The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures by Antonio Damasio
[Disclaimer: This is not meant to be a book summary or book review. This is just stuff in the book that I found personally valuable or interesting at the time of reading. Most of these “notes” are actually highlights, i.e. directly copied lines from the book, but some notes are personal adaptations or added personal insights.]
– Feelings have not been given the credit they deserve as motives, monitors, and negotiators of human cultural endeavors.
– 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.
– 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.
Feelings are at the center of the book, but they draw their powers from homeostasis.
– Connecting cultures to feelings, homeostasis, and genetics counters the growing detachment of cultural ideas, practices, and objects from the process of life.
– 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 incessantly anticipate.
– In standard circumstances, feelings tell the mind, without any word being spoken, of the good or bad direction of the life process, at any moment, within its respective body. By doing so, feelings naturally qualify the life process as conducive or not to well-being and flourishing.
– Feelings are not an independent fabrication of the brain. They are the result of a cooperative partnership of body and brain, interacting by way of free-ranging chemical molecules and nerve pathways.
– The simple idea, then, is that feelings of pain and feelings of pleasure, from degrees of well-being to malaise and sickness, would have been the catalysts for the processes of questioning, understanding, and problem solving that most profoundly distinguish human minds from the minds of other living species.
– [Culture, as referred to in this book:] The ideas, attitudes, customs, manners, practices, and institutions that distinguish one social group from another belong to the overall scope of culture as does the notion that cultures are transmitted across peoples and generations by language and by the very objects and rituals that the cultures created in the first place.
– Feelings contribute in three ways to the cultural process:
1. as motives of the intellectual creation
- a) by prompting the detection and diagnosis of homeostatic deficiencies;
- b) by identifying desirable states worthy of creative effort;
2. as monitors of the success or failure of cultural instruments and practices;
3. as participants in the negotiation of adjustments required by the cultural process over time.
– Presenting survival as a motive will not do because it removes the reasons why survival would be a matter of concern. …
If your pain is medicated with treatment A or treatment B, you rely on feelings to declare which treatment makes the pain less intense, or fully resolved, or unchanged.
– Feelings work as motives to respond to a problem and as monitors of the success of the response or lack thereof.
– Feelings of every sort and shade, caused by actual or imagined events, would have provided the motives and recruited the intellect.
– Cultural responses would have been created by human beings intent on changing their life situation for the better, for the more comfortable, for the more pleasant, for the more conducive to a future with well-being and with fewer of the troubles and losses that would have inspired such creations in the first place, ultimately and practically, not just for a more survivable future but for a better lived one.
– Moral principles and laws are the result of intellectual analyses of the conditions humans have faced and of the management of power by the group inventing and promulgating laws. They are grounded in feeling, knowledge, and reasoning, processed in a mental space, with the use of language.
– Homeostasis refers to the fundamental set of operations at the core of life, from the earliest and long-vanished point of its beginning in early biochemistry to the present.
– Deficient homeostasis is expressed by largely negative feelings, while positive feelings express appropriate levels of homeostasis and open organisms to advantageous opportunities.
– Feelings are the subjective experiences of the state of life—that is, of homeostasis—in all creatures endowed with a mind and a conscious point of view. We can think of feelings as mental deputies of homeostasis.
– It is my view that the unshakable imperative of homeostasis has been the pervasive governor of life in all its guises.
– Feelings, as deputies of homeostasis, are the catalysts for the responses that began human cultures.
– Feelings — the subjective experiences of the momentary state of homeostasis within a living body — did not emerge when life did. I propose that they emerged only after organisms were endowed with nervous systems, a far more recent development that began to occur only about 600 million years ago.
– Nervous systems make minds not by themselves but in cooperation with the rest of their own organisms. This is a departure from the traditional view of brains as the sole source of minds.
– The brains that have helped human organisms invent cultural ideas, practices, and instruments were assembled by genetic inheritance, naturally selected over billions of years. By contrast, the products of the human cultural mind and the history of humans have been subject mostly to cultural selection and have been transmitted to us largely by cultural means.
– In the end, human creativity is rooted in life and in the breathtaking fact that life comes equipped with a precise mandate: resist and project itself into the future, no matter what.
– Complex, conscious, feeling minds inspired and steered the expansion of intelligence and language and generated novel instruments of dynamic homeostatic regulation external to living organisms. The intentions expressed by such new instruments are still consonant with the early life imperative, still aimed at not just enduring but prevailing.
– Cultural homeostasis is merely a work in progress often undermined by periods of adversity. We might venture that the ultimate success of cultural homeostasis depends on a fragile civilizational effort aimed at reconciling different regulation goals.
– The collection of coordinated processes required to execute life’s unthought and unwilled desire to persist and advance into the future, through thick and thin, is known as homeostasis.
– Homeostasis refers to the process by which the tendency of matter to drift into disorder is countered so as to maintain order but at a new level, the one allowed by the most efficient steady state.
– Well-groomed metabolism — that is, metabolism guided by homeostasis — would define the beginnings of life and its movement forward and be the driving force for evolution.
