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I Feel, Therefore I Am

Consciousness is a continuous conversation between the feeling body and the knowing mind.

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In the beginning was not the word; that much is clear. Life sailed forth without words or thoughts, without feelings or reasons, devoid of minds or consciousness. Not that the universe of the living was ever simple, quite the contrary. It was complex from its inception, four billion years ago.

But living organisms then took several paths. In the branch of life history that led to us, I like to imagine three distinct and consecutive evolutionary stages. A first stage is hallmarked by being; a second is dominated by feeling; and a third is defined by knowing in the general sense of the term.

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And, as I see it, for creatures to be able to feel, they first need to add several features to their organisms. They must be multicellular, and they must possess differentiated organ systems, more or less elaborate, among which shines a nervous system, a natural coordinator of internal life processes and of dealings with the environment. What happens then? Plenty, as we shall see.

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: feeding and drinking and excreting; defensive posturing such as occurs during fear or anger, disgust or contempt; social coordination behaviors such as cooperation, conflict; the display of flourishing, joy, and exaltation; and even of those behaviors related to procreation.

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In practice, there is little distance between feelings and the things felt.

Feelings provide organisms with experiences of their own life. Specifically, they provide the owner organism with a scaled assessment of its relative success at living, a natural examination grade that comes in the form of a quality—pleasant or unpleasant, light or intense. This is precious and novel information, the kind of information that organisms confined to a “being” stage cannot obtain.

Not surprisingly, feelings are important contributors to the creation of a “self.” Think of the self as a mental process animated by the state of the organism, anchored in its body frame (the frame constituted by muscular and skeletal structures), and eventually oriented by the global perspective provided by sensory channels such as vision and hearing.

Curiously, each sensory system is, in and of itself, devoid of conscious experience. The visual system, for example, our retinas, visual pathways, and visual cortices, produces maps of the outside world and contributes the respective, explicit visual images. But only the coordinated operation of the three kinds of processing—the kinds that have to do with being, feeling, and knowing—allows the images to be connected to our organism, literally referred to it and placed within it. Only then can experience emerge.

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What follows from this momentous but unheralded physiological step is nothing short of extraordinary. 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.

The Beginnings of Feeling

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. In creatures far simpler than we are, the exchange would have generated feelings such as plain well-being and basic discomfort rather than subtly graded feelings, let alone something as elaborate as localized pain. Still, what a remarkable advance. 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.

The simplest variety of affect begins in the interior of a living organism. It springs up vague and diffuse, generating feelings that are not easily described or placed. The term “primordial feelings” captures the idea. By contrast, “mature feelings” provide vivid and assertive images of the objects that furnish our “interior”—viscera such as the heart and lungs and gut—and of the actions they execute such as pulsing and breathing and contracting.

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In Body Image
COME TO YOUR SENSES: Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio believes that, “The self is a mental process rooted in the body’s interior and oriented by the sensory channels, such as vision and hearing and touch.” Illustration by PhawKStudio / Shutterstock

Eventually, as in the case of localized pain, the images become sharp and focused. But make no mistake: vague, approximate, or precise, feelings are informative; they carry important knowledge and plant that knowledge firmly within the mind flow. Are muscles tense or relaxed? Is the stomach full or empty? Is the heart beating regularly and boringly, or is it skipping beats? Is the breathing easy or labored? Is there pain in my shoulder? We, who have the privilege of feeling, get to know about such states, and that information is valuable for the subsequent governance of our lives. But how do we come by such knowledge? What happens when we “feel,” as opposed to when we simply “perceive” objects in the world at large? What is required for us to feel, as opposed to merely perceive?

First, everything we feel corresponds to states of our interior. We do not “feel” the furniture around us or the landscape. We can perceive the landscape and the furniture, and our perceptions can easily elicit emotive responses and result in the respective feelings. We can experience these “emotive feelings” and even name them—the beautiful landscape and the pleasant chair.

But what we “really” feel, in the proper sense of the term, is how either parts or the whole of our own organism are faring, moment by moment. Are their operations smooth and unimpeded, or are they labored? I call these feelings homeostatic because, as direct informers, they tell us if the organism is or is not operating according to homeostatic needs, that is, in a manner conducive or not to life and survival.

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Feelings owe their existence to the fact that the nervous system has direct contact with our insides and vice versa. The nervous system literally “touches” the organism’s interior, everywhere in that interior, and it is “touched” in return. The nakedness of the interior relative to the nervous system and the direct access the nervous system enjoys relative to that interior are part of the uniqueness of interoception, the technical term reserved for the perception of our visceral interior. Interoception is distinct from the perception of our musculoskeletal system, known as proprioception, and from the perception of the outside world, or exteroception. Interoception is not about mere perception. It is a hybrid process. We can obviously use words to describe the experiences of feeling, but we do not need the mediation of words in order to feel.

The Chemical Orchestra

Perhaps we are now ready to take the Orphic plunge and descend into the feeling underworld. The deeper levels of the feeling process concern the chemical machinery responsible for the entire scope of homeostatic regulation along varied pathways. Underneath the qualities and intensities that constitute the valuations expressed in feelings—their valences—there are molecules, receptors, and actions.

