they occur, including what you see or recall. It is possible to see affect as the result of ideas being transformed into feelings. You can also think about emotions in terms of music. The equivalent to a music score accompanying our actions and thoughts, feelings are the same as emotions.

[…]

The extraordinary and intimate interplay between nervous systems and the body structure allows feelings to be mixed up with other events.

Human Heart. One of French artist Paul Sougy’s mid-century scientific diagrams of life. Available as both a printed copy and as an accessory for a facial mask.

Damasio maps the history of living organisms over the past four billion years along their branching streams and envisions the distributary leading to us as three stages in an evolutionary cascade. being, FeelingPlease see the following: KnowThey continue to exist in modern humans, and they run through all the functional and anatomical systems that make up our lives. No invention of nature, Damasio argues, powered a greater leap than the emergence of nervous systems, which made minds possible — but their inception, like so many great inventions, was an unbidden byproduct of solving pressing necessities:

Complex, multicellular organisms with differentiated systems — endocrine, respiratory, digestive, immune, reproductive — were saved by nervous systems, and organisms with nervous systems came to be saved by the things nervous systems invented — mental images, feelings, consciousness, creativity, cultures.

Nervous systems are splendid “afterthoughts” of a non-minded, non-thinking, but pioneeringly prescient nature.

These amazing afterthoughts about evolution were the platform on which the theatre of consciousness was staged. Damasio explains:

The nervous system allows complex movements as well as the beginning of something new: mind. The first example of mind phenomenon is feelings. It’s difficult to underrate their importance. Feelings allow creatures to represent in their respective minds the state of their own bodies preoccupied with regulating the internal organ functions required by the necessities of life… Feelings provide organisms with ExperiencesTheir own lives.

He looks at how and why this transformational afterthought may have developed, as well as how it allowed us to experience the feeling that has forever altered the course of our life here on Earth.

Feeling probably began its evolutionary history as a timid conversation between the chemistry of life and the early version of a nervous system within one particular organism… Those timid beginnings provided each creature with an orientation, a subtle adviser as to what to do next or not to do or where to go. The history of life had produced something very unique and valuable. A mental counterpart of a physical organism.

[…]

Feelings… provide the urge and the incentive to behave according to the information they carry and do what is most appropriate for the current situation, be it running for cover or hugging the person you have missed.

Art by Olivier Tallec from What If…? Thierry Lenain

Through this essential feedback loop of feeling, we are able to assess how we are doing at the basic task of living — not only at the binary state of whether or not we are staying alive, but on the qualitative scale of how well our actual experience maps onto our optimal experience. Pleasure and pain, love and longing — these are all varieties of conscious experience that allow us to fine-tune our flourishing. Each of them arise from stimuli that trigger molecular messages. These messages travel from the tissues and organs through the nerve terminals into the central nervous and brain. The mental images provide valuable information and help us to take corrective action.

Although this may seem unpoetic and mechanistic, it is actually a biological feedback loop that gives rise to our ability for creativity, beauty, transcendence and problem-solving. In consonance with the consolation Lou Andreas-Salomé offered to her dispirited poet-friend Rainer Maria Rilke — “A great deal of poetic work has arisen from various despairs.” — Damasio observes:

Human experience of suffering and pain has led to extraordinary creativity. This is because they are focused on the positive feelings and have created all sorts of tools that can counter the negativity.

[…]

We are ultimately puppets for both pleasure and pain, sometimes made to work by our imagination.

In organisms that are less developed, this feedback loop is not available. being stage of evolution, and yet out entire sense of being — the meta-awareness we experience as a Self — is contingent upon it. Damasio writes:

Not surprisingly, feelings are important contributors to the creation of a “self,” a mental process animated by the state of the organism, and are anchored in its body frame (the frame constituted by muscular and skeletal structures), and oriented by the perspective provided by sensory channels such as vision and hearing.

After being and feeling become operational and structured, they’re ready to extend and support the sapience of the third member. Know.

Feeling provides us with knowledge of life in the body and, without missing a beat, makes that knowledge conscious… The maps and images created on the basis of sensory information become the most abundant and diverse constituents of mind, side by side with ever present and related feelings. These feelings dominate most mental activities.

[…]

When experiences are committed to memory, conscious and feeling organisms can keep a more complete history of themselves, their relationships with other people, and their interaction with their environment. In short, this is a history about each person’s life, which in turn, becomes the armature or personhood.

Hugh Lieber illustration from Human Values and Science, Art, and Mathematics, by Lillian Lieber

This understanding defeats a popular dictum of the self-help world — the comfort-blanket belief that one cannot cause another person’s feelings or be caused to feel a certain way by another person’s actions. No: One person can very much make choices and take actions toward another that impact and impair the other person’s homeostasis — that is, the organism’s sense of stability and safety — thus producing in that other person the negative feelings that are the organism’s feedback loop to protect homeostasis: pain, our primary signal for course-correction.

