Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio on How Our Minds Obscure Our Bodies
By Maria Popova
“A purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity,” William James asserted in his pioneering 1884 theory of how our bodies affect our feelings. “What we say and do often hides motives that we keep from others and even from ourselves,” wrote Israel Rosenfield in his landmark exploration of consciousness a century later.
Much of this hiding, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio argues in his revelatory 1999 book The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (public library), stems from a chronic mistrust between the mind and the body — amid the seething cauldron of sensation and perception that we call consciousness, we somehow fog our mental view of our very own bodily selves.
Sometimes we use our minds not to discover facts, but to hide them. We use part of the mind as a screen to prevent another part of it from sensing what goes on elsewhere. The screening is not necessarily intentional — we are not deliberate obfuscators all of the time — but deliberate or not, the screen does hide.
One of the things the screen hides most effectively is the body, our own body, by which I mean the ins of it, its interiors. Like a veil thrown over the skin to secure its modesty, the screen partially removes from the mind the inner states of the body, those that constitute the flow of life as it wanders in the journey of each day.
The alleged vagueness, elusiveness, and intangibility of emotions and feelings are probably symptoms of this fact, an indication of how we cover the representation of our bodies, of how much mental imagery based on nonbody objects and events masks the reality of the body. Otherwise we would easily know that emotions and feelings are tangibly about the body. Sometimes we use our minds to hide a part of our beings from another part of our beings.
Complement this particular fragment of the wholly excellent The Feeling of What Happens with the late, great, pioneering memory researcher Suzanne Corkin on how memory colludes with us in this obfuscation and psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk on the science of how our minds and our bodies converge in the healing of trauma, then revisit Rilke on the relationship between the body and the spirit.
Published July 5, 2016