Natural selection, which is guided by the most efficient extraction of nutrients and energy from the environment, did the rest, which included centralized metabolic regulation and replication.
– The homeostatic process strives for more than a mere steady state. … it is as if single cells or multicellular organisms are striving for a particular class of steady state conducive to flourishing.
This is a natural upregulation that can be described as aiming at the future of the organism, an inclination to project itself in time by means of optimized life regulation and possible progeny.
One might say that organisms want their health and then some.
– Feelings provide us with a moment-to-moment perspective on the state of our health. Degrees of well-being or malaise are sentinels.
Of course, feelings can miss the onset of several diseases, and emotional feelings can mask the ongoing, spontaneous homeostatic feelings and prevent them from delivering a clear message.
More often than not, however, feelings tell us what we need to know.
– There is no reason why we should rely on feelings alone to take good care of ourselves. But it is important to point out the fundamental role of feelings and their practical value, no doubt the reason why they have been preserved in evolution.
– The essence of homeostasis is the formidable enterprise of managing energy—procuring it, allocating it to critical jobs such as repair, defense, growth, and participation in the engendering and maintenance of progeny.
– The principle is always the same:
organisms give up something in exchange for something that other organisms can offer them; in the long run, this will make their lives more efficient and survival more likely.
What bacteria, or nucleated cells, or tissues, or organs give up, in general, is independence; what they get in return is access to the “commons,” the goods that come from a cooperative arrangement in terms of indispensable nutrients or favorable general conditions, such as access to oxygen or advantages of climate.
– In brief, the brain acts on the body by delivering specific chemical molecules either to a particular body region or to the circulating blood, which subsequently routes the molecules to varied body regions.
The brain can also even more literally act on the body by activating its muscles, both the muscles that we move when we want to — we can decide to walk or run or pick up a cup of coffee — and the muscles that are brought into action as needed, through no will of our own.
For example, if you are dehydrated and your blood pressure is dropping, the brain orders the smooth muscles in the walls of your blood vessels to contract and thus increase the blood pressure. Likewise, the smooth muscles in your gastrointestinal system march to their own drum and produce digestion and nutrient absorption with little or no interference from you.
– The presence of [mental] images meant that each organism could create internal representations based on its ongoing sensory descriptions of both external and internal events.
– Minds depend on the presence of nervous systems charged with helping run life efficiently, in their respective bodies, and on a host of interactions of nervous systems and bodies.
“No body, never mind.” Our organism contains a body, a nervous system, and a mind that derives from both.
– The body, about which we are often casual if not dismissive when we talk about the lofty mind, is part of a massively complex organism made up of cooperative systems, which are made up of cooperative organs, which are made up of cooperative cells, which are made up of cooperative molecules, which are made up of cooperative atoms built from cooperative particles.
– To say that natural selection and genetics are a key to the transformation is entirely true but not enough. We need to acknowledge the presence of the homeostatic imperative — put to beneficial use or not — as a factor in the selective pressures.
– Creative intelligence was the means by which mental images and behaviors were intentionally combined to provide novel solutions for the problems that humans diagnosed and to construct new worlds for the opportunities humans envisioned.
– Rather than merely helping detect stimuli and respond suitably, nervous systems literally began drawing maps of the configurations of objects and events in space, using the activity of nerve cells in a layout of neural circuits.
– The maps of each sensory modality are the basis for the integration that makes images possible, and those images as they flow in time are the constituents of minds. …
Human cultures would never have come to pass without this step.
– We could now string together images in such a way that the images could narrate, to the organism, both internal events and events external to it.
The steps that must have followed in evolution are fairly clear.
First, using images made from the oldest components of the organism’s interior — the processes of metabolic chemistry largely carried out in viscera and in the blood circulation and the movements they generated — nature gradually fashioned feelings.
Second, using images from a less ancient component of the interior — the skeletal frame and the muscles attached to it — nature generated a representation of the encasement of each life, a literal representation of the house inhabited by each life. The eventual combination of these two sets of representations opened the way for consciousness.
Third, using the same image-making devices and an inherent power of images — the power to stand for and symbolize something else — nature developed verbal languages.
– When we touch an object with our fingers, the nerve terminals distributed in the skin map the varied features of an object: the overall geometry, the texture, the temperature, and so forth.
– None of the five senses alone produces a comprehensive description of the outside world, although our brains eventually integrate the partial contributions of each sense into an overall description of an object or event.
– The critical function on which image making [and mind] depends is mapping, often macroscopic mapping:
the ability to plot the different data arising from sampling the outside world in some sort of cartography, a space within which the brain can plot patterns of activity and the spatial relationship of the active elements in the pattern.
This is how the brain maps a face that you see, or the contour of a sound, or the shape of the object you are touching.
– The images of the internal world are the ones that we describe with such terms as “well-being,” “fatigue,” or “malaise”; “pain” and “pleasure”; “palpitations,” “heartburn,” or “colics.”
The imaging of the old internal world in action — the state of viscera, the consequences of chemistries — must reflect the goodness or badness of the state of that interior universe. The organism needs to be affected by such images. It cannot afford to be indifferent to them, because survival depends on the information that such images reflect regarding life.
