Viola, Christian Nold, Yves
Teresa Margolles, Valerio Magrelli, William Kentridge
Katharina Grosse, Andrea Ferrara, Elisa Biagini
Maurice Benayoun, Antonella Anedda
|EMOTIONAL SYSTEMS I Publication l Lectures l Education l Contact l Italiano|
Forword by James M. Bradburne
Emotional Systems by Franziska Nori
feelings are" Antonio Damasio
|For many years the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has been investigating the cerebral mechanisms that underlie sentiments and emotions. In this essay he seeks to define the distinctive term ‘sentiment’ as the perception, and mental representation, of the body; and as a vital, physical language that is a function of the mind: the visualisation of the body, therefore, by means of the brain.Moreover, in light of the discovery of ‘mirror neurons’, Damasio is able to perfect his argument that neuronal substrates underpin mental processes and the perception of emotions, as well as the transformation of compassion into a feeling of empathy.|
|In my attempt to explain what feelings are,
I will begin by asking the reader a question: When you consider any feeling
you have experienced, pleasant or not, intense or not, what do you regard
as the contents of that feeling? Note that I am not inquiring about the
cause of the feeling; or about the intensity of the feeling; or about its
positive or negative valence; or about what thoughts came into your mind
in the wake of the feeling. I really mean the mental contents, the ingredients,
the stuff that makes a feeling. In order to get this thought experiment
going let me offer some suggestions: think of lying down in the sand, the
late-day sun gently roasting your skin, the ocean lapping at your feet,
a rustle of pine needles somewhere behind you, a light summer breeze breezing,
78° F and not a cloud in the sky. Take your time and savour the experience.
I will assume you were not bored to tears and that instead you felt very
well, exceedingly well, as a friend of mine likes to put it, and the question
is, what did that ‘feeling well’ consist of? Here are just a
few clues. Perhaps the warmth of your skin was comfortable. Your breathing
was easy, in and out, unimpeded by any resistance in the chest or at the
throat. Your muscles were so relaxed that you could not sense any pull at
the joints. The body felt light, grounded but airy. You could survey the
organism as a whole and you could sense its machinery working smoothly,
with no glitches, no pain, simple perfection. You had the energy to move,
but somehow you preferred to remain quiet, a paradoxical combination of
the ability and inclination to act and the savouring of the stillness. The
body, in brief, felt different along a number of dimensions. Some dimensions
were quite apparent, and you actually could identify their locus. Others
were more elusive. For example, you felt well-being and an absence of pain,
and although the locus of the phenomenon was the body and its operations,
the sensation was so diffuse that it was difficult to describe precisely
where that was happening in the body. And there were mental consequences
of the state of being just described. When you could direct your attention
away from the sheer well-being of the moment, when you could enhance the
mental representations that did not pertain directly to your body, you found
that your mind was filled with thoughts whose themes created a new wave
of pleasurable feeling. The picture of events you eagerly anticipated as
pleasurable came into mind, as did scenes you enjoyed experiencing in the
past. Also, you found that your cast of mind was, well, felicitous. You
had adopted a mode of thinking in which images had a sharp focus and flowed
abundantly and effortlessly. There were two consequences for all that good
feeling. The appearance of thoughts with themes consonant with the emotion;
and a mode of thinking, a style of mental processing, which increased
the speed of image generation and made images more abundant. You had, as
Wordsworth did up in Tintern Abbey, ‘sensations sweet felt in the
blood and felt along the heart’ and found that these sensations were
‘passing even into [your] purer mind in tranquil restoration’.
What you usually regard as ‘body’ and as ‘mind’
blended in harmony. Any conflicts now seemed abated. Any opposites now seemed
I would say that what defined the pleasurable feeling of those moments, what made the feeling deserve the distinctive term feeling and be different from any other thought, was the mental representation of parts of the body or of the whole body as operating in a certain manner. Feeling, in the pure and narrow sense of the word, was the idea of the body being in a certain way. In this definition you can substitute idea for ‘thought’ or ‘perception’. Once you looked beyond the object that caused the feeling and the thoughts and mode of thinking consequent to it, the core of the feeling came into focus. Its contents consisted of representing a particular state of the body. The same comments would apply entirely to feelings of sadness, feelings of any other emotion, feelings of appetites, and feelings of any set of regulatory reactions unfolding in the organism. Feelings, in the sense used in this book, arise from any set of homeostatic reactions, not just from emotions. They translate the ongoing life state in the language of the mind. I propose that there are distinctive ‘body ways’ resulting from different homeostatic reactions, from simple to a complex state of pain, and thus distinctive core feelings. There also are distinctive causative objects, distinctive consequent thoughts, and consonant modes of thinking. Sadness, for example, is accompanied by low rates of image production and hyper-attentiveness to images, rather than by the rapid image change and short attention that goes with high happiness. Feelings are perceptions, and I propose that the most necessary support for their perception occurs in the brain’s body maps. These maps refer to parts of the body and states of the body. Some variation of pleasure or pain is a consistent content of the perception we call feeling.
