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An Evolutionary Anatomy of Affect: Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio on How and Why We Feel What We Feel

An Evolutionary Anatomy of Affect: Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio on How and Why We Feel What We Feel

“A purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity,” William James wrote in his pioneering 1884 theory of how our bodies affect our feelings. In the century-some since, breakthroughs in neurology, psychobiology, and neuroscience have contributed leaps of layered (though still incomplete) understanding of the relationship between the physical body and our emotional experience. That tessellated relationship is what neuroscientist Antonio Damasio examines in The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures (public library) — a title inspired by the disorienting fact that several billion years ago, single-cell organisms began exhibiting behaviors strikingly analogous to certain human social behaviors and 100 million years ago insects developed interactions, instruments, and cooperative strategies that we might call cultural. That such sociocultural behaviors long predate the development of the human brain casts new light on the ancient mind-body problem and offers a radical revision of how we understand mind, feeling, consciousness, and the construction of cultures.

Two decades after his landmark exploration of how the relationship between the body and the mind shapes our conscious experience, Damasio draws a visionary link between biology and social science in a fascinating investigation of homeostasis — the delicate balance that underpins our physical existence, ensures our survival, and defines our flourishing. At the heart of his inquiry is his lifelong interest in the nature of human affect — why we feel what we feel, how we use emotions to construct selfhood, what makes our intentions and our feelings so frequently contradictory, how the body and the mind conspire in the inception of emotional reality. What emerges is not an arsenal of certitudes and answers but a celebration of curiosity and a reminder that intelligent, informed speculation is how we expand the territory of knowledge by moving the boundary of the knowable further into the unknown.

One of Salvador Dalí’s illustrations for the essays of Montaigne

Feelings, Damasio argues, are the unheralded germinators of human culture:

Human beings have distinguished themselves from all other beings by creating a spectacular collection of objects, practices, and ideas, collectively known as cultures. The collection includes the arts, philosophical inquiry, moral systems and religious beliefs, justice, governance, economic institutions, and technology and science.


Language, sociality, knowledge, and reason are the inventors and executors of these complicated processes. But feelings get to motivate them and stay on to check the results… Cultural activity began and remains deeply embedded in feeling. The favorable and unfavorable interplay of feeling and reason must be acknowledged if we are to understand the conflicts and contradictions of the human condition.

Only by understanding the nature and origin of feelings, Damasio notes, can we begin to understand the astonishing array of potentialities which human nature holds — our noblest and basest tendencies, our most generative and most destructive behaviors, and the myriad ways in which our multitudes are in constant interplay and frequent contradiction with one another. Observing that no such understanding can be complete unless it is traced back to the origin of life itself, long predating human beings, he writes:

In the history of life, events did not comply with the conventional notions that we humans have formed for how to build the beautiful instrument I like to call a cultural mind.

Damasio examines the nature of feelings and the origin of cultures through the lens of homeostasis:

Feelings are the mental expressions of homeostasis, while homeostasis, acting under the cover of feeling, is the functional thread that links early life-forms to the extraordinary partnership of bodies and nervous systems. That partnership is responsible for the emergence of conscious, feeling minds that are, in turn, responsible for what is most distinctive about humanity: cultures and civilizations….

Connecting cultures to feeling and homeostasis strengthens their links to nature and deepens the humanization of the cultural process. Feelings and creative cultural minds were assembled by a long process in which genetic selection guided by homeostasis played a prominent role. Connecting cultures to feelings, homeostasis, and genetics counters the growing detachment of cultural ideas, practices, and objects from the process of life.

Every time science has revised the human animal’s place in the order of things — not at the center of the universe, as Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo proved nearly at the cost of their lives; not at the center of “Creation,” as Darwin demonstrated against a formidable tide of dogma — humans have reacted with hostile defensiveness to the perception of their diminished status. Damasio offers a necessary counterpoint to this reflexive tendency as he traces the origin of feelings — a faculty long presumed to be singularly human — to far simpler and older organisms:

Discovering the roots of human cultures in nonhuman biology does not diminish the exceptional status of humans at all. The exceptional status of each human being derives from the unique significance of suffering and flourishing in the context of our remembrances of the past and of the memories we have constructed of the future we anticipate.

Among the curious phenomena Damasio examines is the tendency to revise past experiences in hindsight, amplifying their positive aspects in memory beyond the magnitude of the actual lived experience — a kind of “affectively positive reshaping of remembrances,” to which some people are more susceptible than others. He considers the importance of this phenomenon as it relates to our anticipation of the future, as individuals and as cultures:

What one hopes for and how one faces the life ahead depend on how the past has been lived, not only in objective, factually verifiable terms, but also in the experience or reconstruction of the objective data in one’s remembrances. Recollection is at the mercy of all that makes us unique individuals. The styles of our personalities in numerous aspects have to do with typical cognitive and affective modes, the balance of individual experiences in affective terms, cultural identities, achievements, luck.