Everything in this old internal world is qualified, good, bad, or in between.
This is a world of valence.
– The new internal world is a world dominated by the body frame, by the location and state of the sensory portals within that frame, and by the voluntary musculature. The sensory portals sit and wait within the body frame and contribute importantly to the information generated by the maps of the outside world.
– There are two groups of instruments in the [symphony / hidden orchestra of life].
First, the main sensory devices with which the world around and inside an organism interacts with the nervous system.
Second, the devices that continuously respond emotively to the mental presence of any object or event. The emotive response consists of altering the course of life within the old interior of organisms. The devices are known as drives, motivations, and emotions.
Sometimes it amounts to an operatic performance. You can attend it passively, or you can intervene, modify the score to a greater or smaller extent, and produce unpredicted results.
– Image making of any sort, from simple to complex, is the result of the neural devices that assemble maps and that later allow maps to interact so that combined images generate ever more complex sets and come to represent the universes external to the nervous system, inside and outside the organism.
[ Maps: established pathways which register as meaningful or purposeful patterns to guide the organism
Images are the objects of maps. They are the various terrains, structures, and established locations that together form distinctive plots (maps) which are purposefully utilized for navigation of experience and also for general referencing (to maintain coherence of our relative postion, i.e. to establish or sustain meaningful sense of our surroundings. ]
– The final result [of sensory-perceptual experience] happens in “mind” and on the fly; it vanishes as time moves on except for the memory residue that may stay behind, in coded form. All images of the outside world are processed in nearly parallel fashion with the affective responses that these same images produce by acting elsewhere in the brain
[ Like the “Moments of Consciousness” model in The Mind Illuminated ]
– Our brains are busy not only mapping and integrating varied external sensory sources but simultaneously mapping and integrating internal states, a process whose result is none other than feelings.
– All the words we use, in any language, spoken, written, or appreciated by touch, as in Braille, are made of mental images.
– All mind is made of images, from the representation of objects and events to their corresponding concepts and verbal translations.
Images are the universal token of mind.
– We construct multisensory perceptual moments in our minds, and if all goes well, we can memorize and later recall those perceptual moments and work with them in our imagination.
– The basic unit for minds is the image, the image of a thing or of what a thing does, or what the thing causes you to feel; or the image of what you think of the thing; or the images of the words that translate any and all of the above.
– Life is made of an infinity of stories, simple and complex, banal and distinct, that describe all the sound and the fury and the quiet of existences and that do signify a lot.
– We are incessant narrators of stories about almost anything in our lives, mostly about the important things but not only, and we happily color our narratives with all the biases of our past experiences and of our likes and dislikes.
– The constant search and sweep of our memories of past and future enable us, in effect, to intuit possible meanings of current situations and to predict the possible future, immediate and not so immediate, as life unfolds.
– The world of affect: a world in which we find feelings traveling alongside the usually more salient images of our minds.
– 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.
– There is no being, in the proper sense of the term, without a spontaneous mental experience of life, a feeling of existence.
The complete absence of feelings would spell a suspension of being, but even a less radical removal of feeling would compromise human nature.
– Once feeling would have been removed, you would have become unable to classify images as beautiful or ugly, pleasurable or painful, tasteful or vulgar, spiritual or earthy.
If no feelings were available, you might still be trained, at great effort, to make aesthetic or moral classifications of objects or events. So might a robot, of course.
Theoretically, you would have to rely on a deliberate analysis of perceptual characteristics and contexts and on a brute learning effort.
– 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.
– No satisfactory account of the human cultural mind is possible without factoring in affect.
– Valence is the defining element of feeling and, by extension, of affect.
Valence translates the condition of life directly in mental terms, moment to moment. It inevitably reveals the condition as good, bad, or somewhere in between.
– 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.
– Feelings are primarily* about the quality of the state of life in the body’s old interior*, in any situation, during repose, during a goal-directed activity, or, importantly, during the response to the thoughts one is having, whether they are caused by a perception of the outside world or by a recollection of a past event as stored in our memories.
[*Important to note he is not saying feelings are ‘only’ about what’s going on with the body’s metabolic processes.]
[**Old interior: “the processes of metabolic chemistry largely carried out in viscera and in the blood circulation and the movements they generated”; ‘New interior’ = “the skeletal frame and the muscles attached to it” ]
– Valence is the inherent quality of the experience, which we apprehend as pleasant or unpleasant, or somewhere along the range that joins those two extremes.
Non-feeling representations are well designated by terms such as “sensed” and “perceived.” But the representations known as feelings are felt, and we are affected by them.
– The “pleasant” and “unpleasant” designations correspond, in a principled manner, to whether the underlying “global” state of the body is generally conducive to the continuation of life and to survival, and to how strong or weak that life trend happens to be at a given moment.
Malaise signifies that something is not right with the state of life regulation. Well-being signifies that homeostasis is within the effective range.
– Valence “judges” the current efficiency of body states, and feeling announces the judgment to the body’s owner.
– Life within the central homeostatic range is a necessity; life upregulated to the flourishing edges is desirable. States outside the overall homeostatic range are pernicious, and some are so pernicious that they will kill you.