It is here that psychology and our physiology intersect. Offering neuoroscientific affirmation of Hannah Arendt’s searing philosophical-political indictment that “society has discovered discrimination as the great social weapon by which one may kill men without any bloodshed,” Damasio writes:

The direct link between illness and discomfort or pain, as well as exuberant health producing pleasure is something we are all familiar with. It is often overlooked that there are also psychological and sociocultural factors that can access homeostasis. These situations may lead to pain or pleasure, well-being or malaise. Nature did not create any new tools to address the bad or good aspects of psychology or sociocultural conditions. The same mechanism is used.

This is so because feelings are not purely mental phenomena but delicate interleavings of body and mind — the serpent of consciousness biting its own tail:

Feelings are powerful because they exist in our everyday lives. conscious mind: technically speaking, we feel because the mind is conscious, and we are conscious because there are feelings… Feelings were and are the beginning of an adventure called consciousness.

Bhajju Shriam, an indigenous Gond artist. Creation by Thierry Lénain

The land of language has brought with it a wealth of cultural baggage. It is full of misinformation and inappropriate uses. Consciousness is a young English word, not yet born when Milton wrote that “the Mind is its own place, and in it self can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” Today, particularly in panpsychic theory, it is often used interchangeably with mindIt is robbed of its essential function of feeling. Damasio points to the fact that one has to settle for the word even in older Romance languages such as his native Portuguese. conscienceIts multiple meanings have already made it seem a bit truncated. My native Bulgarian might come closest to Damasio’s model — the most literal translation of our word for consciousness is self-knowledge.

This, indeed, is the crux of Damasio’s case for feeling — feelings are how we know that our experience is our own, that the bodies through which experience courses are our own, that the perspective through which images flicker on the screen of the mind is our own. I am reminded here of something I once heard Gloria Steinem say, in the midst of a twenty-first century cultural dark age for conscience: “The place where we need to go is where our bodies… are our own. This is the basis of democracy.”

With an eye to this essential parameter of ownership — the great revelation made possible by feeling — Damasio writes:

The mind can sense, instantly and without asking, how the body and mind are connected. The classic void that has separated physical bodies from mental phenomena is naturally bridged thanks to feelings… Self-reference is not an optional feature of feeling but a defining, indispensable one.

[…]

What does it mean to say “I am conscious”? At the simplest level imaginable, it means to say that my mind, at the particular moment in which I describe myself as conscious, is in possession of knowledge that spontaneously identifies me as its proprietor… Some knowledge about the current operations of my body [and] some knowledge as retrieved from memory, about who I am at the moment and about who I have been, recently and in the long ago past… [produce]Mental states that are infused with emotion and personal reference.

At the heart of this idea is the loosening of the brain’s stronghold of consciousness and its diffusion through the entirety of the living organism — a reconfiguration that, as Damasio puts it, “requires the placement of that mind in the setting of its body.”

Katharina Fritsch: Brains – Display stand, 1989. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. 2009. Photograph: Maria Popova.)

These profound results are a result of the embodied consciousness model.

One, which Damasio does not address directly — perhaps because it is self-evident, or perhaps because he prefers not to ruffle the feelings (that is, the consciousnesses) of those who take flight from evidence in such beliefs — is a bold debunking of certain escapist fantasies from our creaturely reality: both the fantasies haunted by our parochial past and its various religious mythologies of an immortal soul that survives the death of the body (“soul” being the conceptual placeholder for consciousness before the word was coined), and the fantasies haunting the techno-utopian future with Silicon dreams of machine consciousness and technology-assisted ways of preserving human consciousness beyond the lifespan of the body by digitizing and migrating the contents of the brain alone.

Damasio also touches on another topic at the end. It is a humble antidote for the double hubris humanity holds about itself and other forms of life. This hubris assumes superior intelligence relative to all other species. A hubris easily deconditioned by the complexity of the octopus’ complex consciousness. And the intra-species hubris which treats those who have higher cognitive capacities as measured using our flawed IQ metrics, as more intelligent and sensitive than those with less computationally driven

Art from Cephalopod Atlas, the world’s first encyclopedia of deep-sea creatures. Available as a print or a face mask. Proceeds from the sale will go towards The Nature Conservancy.

And this is the optimistic underdone I hear in Damasio’s model: By understanding as a full-body phenomenon the consciousness that lenses our view of reality and shapes our life-experience, we can not only become better stewards of our own bodies and of the planet we share with other bodies, human and nonhuman, but we can begin to dismantle the artificial hierarchies and categories by which we have long bolstered our creaturely centrality across the various scales and spectra of existence, from Ptolemism to anthropocentrism to racism, choosing instead to be both humbled and hallowed by the evolutionary wonder of consciousness.

The remainder of Feeling & KnowingDamasio then explains the three realms from which mental images are derived, as well as how our chemistry, skeletal framework, and chemistry work together to create our sense of belonging. She also discusses the importance of affect when allocating attention and how science has clarified Emily Dickinson’s core insights.

Dickinson was openly committed to an organic vision of mind, and a modern view of the human spirit. But, ultimately, it was the brain that proved to be larger than the sky, but rather life, which is the creator of brains, bodies, minds and feelings. The most amazing thing about the universe is not only life (as matter and process), but also life’s role as an instigator of creation and thinking.


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