How this chemical orchestra does its job is a bit of a marvel. Specific molecules act on specific receptors and cause specific actions. These actions are part of the uphill struggle for the maintenance of life. The actions themselves are important enough, but so is the overall dynamic of which they are a part and which is charged with managing the life of a specific organism. This much is easy to understand. But what is not so transparent is how the actions that result from molecules and receptors doing their job can help us account, in our subjective experiences, for the “stirrings” that feelings cause in us, let alone for the “quality” of a feeling.

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In practice, there is little distance between feelings and the things felt. Feelings are commingled with the things and events we feel thanks to the exceptional and intimate cross talk between body structures and nervous system. This intimacy, in turn, is itself a product of the peculiarities of the system charged with signaling from the body into the nervous system, that is, the interoceptive system.

Feelings provide organisms with experiences of their own life.

The first peculiarity of interoception is a pervasive lack of myelin insulation in a majority of interoceptive neurons. Typical neurons have a cell body and an axon, the latter being the “cable” that leads to the synapse. In turn the synapse makes contact with the next neuron and either permits or withholds its activity. The result is the firing of the neuron or its silence.

Myelin serves as an insulator of the axon cable, preventing extraneous chemical and bioelectrical contacts. In the absence of myelin, however, molecules in the surround of an axon interact with it and alter its firing potential. Moreover, other neurons can make synaptic contacts along the axon rather than at the neuron’s synapse, giving rise to what is known as non-synaptic signaling. These operations are neurally impure; they are not really separate from the body that hosts them. By contrast, a predominance of myelinated axons insulates neurons and their networks from the influences of their surrounding environment.

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A second peculiarity of interoception concerns a lack of the barrier that normally separates neural affairs from the bloodstream. This is known as the blood-brain barrier (in relation to the central nervous system) or the blood-nerve barrier (in the case of the peripheral nervous system). The absence of a barrier is especially notable in brain regions related to the interoceptive process, such as the spinal and brain stem ganglia where circulating molecules can make direct contact with the cell bodies of neurons.

The consequences of these peculiarities are remarkable. Lack of myelin insulation and lack of blood-brain barrier allow signals from the body to interact with neural signals directly. In no way can interoception be regarded as a plain perceptual representation of the body inside the nervous system. There is, rather, an extensive commingling of signals.

The Birth of Consciousness

When we describe ourselves as conscious of a particular scene, we require a considerable integration of the components of the scene. There is no reason to expect, however, that integration alone, no matter how abundant, would be responsible for consciousness. Increased integration of mental contents, over larger amounts of flowing imagetic material, delivers a larger scope of conscious material, but I doubt that consciousness is explainable by the “tying together” of the contributing contents. Consciousness does not spring forth just because mental contents are appropriately assembled. I would suggest that the result of integration is an enlargement of the mental scope.

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What does begin to engender consciousness is the enrichment of the mental flow with the sort of knowledge that points to the organism as the proprietor of the mind. What begins to make my mental contents conscious is identifying ME as owner of the current mental holdings. Ownership knowledge can be obtained from overt and specific facts but, quite directly, from homeostatic feelings. Easily, naturally, and instantaneously, as often as needed, homeostatic feelings identify my mind with my body, unequivocally, no extra reasoning or calculation needed.

A major issue in consciousness studies concerns what is now commonly known as the “hard problem,” the designation that the philosopher David Chalmers introduced in the literature. An important aspect of the problem refers, in his own words, to “Why and how do physical processes in the brain give rise to conscious experience?”

The biological formulation of the hard problem, however, is unsound. Asking why should physical processes “in the brain” give rise to conscious experience is an unfortunate question. While the brain is indispensable for the generation of consciousness, nothing suggests that the brain generates consciousness alone.

On the contrary, the non-neural tissues of the organism’s body proper contribute importantly to the creation of any conscious moment and must be a part of the problem’s solution. This happens most notably via the hybrid process of feeling, which we regard as a critical contributor to the making of conscious minds. One might say, in an effort to give the birth of consciousness its due, that there is a chronology, that feeling emerged in evolution just one half step ahead of consciousness, that feeling is, literally speaking, a stepping-stone for consciousness. The reality, however, is that the functional value of feelings is tied to the fact that they are unequivocally referred to their owner organism and inhabit their owner-organism’s mind.

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Feelings gave birth to consciousness and gifted it generously to the rest of the mind.

Antonio Damasio is a university professor; David Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Philosophy; and director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. Awards he has received include the Prince of Asturias Prize in Science and Technology, the Grawemeyer Award, the Honda Prize, and the Pessoa and Signoret prizes. In 2017 he received the Freud Medal from the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences. Damasio is a member of the National Academy of Medicine and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. He is the author of Descartes’ Error, The Feeling of What Happens, Looking for Spinoza and Self Comes to Mind, all of which have been published in translation and are taught in universities throughout the world.

Excerpted from Feeling & Knowing by Antonio Damasio. Copyright © 2021 by Antonio Damasio. All rights reserved. Published by arrangement with Pantheon Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Lead image: PopTika / Shutterstock

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