Examples include ungainly metabolism during a generalized infection or accelerated metabolism in an overactive, manic state.
– Curiously, the precise feelings that comparable situations evoke may well be tuned by cultures. Apparently, the nervousness of students before an exam can be experienced by German students as butterflies in the stomach and by Chinese students as a headache.
– The brain, however, is a permeable intermediary between the outside world — actual or memorized — and the body.
– When the body responds to brain messages that command it to engage in a certain sequence of actions — speed up respiration or heartbeats, contract this muscle group or another, secrete molecule X — the body alters varied aspects of its physical configuration.
Subsequently, as the brain constructs representations of the altered organism geometries, we can sense the alteration and make images of it.
– When you hear a musical sound that you describe as delightful, the feeling of delight is the result of a rapid transformation of the state of your organism. We call that transformation emotive. It consists of a collection of actions that change the background homeostasis.
– Negative emotions are associated with distinct physiological states, all of them problematic from the perspective of health and future well-being.
(Footnote: Chronic stress is “metabolically expensive” … A non-stressed organism has the best chances of mounting an effective immune response, and therefore the best chances of sustaining a state of flourishing.)
– The triggering of emotive responses occurs automatically and non-consciously, without the intervention of our will.
– 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.
When the emotive stimulus is recalled from memory rather than actually present in perception, it still produces emotions, abundantly so. …
There is a prompting stimulus, and it is still made up of images, only now the images are recalled from memory rather than constructed in live perception. Whatever the source, the images are used to produce an emotive response. The emotive response then transforms the background state of the organism, its ongoing homeostatic state, and the result is a provoked emotional feeling.
– Emotive responses generally conform to certain dominant patterns, but they are in no way rigid and stereotyped.
To say that emotivity is fixed would be an exaggeration.
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 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.
– Drives, motivations, and emotions often have something to add to or subtract from decisions one would have expected to be purely rational.
– Most drives, motivations, and emotions are also inherently social, at scales small and large, their field of action extending well beyond the individual.
Desire and lust, caring and nurturing, attachment and love, operate in a social context. The same applies to most instances of joy and sadness, fear and panic, anger; or of compassion, admiration and awe, envy and jealousy and contempt.
The powerful sociality that was an essential support of the intellect of Homo sapiens and was so critical in the emergence of cultures is likely to have originated in the machinery of drives, motivations, and emotions, where it evolved from simpler neural processes of simpler creatures.
The point to be made here is that sociality, a collection of behavioral strategies indispensable for the creation of cultural responses, is part of the tool kit of homeostasis. Sociality enters the human cultural mind by the hand of affect.
– A substantial portion of human glory and human tragedy depends on affect in spite of its modest, nonhuman genealogy.
– (On “Layered Feelings) 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.
Great poetry depends on layered feelings.
– As I see it, the distinction in humans [compared to feelings in other animals] has to do with the web of associations that feeling states establish with all sorts of ideas and especially with the interpretations we can make of our present moment and of our anticipated future.
– On the face of it, 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.
– To say that simple life-forms without nervous systems have pain is unnecessary and probably not correct. They certainly have some of the elements required to construct feelings of pain, but it is reasonable to hypothesize that for pain itself to emerge, as a mental experience, the organism needed to have a mind and that for that to pass, the organism needed a nervous system capable of mapping structures and events.
In other words, I suspect that life-forms without nervous systems or minds had and have elaborate emotive processes, defensive and adaptive action programs, but not feelings. Once nervous systems entered the scene, the path for feelings was open. That is why even humble nervous systems probably allow some measure of feeling.
– It is often asked, not unreasonably, why feelings should feel like anything at all, pleasant or unpleasant, tolerably quiet or like an uncontainable storm. The reason should now be clear: when the full constellation of physiological events that constitutes feelings began to appear in evolution and provided mental experiences, it made a difference.
Feelings made lives better. They prolonged and saved lives.
Feelings conformed to the goals of the homeostatic imperative and helped implement them by making them matter mentally to their owner as, for example, the phenomenon of conditioned place aversion appears to demonstrate.
The presence of feelings is closely related to another development: consciousness and, more specifically, subjectivity.
– Feelings are not neural events alone. The body proper is critically involved, and that involvement includes the participation of other important and homeostatically relevant systems such as the endocrine and immune systems.
Feelings are, through and through, simultaneously and interactingly, phenomena of both bodies and nervous systems.
– As a result of the information the body offers to the brain regarding its own state, the body is being modified by return post. The range of the latter responses is fairly wide. It includes the contraction of smooth muscles in varied organs and blood vessels or the release of chemical molecules that alter the operations of viscera and metabolism. In some instances, the modification is a direct reply to what the body “told” the brain, but in other instances it is independent and spontaneous.
– Because valence is, to begin with, a reflection of the state of goodness or badness of homeostasis within a given organism, it stands to reason that the intimacy with which body and brain go about their affairs could have a hand in translating aspects of that homeostatic state into aspects of brain function and the related, ongoing mental experience.
