I Feel, Therefore I Am: Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio on Consciousness as a Full-Body Phenomenon
By Maria Popova
“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 —
The one the other will contain
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 —
It is the task, the destiny of science to concretize with evidence what the poets have always intuited and imagized in abstraction: that we are infinitely more miraculous and infinitely less important than we thought. The universe without, which made us and every star-dusted atom of our consciousness, is ever-vaster and more complex than we suppose it to be; the universe within, which makes the universe without and renders our entire experience of reality through the telescopic lens of our consciousness, is ever-denser and more complex than we suppose it to be.
A century and a half after James, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio picks up an empirical baton where Dickinson had left a torch of intuition. In 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.
Decades after Toni Morrison celebrated the body as the supreme instrument of sanity and self-regard, neuroscience affirms the body as the instrument of feeling that makes the symphony of consciousness possible: feelings, which arise from the dialogue between the body and the nervous system, are not a byproduct of consciousness but made consciousness emerge. (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.”)
Damasio’s premise rises from the flatland of earlier mind-based theories by a conceptual fulcrum both simple and profound:
Feelings gave birth to consciousness and gifted it generously to the rest of the mind.
This view defies both extremes that dominate our present models of consciousness, each unimaginative and intellectually unambitious in its own way, as all extremes invariably are: materialism, which confines it to the neural activity of the brain, and mysticism, which places it entirely outside the contours of the body and beyond the reach of scientific investigation. Damasio writes:
Any theory that bypasses the nervous system in order to account for the existence of minds and consciousness is destined to failure. The nervous system is the critical contributor to the realization of minds, consciousness, and the creative reasoning that they allow. But any theory that relies exclusively on the nervous system to account for minds and consciousness is also bound to fail. Unfortunately, that is the case with most theories today. The hopeless attempts to explain consciousness exclusively in terms of nervous activity are partly responsible for the idea that consciousness is an inexplicable mystery. 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.
Drawing on the native poetics of our physiology, Damasio offers a definition of 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.
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. All life-forms, from bacteria to Bach, share a basic machinery of stimulus-detection called sensing. Organisms with nervous systems are capable of minding — the neurobiological 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. More complex organisms can manipulate those images, integrating them into a system of reference we call knowledge, which the nervous system makes explicit by creating patterns and committing them to memory, so that the organism can plan, reason, and reflect.
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.
Consciousness gathers together the bits of sapience that reveal, by dint of their coincident presence, the mystery of belonging. 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.
The most crucial of these bits of sapience manifest as mental images formed by body-mind interactions:
Turn a mind inside out and spill its contents. What do you find? Images and more images, the sorts of images that complicated creatures, such as we are, manage to generate and combine in a forward-flowing stream. 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.
When we relate and combine images in our minds and transform them within our creative imaginations, we produce new images that signify ideas, concrete as well as abstract; we produce symbols; and we commit to memory a good part of all the imagetic produce. As we do so, we enlarge the archive from which we will draw plenty of future mental contents.
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:
What you perceive or remember, what you try to figure out by reasoning, what you invent or wish to communicate, the actions you undertake, the things you learn and recall, the mental universe made up by objects, actions, and abstractions thereof, all of these different processes can generate affective responses as they unfold. We can think of affect as the universe of our ideas transmuted in feeling, and it is also helpful to think of feelings in music terms. Feelings perform the equivalent of a musical score that accompanies our thoughts and actions.
Feelings are commingled with the things and events we feel thanks to the exceptional and intimate cross talk between body structures and nervous system.
Mapping the four-billion-year history of living organisms along its branching streams, Damasio envisions the distributary that led to us as a cascade of three evolutionary stages: being, feeling, and knowing, which continue to coexist in each of us modern sapiens, coursing through the various anatomical and functional systems that give us life. 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 astonishing afterthoughts of evolution became the stage on which the theater of consciousness plays out. Damasio explains:
Nervous systems enable both complex movements and, eventually, the beginning of a real novelty: minds. Feelings are among the first examples of mind phenomena, and it is difficult to exaggerate their significance. 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 experiences of their own life.
He considers how this transformative afterthought might have evolved and how it gave us the capacity for feeling that forever changed the course of life 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. Something novel and extremely valuable had emerged in the history of life: a mental counterpart to 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.
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. They all arise when stimuli trigger molecular messages that travel from body tissues and organs, through nerve terminals, into the central nervous system and the brain, producing mental images that give us valuable information we experience as emotional states, which serve to steer us toward corrective action.
This might seem mechanistic and unpoetic, but out of this biological feedback loop arises our capacity for problem-solving and poetry, for beauty and transcendence, for everything we call creativity. 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:
The human experience of pain and suffering has been responsible for extraordinary creativity, focused and obsessive, responsible for inventing all kinds of instruments capable of countering the negative feelings that initiated the creative cycle.
Ultimately, we are puppets of both pain and pleasure, occasionally made free by our creativity.
This feedback loop of feeling is unavailable to organisms in the less developed 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.
Once being and feeling are structured and operational, they are ready to support and extend the sapience that constitutes the third member of the trio: knowing.
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. More often than not, they dominate the mental proceedings.
Once experiences begin to be committed to memory, feeling and conscious organisms are capable of maintaining a more or less exhaustive history of their lives, a history of their interactions with others and of their interaction with the environment, in brief, a history of each individual life as lived inside each individual organism, nothing less than the armature of personhood.
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.
This is where our physiology and psychology converge. 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:
We are quite familiar with the direct way in which illness gives way to discomfort and pain or exuberant health produces pleasure. But we often overlook the fact that psychological and sociocultural situations also gain access to the machinery of homeostasis in such a way that they too result in pain or pleasure, malaise or well-being. In its unerring push for economy, nature did not bother to create new devices to handle the goodness or badness of our personal psychology or social condition. It makes do with the same mechanisms.
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:
The power of feelings comes from the fact that they are present in the 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.
In the land of language, however, the adventure has been burdened by a great deal of cultural baggage, loaded with misconceptions and misuses. 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 mind, which plunders it of the essential role of feeling. Damasio points out that even in the older Romance languages, which include his native Portuguese, one must settle for the word conscience, already blunted by its multiple meanings. 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:
Feelings let the mind know, automatically, without any questions being asked, that mind and body are together, each belonging to the other. 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 imbued with feeling and a sense of 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.”
This embodied model of consciousness looms with some profound consequences.
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.
Another, which Damasio does touch on at the end of the book, is a humbling antidote to the dual hubris with which humanity regards itself and other life-forms: the hubris of human exceptionalism across species, which presumes that our superior cognitive capacity relative to other animals automatically means superior consciousness (a hubris readily deconditioned by what we have been learning, for instance, about the complex consciousness of the far more modest-brained octopus), and the within-species hubris that treats individuals with higher cognitive capacity measured by our deeply flawed IQ metrics as superior to those with other, less computationally driven and computable forms of intelligence and sensitivity.
And this is the optimistic undertone 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.
In the remainder of Feeling & Knowing, Damasio goes on to detail the three universes of experience from which our mental images spring, how our chemistry and our skeletal frame converge to produce our sense of belonging to ourselves, the role of affect in how we allocate attention, and much more, including how the discoveries of science in the epochs since Emily Dickinson penciled her far-seeing verse have clarified her core insight:
Dickinson was candidly committed to an organic view of mind and to a modern conception of the human spirit. And yet, in the end, what turned out to be wider than the sky was not the brain but life itself, the begetter of bodies, brains, minds, feelings, and consciousness. What is more impressive than the entire universe is life, as matter and process, life as inspirer of thinking and creation.
Published December 24, 2021