Alongside the perception of the body there is the perception of thoughts with themes consonant with the emotion, and a perception of a certain mode of thinking, a style of mental processing. How does this perception come about? It results from constructing meta-representations of our own mental process, a high-level operation in which a part of the mind represents another part of the mind. This allows us to register the fact that our thoughts slow down or speed up as more or less attention is devoted to them; or the fact that thoughts depict objects and events at close range or at a distance. My hypothesis, then, presented in the form of a provisional definition, is that a feeling is the perception of a certain state of the body along with the perception of a certain mode of thinking and of thoughts with certain themes. Feelings emerge when the sheer accumulation of mapped details reaches a certain stage. Coming from a different perspective, the philosopher Suzanne Langer captured the nature of that moment of emergence with the following words: When the activity of some part of the nervous system reaches a ‘critical pitch the process is felt’.1 Feeling is a consequence of the ongoing homeostatic process, the next step in the cycle.
The above hypothesis is not compatible with the view that the essence of feelings (or the essence of emotions when emotions and feelings are taken as synonyms) is a collection of thoughts with certain themes consonant with a certain feeling label, such as thoughts of situations of loss in the case of sadness. I believe the latter view empties the concept of feeling hopelessly. If feelings were merely clusters of thoughts with certain themes, how could they be distinguished from any other thoughts? How would they retain the functional individuality that justifies their status as a special mind process? My view is that feelings are functionally distinctive because their essence consists of the thoughts that represent the body involved in a reactive process. Remove that essence and the notion of feeling vanishes. Remove that essence and one should never again be allowed to say ‘I feel’ happy, but rather, ‘I think’ happy. But that begs a legitimate question: What makes thoughts ‘happy’? If we do not experience a certain body state with a certain quality we call pleasure and that we find ‘good’ and ‘positive’ within the framework of life, we have no reason whatsoever to regard any thought as happy. Or sad.
As I see it, the origin of the perceptions that constitute the essence of feeling is clear: there is a general object, the body, and there are many parts to that object that are continuously mapped in a number of brain structures. The contents of those perceptions also are clear: varied body states portrayed by the body-representing maps along a range of possibilities. For example, the micro and macrostructure of tensed muscles are a different content from those of relaxed muscles. The same is true of the state of the heart when it beats fast or slow, and for the function of other systems – respiratory, digestive – whose business can proceed quietly and harmoniously, or with difficulty and poor coordination. Another example, and perhaps the most important one, is the composition of the blood relative to some chemical molecules on which our life depends, and whose concentration is represented, moment by moment, in specific brain regions. The particular state of those body components, as portrayed in the brain’s body maps, is the content of the perceptions that constitute feelings. The immediate substrates of feelings are the mappings of all those body states in the sensory regions of the brain designed to receive signals from the body.
Someone might object that we do not seem to register consciously the perception of all those body-part states. Thank goodness we do not register them all, indeed. We do experience some of them quite specifically and not always pleasantly – a disturbed heart rhythm, a painful contraction of the gut, and so forth. But for most other components, I hypothesise that we experience them in ‘composite’ form. Certain patterns of internal milieu chemistry, for example register as background feelings of energy fatigue, or malaise. We also experience the set of behavioural changes that become appetites and cravings. Obviously we do not ‘experience’ the blood level of glucose dropping below its lower admissible threshold, but we rapidly experience consequences of that drop at the level of how other systems operate (the musculature, for example) and how certain behaviours are engaged (e.g., appetite for food).
Experiencing a certain feeling, such as pleasure, is perceiving the body as being in a certain way, and perceiving the body in whatever way requires sensory maps in which neural patterns are instantiated and out of which mental images can be derived. I caution that the emergence of mental images from neural patterns is not a fully understood process […]. But we know enough to hypothesise that the process is supported by identifiable substrates – in the case of feelings, several maps of body state in varied brain regions – and subsequently involves complex interactions among regions. The process is not localised to one brain area.
In brief, the essential content of feelings is the mapping of a particular body state; the substrate of feelings is the set of neural patterns that map the body state and from which a mental image of the body state can emerge. A feeling in essence is an idea – an idea of the body and, even more particularly, an idea of a certain aspect of the body, its interior, in certain circumstances. A feeling of emotion is an idea of the body when it is perturbed by the emoting process. […], however, the mapping of the body that constitutes the critical part of this hypothesis is unlikely to be as direct as William James once imagined.
This text is an excerpt taken from the third chapter of Antonio Damasio’s book Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain (Orlando: Harcourt Inc., 2003). The chapter in the original language was provided by Damasio himself.