The intimate body-brain partnership and the physiological specifics of the intimacy contribute to the construction of valence, the main ingredient behind the seize-and-capture aspect of feelings.
– Several lines of evidence suggest that the gastrointestinal tract and the enteric nervous system play an important role in feeling and mood. 26 I would not be surprised if the “global” experience of grades of well-being, for example, is importantly related to enteric nervous system function.
– We do locate the pain, which is useful, of course, but no less important the emotive response to pain stops us in our tracks and is felt. Part of our interpretation and most of our reaction depend on feeling. We react accordingly and even knowingly, if we can.
– It is not possible to talk about thinking, intelligence, and creativity in any meaningful way without factoring in feelings.
Feelings play a role in our decisions and permeate our existence.
– Feelings are for life regulation, providers of information concerning basic homeostasis or the social conditions of our lives.
– Feelings tell us about risks, dangers, and ongoing crises that need to be averted.
On the nice side of the coin, they can inform us about opportunities. They can guide us toward behaviors that will improve our overall homeostasis and, in the process, make us better human beings, more responsible for our own future and the future of others.
Both on the good and on the bad sides of the feeling coin, feelings fit the role of motives behind the development of the instruments and practices of cultures.
– (On feelings from memories) The feeling is newly and freshly minted as a result of the strong emotive responses that the remembrances engender.
In and of themselves, feelings are never memorized and thus cannot be recollected. They can be re-created, more or less faithfully, on the fly, to complete and accompany recollected facts.
[ Interesting to contemplate: Our current bodily state is different from our past bodily state, which is primarily why we don’t actually have the ‘same’ feelings we had at the time upon remembering. We feel anew, based on the lasting imagery of the mapped experience, and the similarity between the feelings we felt at the time and our current feelings upon remembering will depend on our current body state in conjunction with the vividness of the memory and our current interpretations of it. But regardless of how similar the feeling is that we get, it is not actually the ‘same’ feeling psychologically or physiologically. Ultimately the memory is not reproducing the exact feeling we once had, it is generating a new feeling based on the reinterpeted memory itself relative to our current body state. This may feel more or less similar to the feeling we had at the time, mostly based on how vividly we recall the event along with our updated interpretations of it, and on how our body presently responds to the recalled imagery and our present interpretations of it.
This has practical value in knowing that we are not stuck with having to re-experience the same feelings we had during bad experiences. Even when we can’t entirely shake the imagery of a bad experience, we can revise our interpretations of it and we can attune to our current body state knowing it is different now than it was at the time (it has since refreshed). We can also embellish the imagery of good experiences and the familiar bodily response they generate while suitably reinforcing our positive interpretations. ]
– It is not the case that memories of bad moments are not stored and available. It is more a matter of how much they are allowed to play in the current mind.
The detail is there, and excruciatingly painful feelings can certainly be produced from it. But perhaps the not so good memories do not gain strength with time in contrast to the good memories that replay better than on past recalls. It would be a case not of suppressing details of bad memories but of lingering less over them, thus diminishing their negativity. The upshot is a highly adaptive increase in well-being.
– 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.
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.
– Subjectivity and integrated experience are the critical components of consciousness.
In the absence of subjectivity, nothing matters; in the absence of some degree of integrated experience, the reflection and discernment that are required for creativity are not possible.
– The part of your conscious mind that is most salient and tends to dominate the proceedings has to do with images of many sensory stripes, visual, auditory, tactile, gustatory, and olfactory. Most of those images correspond to objects and events of the world around you.
Some of the images form narratives, or parts of narratives. Interspersed with the images related to ongoing perception, there may be images being reconstructed from the past, recalled on the spot because they are pertinent to the current proceedings. They are part of memories of objects, actions, or events, embedded in old narratives or stored as isolated items.
Feelings, which originate in the background homeostatic state and in so many emotive responses generated by the very images of the outside world, are major contributors to our conscious minds.
How much these components of mind dominate our mental life — that is, command attention — depends on numerous factors: age, temperament, culture, occasion, mental style, as we all tend to give more or less play to aspects of the outside world or to the world of affect.
– Clearly, if we are to understand how consciousness is made, we must understand the making of subjectivity.
Subjectivity is a process, of course, not a thing, and that process relies on two critical ingredients: the building of a perspective for the images in mind and the accompaniment of the images by feelings.
– We save our attention for the newly minted images that describe the fundamental contents of mind, the contents that we need to deal with if we are to continue living. This is one of the reasons why subjectivity and, more broadly, the process of consciousness have remained such a mystery.
The strings of the puppetry remain conveniently hidden, as they should. None of this requires any homunculi or mysterious magic. It is so natural and simple that the best one can do is smile with respect and admire the ingenuity of the process.
– The perspective generated by the musculoskeletal frame and its sensory portals is not enough to build subjectivity. Besides sensory perspective taking, the continuous availability of feelings is a critical contributor to subjectivity.
The abundance of feelings generates a rich background state that one might well call feelingness.
Feelings are a natural and abundant accompaniment of the images held in the manifest component of consciousness.