How and what we create culturally and how we react to cultural phenomena depend on the tricks of our imperfect memories as manipulated by feelings.

Art by Oliver Jeffers from The Heart and the Bottle, a tender illustrated parable of what happens when we deny our difficult emotions

This world of affect exists as a parallel reality to the physical world through which we move our bodies, and yet it too arises from the physical body and defines the “qualia” at the heart of our conscious experience. In mapping its terrain, Damasio offers a taxonomy of affect that illuminates the crucial difference between emotions and feelings:

The aspect of mind that dominates our existence, or so it seems, concerns the world around us, actual or recalled from memory, with its objects and events, human and not, as represented by myriad images of every sensory stripe, often translated in verbal languages and structured in narratives. And yet, a remarkable yet, there is a parallel mental world that accompanies all those images, often so subtle that it does not demand any attention for itself but occasionally so significant that it alters the course of the dominant part of the mind, sometimes arrestingly so. That is the parallel world of affect, a world in which we find feelings traveling alongside the usually more salient images of our minds. The immediate causes of feelings include (a) the background flow of life processes in our organisms, which are experienced as spontaneous or homeostatic feelings; (b) the emotive responses triggered by processing myriad sensory stimuli such as tastes, smells, tactile, auditory, and visual stimuli, the experience of which is one of the sources of qualia; and (c) the emotive responses resulting from engaging drives (such as hunger or thirst) or motivations (such as lust and play) or emotions, in the more conventional sense of the term, which are action programs activated by confrontation with numerous and sometimes complex situations; examples of emotions include joy, sadness, fear, anger, envy, jealousy, contempt, compassion, and admiration. The emotive responses described under (b) and (c) generate provoked feelings rather than the spontaneous variety that arises from the “unaffected” homeostatic flow.

Damasio draws on the immense evolutionary and informational value of feelings to refute the notion that they are a mere adornment of consciousness:

Feelings accompany the unfolding of life in our organisms, whatever one perceives, learns, remembers, imagines, reasons, judges, decides, plans, or mentally creates. Regarding feelings as occasional visitors to the mind or as caused only by the typical emotions does not do justice to the ubiquity and functional importance of the phenomenon.

Most every image in the main procession we call mind, from the moment the item enters a mental spotlight of attention until it leaves, has a feeling by its side. Images are so desperate for affective company that even the images that constitute a prominent feeling can be accompanied by other feelings, a bit like the harmonics of a sound or the circles that form once a pebble hits the water surface. There is no being, in the proper sense of the term, without a spontaneous mental experience of life, a feeling of existence. The ground zero of being corresponds to a deceptively continuous and endless feeling state, a more or less intense mental choir underscoring everything else mental… The complete absence of feelings would spell a suspension of being, but even a less radical removal of feeling would compromise human nature.

Without feelings, we wouldn’t be able to respond to beauty — which may be our mightiest conduit of connection with the living world — and therefore wouldn’t be able to recognize and classify things as beautiful; we wouldn’t distinguish between pleasurable and painful experiences; we wouldn’t have ideals that motivate us to reach beyond ourselves; we wouldn’t register the rewarding gratification of making a discovery or exercising generosity or creating something new, and therefore wouldn’t be impelled to do those things. Echoing philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s assertion that feelings are an indelible part of our reasoning, Damasio writes:

The conventional contrast between affect and reason comes from a narrow conception of emotions and feelings as largely negative and capable of undermining facts and reasoning. In reality, emotions and feelings come in multiple flavors, and only a few are disruptive. Most emotions and feelings are essential to power the intellectual and creative process… The neglect of affect impoverishes the description of human nature. No satisfactory account of the human cultural mind is possible without factoring in affect.

And yet feelings are not some mental abstraction that operates above and beyond our creaturely being — feelings are rooted in the elemental machinery of the body, literally arising from the gut. Damasio writes:

The circumstances, actual or recalled from memory, that can cause feelings are infinite. By contrast, the list of elementary contents of feelings is restricted, confined to only one class of object: the living organism of their owner, by which I mean components of the body itself and their current state. But let us dig deeper in this idea, and note that the reference to the organism is dominated by one sector of the body: the old interior world of the viscera that are located in the abdomen, thorax, and thick of the skin, along with the attendant chemical processes. The contents of feelings that dominate our conscious mind correspond largely to the ongoing actions of viscera, for example, the degree of contraction or relaxation of the smooth muscles that form the walls of tubular organs such as the trachea, bronchi, and gut, as well as countless blood vessels in the skin and visceral cavities. Equally prominent among the contents is the state of the mucosae — think of your throat, dry, moist, or just plain sore, or of your esophagus or stomach when you eat too much or are famished. The typical content of our feelings is governed by the degree to which the operations of the viscera listed above are smooth and uncomplicated or else labored and erratic. To make matters more complex, all of these varied organ states are the result of the action of chemical molecules — circulating in the blood or arising in nerve terminals distributed throughout the viscera — for example, cortisol, serotonin, dopamine, endogenous opioids, oxytocin. Some of these potions and elixirs are so powerful that their results are instantaneous. Last, the degree of tension or relaxation of the voluntary muscles (which… are part of the newer interior world of the body frame) also contributes to the content of feelings. Examples include the patterns of muscular activation of the face. They are so closely associated with certain emotional states that their deployment in our faces can rapidly conjure up feelings such as joy and surprise. We do not need to look in the mirror to know that we are experiencing such states.

In sum, feelings are experiences of certain aspects of the state of life within an organism. Those experiences are not mere decoration. They accomplish something extraordinary: a moment-to-moment report on the state of life in the interior of an organism.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from The Lion and the Bird

The complex interplay of the activity of our endocrine glands, the dilation and contraction of our blood vessels and tubular organs, the undulation of our respiratory and circadian rhythms, provokes a mental representation of certain feeling states, so that we may call delight the sparkling state of relaxation untroubled by negative stress. Damasio writes:

The “provocation” of emotive responses to countless image components or to entire narratives is one of the most central and incessant aspects of our mental lives.

And yet as physically grounded as these emotive responses are, they are not fixed, not hard-wired beyond rewiring. Rather, they are malleable in the hands of intention, chance, and environment:

Certain brain systems, planted there by the grace of natural selection with the help of our genes and with more or fewer jitters from the environments of the womb and infanthood. [But] all manner of environmental factors can modify the emotive deployment as we develop. It turns out that the machinery of our affect is educable, to a certain extent, and that a good part of what we call civilization occurs through the education of that machinery in a conducive environment of home, school, and culture. In a curious way, what one calls temperament — the more or less harmonious manner with which we react to the shocks and jolts of life, in the day to day — is the result of that long process of education as it interacts with the basics of emotional reactivity that one is given as a result of all the biological factors at play during our development: — gene endowment, varied developmental factors pre- and postnatal, luck of the draw. One thing is certain, however. The machinery of affect is responsible for generating emotive responses and, as a result, for influencing behaviors that, one could have innocently thought, would be under the sole control of the most knowledgeable and discerning components of our minds. Drives, motivations, and emotions often have something to add or subtract to decisions one would have expected to be purely rational.

But although “human emotions are recognizable pieces of a standard repertoire” which stretches all the way back to single-cell organisms and which evolved in order to produce the possibility of sociality and cooperation between organisms, something does make human feelings unique — something philosopher Simone Weil touched on in her poignant meditation on how to make use of our suffering. Damasio writes:

Any image that enters the mind is entitled to an emotive response. That even applies to the images called feelings themselves. The state of being in pain, of feeling pain, for example, can become enriched by a new layer of processing — a secondary feeling, as it were — prompted by varied thoughts with which we react to the basic situation. The depth of this layered feeling state is probably a hallmark of human minds. It is the sort of process likely to undergird what we call suffering.

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from Blob by Joy Sorman

This process, to be sure, is also decidedly physical, but neither purely bodily nor purely neural. With an eye to the corporeal construction and consequence of a feeling like sadness — which mobilizes the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland to release a cascade of molecules, reducing homeostasis and inflicting physical damage on organs like muscles and blood vessels — Damasio refutes Descartes:

Mind and brain influence the body proper just as much as the body proper can influence the brain and the mind. They are merely two aspects of the very same being.


If there is no distance between body and brain, if body and brain interact and form an organismic single unit, then feeling is not a perception of the body state in the conventional sense of the term. Here the duality of subject-object, of perceiver-perceived, breaks down. Relative to this part of the process, there is unity instead. Feeling is the mental aspect of that unity.

Reinstating feelings to their rightful cultural stature, Damasio writes:

It is not possible to talk about thinking, intelligence, and creativity in any meaningful way without factoring in feelings.

In the remainder of the thoroughly fascinating The Strange Order of Things, Damasio goes on to examine the relationship between feeling and intellect, how advances in medicine and artificial intelligence transfigure the problem of immortality, the origin of mind along the arrow of evolution, the dialogue between image-making and memory in how we construct and experience emotion, and how feelings illuminate various other aspects of the evolution of culture and consciousness. Complement it with pioneering immunologist Esther Sternberg on how our emotions affect our susceptibility to burnout and disease, PTSD researcher Bessel van der Kolk on how our minds and our bodies converge in the healing of emotional trauma, and philosopher Martha Nussbaum on the intelligence of emotions.

Published February 22, 2018




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