– We conclude that subjectivity is assembled from a combination of organism perspective, relative to where in the body the images to be made conscious were generated, and the ceaseless construction of spontaneous and provoked feelings that are triggered by fundamental images and accompany them.
When the images are properly placed in the perspective of the organism and are suitably accompanied by feelings, a mental experience ensues.
– The mental experiences that constitute consciousness thus depend on the presence of mental images and on the process of subjectivity that makes such images ours.
Subjectivity requires a perspective stance on the making of images and the pervasive feelingness that accompanies image processing, both of which come straight from the body proper. They result from the incessant tendency of nervous systems to sense and make maps of objects and events not only around the organism but also inside it.
– Subjectivity, no matter how elaborate, is not enough. For that to happen, we need another component process, one that consists of integrating images and the respective subjectivities in a more or less wide canvas.
Consciousness in the full sense of the term is a particular state of mind in which mental images are imbued with subjectivity and experienced in a more or less extensive integrated display.
– Minds emerge in all of their complexity from the combined operations of nervous systems and their respective bodies, working under the baton of the homeostatic imperative, manifest in every cell, tissue, organ, and system and in their global articulation in each individual.
Consciousness emerges from interactive enchainments related to life, and it goes without saying that being related to life, consciousness is also related to the universe of chemistry and physics that forms the substrate of organisms and within which our organisms exist.
– There is no specific region or system of the brain that satisfies all the requirements of consciousness, the perspective and feeling components of subjectivity, and the integrating of experiences.
On the other hand, it is possible to identify several brain regions and systems that are unequivocally related to producing key ingredients of the process as outlined earlier: perspectival stance, feeling, and experience integration.
Once again, those brain regions are not doing it alone; they work in intense cooperation with the body proper.
In brief, varied parts of the brain, working in close interaction with the body proper, make images, generate feelings for those images, and co-reference them to the perspective map, thus accomplishing the two ingredients of subjectivity.
– Feelings are core mental states, perhaps the core mental states, those that correspond to a specific, foundational content: the internal state of the body within which consciousness inheres.
And because they pertain to the varied quality of the state of life within a body, feelings are necessarily valenced; that is, they are good or bad, positive or negative, appetitive or aversive, pleasurable or painful, agreeable or disagreeable.
When feelings, which describe the inner state of life now, are “placed” or even “located” within the current perspective of the whole organism, subjectivity emerges.
And from there on, the events that surround us, the events in which we participate, and the memories we recall are given a novel possibility: they can actually matter to us; they can affect the course of our lives.
Human cultural invention requires this step, that events be made to matter, that they be automatically classified as beneficial or not to the individual to which they belong.
Subjectivity is required to drive the creative intelligence that constructs cultural manifestations.
– Human mental experiences were direct levers in the deliberate construction of cultures: the mental experiences of pain, suffering, and pleasure became foundations for human wants, stepping-stones of human inventions, in sharp contrast to the collection of behaviors assembled up to that point by the workings of natural selection and genetic transmission.
The gulf between the two sets of processes — biological evolution and cultural evolution — is so large that it makes one overlook the fact that homeostasis is the guiding power behind both.
– Subjectivity is a relentlessly constructed narrative. The narrative arises from the circumstances of organisms with certain brain specifications as they interact with the world around, the world of their past memories, and the world of their interior. The essence of the mysteries behind consciousness is made of this.
– [ Philosopher David Chalmers asks]
Why does the feeling that accompanies sensory information exist at all?
In the explanation that I propose, experience is itself partly generated from feelings, and so it is not really a matter of accompaniment. Feelings are the result of operations necessary for homeostasis in organisms such as ours. They are integrally present, made from the same cloth as other aspects of mind.
Feelings let the mind know about the current state of homeostasis and thus added another layer of valuable regulatory options. Feelings were a decisive advantage that nature would not have failed to select and use as consistent accompaniment to mental processes.
The answer to Chalmers’s question is that mental states naturally feel like something because it is advantageous for organisms to have mental states qualified by feelings. Only then can mental states assist the organism in producing the most homeostatically compatible behaviors.
In fact, complex organisms such as ours would not survive in the absence of feelings.
Natural selection made certain that feelings would become a permanent feature of mental states.
– The hard problem [of consciousness] is about the fact that if minds emerge from organic tissue, it may be hard or impossible to explain how mental experiences, in effect, felt mental states, are produced.
Here I suggest that the interweaving of perspectival stance and feelings provides a plausible explanation for how mental experiences arise.
– As for the creative intelligence responsible for the actual practices and artifacts of cultures, it cannot operate without affect and consciousness.
Curiously, affect and consciousness also happen to be the faculties that got away, forgotten in the throes of the rationalist and cognitive revolutions. They deserve special attention.
– Because feelings mentally represent a currently salient state of homeostasis and because of the upheaval they can generate, feelings operate as motives for engaging the creative intellect, the latter being the link in the chain that is responsible for the actual construction of the cultural practice or instrument.
– In later organisms, after nervous systems emerged, minds became possible and, within them, feelings along with all the images that represented the exterior world and its relation to the organism. Such images were supported by subjectivity, memory, reasoning, and eventually verbal language and creative intelligence. The instruments and practices that constitute cultures and civilizations in the traditional sense emerged thereafter.
– The heroic process of maintaining life requires a precise, herculean process of regulation, in individual cells as well as in whole organisms.
– Ultimately, feelings are the judges of the cultural creative process.
This is because, in good part, the merits of the cultural inventions end up being classified as effective or not so by a feeling interface.
– Feelings and reason are involved in an inseparable, looping, reflective embrace. The embrace can favor one of the partners, feeling or reason, but it involves both.
– In sum, the *categories of cultural response that are part of today’s repertoire would have succeeded at correcting dysregulated homeostasis and returning organisms to prior homeostatic ranges.
It is reasonable to think that those categories of cultural response survive because they accomplished a useful functional goal and were accordingly selected in cultural evolution.
[ *Categories of cultural response: e.g. economic and government systems, arts and entertainment, free press, institutional education, etc. ]
– It is not possible to imagine the origin of the responses that became medicine or any of the principal artistic manifestations outside an affective context. The sick patient, the abandoned lover, the wounded warrior, and the troubadour in love were able to feel.
– Beneficial sociality is rewarding and improves homeostasis, while aggressive sociality does the opposite.
– One of the jobs of cultures has been to tame the beast that has been so often present and that remains alive as a reminder of our origins.
Samuel von Pufendorf’s definition of culture addresses these points: “the means by which human beings overcome their original barbarism, and through artifice, become fully human.”
– Pufendorf does not mention homeostasis, but my take on his words is that barbarism leads to suffering and disturbed homeostasis, while cultures and civilizations aim at reducing suffering and thus restore homeostasis by resetting and constraining the course of the affected organisms.
– That the initial motivation of religious beliefs and practices was related to homeostatic compensation is both plausible and likely.
– Objects and events influence homeostasis positively or negatively and, as a result, yield positive or negative feelings.
Just as naturally, the separate features of objects and events — their sounds, shapes, colors, textures, motions, time structure, and so forth — become associated, by learning, with the positive or negative emotions/feelings linked to the whole object/event.
– Music’s universality and remarkable endurance seem to come from this uncanny ability to blend with every mood and circumstance.
– Paintings, and far later texts, provided signposts and pauses for reflection, warning, play, and enjoyment. They provided attempts at clarifications for what must have been confusing confrontations with reality. They helped sort out and organize knowledge. They provided meaning.
– Philosophical inquiry and science developed from the same homeostatic cloth. The questions that philosophy and science aimed at answering were prompted by a large range of feelings.
– By breaking down isolation and bringing individuals together, the simple drive to socialize generates opportunities to improve or stabilize individual homeostasis.
– The fellowship engendered by collective cultural manifestations induces responses that reduce stress, generate pleasure, promote increased cognitive fluidity, and more generally have beneficial effects for health.
– Ideally, the results of cultural responses are monitored by feelings, weighed by the collective, and judged as beneficial or harmful by a negotiation between reason and feeling.
– We can venture that what we now consider true cultures quietly began in simple, single-celled life, under the guise of efficient social behavior guided by the imperative of homeostasis.
Cultures only became fully worthy of the name billions of years later in complex human organisms animated by cultural minds, that is, probing and creative minds, still operating under the same powerful homeostatic imperative.
– The fabrication of cultures, which requires social, collective intentions, is inconceivable without the presence of multiple individual subjectivities working, to begin with, for their own advantage — their own interests — and eventually, as the circle of interests enlarges, promoting the good of a group.
– Play and cooperation are, in and of themselves, independently of the results of the respective activities, homeostatically favorable activities. They reward the “players/cooperators” with a slew of pleasurable feelings.
– The rise of human cultures should be credited to both conscious feeling and creative intelligence.
Feelings focused intelligence on certain goals, increased the reach of intelligence, and refined it in such a way that it resulted in a human cultural mind.
– One of the key ideas in this book is that minds arise from interactions of bodies and brains, not from brains alone. Are transhumanists planning to download the body, too?
-Saying that living organisms are algorithms is in the very least misleading and in strict terms false.
Most important, living organisms are collections of tissues, organs, and systems within which every component cell is a vulnerable living entity made of proteins, lipids, and sugars. They are not lines of code; they are palpable stuff.
– Substrates count. The substrate of our life [our body] is a particular kind of organized chemistry, a servant to thermodynamics and the imperative of homeostasis. To the best of our knowledge, that substrate is essential to explain who we are.
– The phenomenology of feeling reveals that human feelings result from the multidimensional and interactive imaging of our life operations with their chemical and visceral components. Feelings reflect the quality of those operations and their future viability.
If you change the substrate of feelings, you change what gets to be interactively imaged and so you change the feelings as well.
In brief, substrates do count because the mental process to which we are referring is a mental account of those substrates. Phenomenology counts.
– Natural feelings emerged in evolution, and there they remained because they have made live or die contributions to the organisms lucky enough to have them.
– Moral values arise out of reward and punishment processes operated by chemical, visceral, and neural processes in creatures equipped with minds.
– The processes of reward and punishment result in none other than the feelings of pleasure and pain.
The values that our cultures have been celebrating in the form of arts, religious beliefs, justice, and fair governance have been forged on the basis of feelings.
Once we would remove the current chemical substrate for suffering and for its opposite, pleasure and flourishing, we would remove the natural grounding for the moral systems we currently have.
– The reason why the sci-fi scenarios are not likely to pass is that the sort of intelligence those AI programs exhibit, albeit spectacular, is truly deserving of the name “artificial” and bears limited resemblance to the actual mental processes of human beings.
Such AI programs have pure cognition but no affect, which means that the intellectual steps in their “smart” minds cannot indulge in an interplay with prior, accompanying, or predicted feelings.
– [On robots/AI] We are talking about puppetry, really.
The actions are not motivated by an internal state of the robot; they are simply programmed into it on the say-so of the designer.
They may resemble emotions, in the sense that emotions are action programs, but they are not motivated emotions.
– If the animations of robots are not emotions, they certainly are not feelings, feelings being, as we know, the mental experience of a body state, which really means subjective mental experiences. And here is when the problem worsens: to have mental experiences, we need minds and not just minds but conscious minds.
To be conscious, to have subjective experiences, we badly need the two ingredients: an individual perspective of our own organism and individual feeling.
Can we do this in robots? Well, we can in part. I believe we can build perspective in a robot, relatively easily, once we take the problem seriously. But to build feeling, on the other hand, we require a living body.
– We know that several “negative” emotions are actually important protectors of homeostasis. They include sadness and grief, panic and fear, and disgust.
Anger is a special case. It has remained in the human emotion tool kit because it can, under certain circumstances, give an advantage to the angry subject by causing the adversary to recoil. But even when it gives advantages anger tends to have high costs, especially when it escalates to ire and violent rage.
Anger is a good example of a negative emotion whose benefits have been diminishing in evolution. So are envy, jealousy, and contempt prompted by humiliations and resentments of all sorts.
– The protracted negotiating process required for governance efforts is necessarily embedded in the biology of affect, knowledge, reasoning, and decision making. Humans are inevitably caught inside the machinery of affect and its accommodations with reason. There is no exit from that condition.
– The human condition encompasses two worlds. One world is made up of the nature – given rules of life regulation, the strings of which are pulled by the invisible hands of pain and pleasure. We are not conscious of the rules or of their undergirding; we are only conscious of certain outcomes we call pain or pleasure.
There is, however, another world. We could and did work around the conditions imposed on us by inventing cultural forms of life management to complement the basic variety. The result was the discoveries we continue making about universes within and around us and our extraordinary ability to accumulate knowledge in both internal memory and external records.
The ability to invent solutions is an immense privilege but prone to failure and quite costly. We can call this the burden of freedom or, more precisely, the burden of consciousness.
– The very devices that humans were motivated to develop so as to ensure the good life — moral precepts, religions, modes of governance, economics, science and technology, philosophical systems, and the arts — have led to unquestionable gains in well-being. But some of those very same devices also have led to untold degrees of suffering, destruction, and death, because they clash with simple as well as complex but nondeliberate homeostatic regulation.
– The strategic pursuit of happiness, just like the spontaneous variety, is predicated on feelings. The motives behind the pursuit — the maladies of life and their pleasurable counterweights — could not have been envisioned without feelings.
– A life not felt would have needed no cure.
A life felt but not examined would not have been curable.
Feelings launched and have helped navigate a thousand intellectual ships.
– The tendency toward particular solutions, toward similar schemes, toward some degree of inevitability, results from the structure and circumstances of living organisms and their relation to the environment and depends on homeostasis writ large.
– The most strangely ordered emergences of high faculties are probably feeling and consciousness.
– The inescapable conclusion is that feeling and subjectivity are old abilities and that they did not depend on the sophisticated cerebral cortex of upper vertebrates, let alone humans, to make their debut.
– The fact that we can find so much in common in the social and affective behaviors of single-celled organisms, sponges and hydras, cephalopods, and mammals suggests a common root for the problems of life regulation in different creatures and also a shared solution: obeying the homeostatic imperative.
– A close two-way interaction between nervous systems and the non-nervous structures of organisms is a requirement. Neural and non-neural structures and processes are not just contiguous but continuous partners, interactively.
In plain talk, brains and bodies are in the same mind-enabling soup.
Countless problems of philosophy and psychology can begin to be approached productively once the relationships of “body and brain” are placed in this new light.
– It is worth repeating that the exceptional status of humans, over and above everything else they share with other creatures is not in question, and derives from the unique way in which their sufferings and their joys are amplified by individual and collective memories of the past and the imagination of a possible future.
It is also worth repeating that there is no conflict at all between accounts of current human behavior that favor autonomous cultural influence or the influence of natural selection conveyed genetically. Both influences play their parts, in different proportions and order.
– We do not have, however, any satisfactory scientific account of the origins and meaning of the universe, in brief, no theory of everything that concerns us. This is a sobering reminder of how modest and tentative our efforts are and of how open we need to be as we confront what we do not know.
Damasio, Antonio. The Strange Order of Things. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.