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Emotion and Feelings
When dealing with people,
remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of
emotion. (Dale Carnegie; 1888–1955.)
The renowned cognitive neuroscientist Antonio Damasio attracted a lot
of attention in 1994 with his ground-breaking book on the underlying
neurobiology of emotion and feelings, Descarte's
Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain
related acclaimed books that shortly followed include Joseph LeDoux’s, The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious
Underpinnings of Emotional Life
(1996), and Daniel Golman’s
widely read popularization of emotion theory and research, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter
More Than IQ
(1997). The result was widespread interest in
emotion/feelings and their handmaiden, consciousness.
This is the first of series of three articles that focus on advances
since then in our understanding of (1) emotion/feelings, (2)
consciousness, and (3) the human maladies that emerge out of these
Emotion and Feelings
Our body and brain are obviously highly interconnected.
Our brain has to know how our body is built and the extent of its
normal behavioral capabilities. An abnormal challenge requires rapid
awareness and an abnormal-level response. Such rapid response begins
Emotion is an innate, unconscious, automatic, subcortical arousal
system that alerts us to potential dangers and opportunities. It
manifests itself internally through visceral and muscular changes, and
externally through facial/vocal expressions and body posture. It’s
probably a good thing that emotions are genetically driven rather than
culturally learned. An innate system gives humans a common set of
fundamental preferences related to pleasure/pain, good/bad, etc—plus
the ability to recognize the universal body signals in others who are
Feelings are basically our conscious perception of what’s occurring in
our body during emotional arousal. Sufficiently aroused, emotion can
activate conscious feelings about the challenge, and bias the direction
of its resolution. Since feelings are basically our conscious
perception of what’s occurring in our body during emotional arousal,
they allow us to override the automaticity of emotion.
A thermostat is a useful metaphor for explaining this general system. A
room thermostat is set at a specific thermal point, and if the
temperature suddenly drops, the thermostat will activate the release of
more heat into the room, but the thermostat does not determine
the reason for the temperature drop. If the cause is an open outside
door, the response (to heat the neighborhood) is counterproductive.
Mere awareness of an environmental shift followed by an automatic
response is thus not sufficient, and so our brain adds additional
Think of emotion as a biological
thermostat that monitors and reports variations from normality. If we
don’t have an innate appropriate reflexive response for an imminent
challenge, the emotional arousal will activate our attention system,
which identifies and then focuses on the location and dynamics of the
challenge. This activates relevant memory and problem-solving systems
that consciously and rationally respond to the challenge.
Emotional arousal thus drives attention, and focused attention drives
memory, feelings, problem solving, and response. Almost everything that
we do thus begins with emotion, a key cognitive process that was poorly
understood for most of human history.
Antonio Damasio’s Latest Book: Self Comes to Mind
What’s especially intriguing for those who are interested in the
underlying theory and research about emotion/feelings and consciousness
is that during the past 16 years, Antonio Damasio has updated and
extended Descarte’s Error
with three additional books as new developments occurred. The
subsequent books are: The Feeling of
What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness
(1999), Looking for Spinoza: Joy,
Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain
(2003), and his latest, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the
(Pantheon, 2010). This set of four books thus provides a sort of
history of the recent development of our understanding of unconscious
and conscious arousal.
I (Bob) recently read Self Comes to
and then also skimmed through Descarte's Error
see how our understanding of emotion, feelings, and consciousness has
changed during the 16 intervening years. Wow! What seemed so new,
exciting, and “far out” to me in 1994 seems today like things I've
always known. Damasio is upfront about how some of the things he wrote
in Descarte's Error
speculative. Neuroimaging technology can now report with a level of
precision that couldn't even be imagined 16 years ago—and the potential
of neuroimaging is mind-boggling.
mostly on case studies, observed behaviors, and cognitive speculations
because we were then pretty much at the beginning of the neuroimaging
era. Self Comes to Mind
full of neuroimaging research discoveries—increasingly precise mapping
of the brain regions involved in the systems and processes Damasio
explored in his earlier books.
What I found most interesting is that Damasio and other cognitive
neuroscientists can now get down into the cellular level in ways that
were unimaginable 16 years ago. Organisms composed of a single cell
(such as an amoeba or paramecium) demonstrate a will to live
in that they move towards food and away from danger. Fast forward over
evolutionary time (well, maybe evolution wasn't all that fast) and the
aggregate of cells that we call a human has the same collective will to live
something sensate and regulatory obviously exists within a cell, but
does an amoeba have a brain?
Not really, but as multi-cell organisms evolved, the complexities of
challenge and response led at one point to the introduction and
subsequent development of an increasingly complex conscious brain—the
localized specialization of affect and response, as it were.
The human brain has specific highly integrated systems. EMOTION informs
our body/brain of the existence of an environmental challenge.
ATTENTION identifies and focuses our body/brain on the nature and
location of the specific challenge.
MEMORY/PROBLEM-SOLVING/FEELINGS/EXECUTION determine if the challenge is
novel or familiar, toss reason/logic/preferences into the problem
solving mix, chose among (typically several) possible responses, and
then move us towards the opportunity or away from the danger (or decide
to just hang around for a while to see what happens). This is the
essence of emotion, feelings, and consciousness that define the book's
The new Damasio book makes demands on readers, but those who have a
basic understanding of brain systems and functions should have no real
problem with it, and it's as good a book on brain organization and
systems as I've read in some time. An excellent 18 page appendix on our
brain's cellular and systems architecture provides very useful
non-technical information for anyone who is teaching, writing, doing
workshops, and/or making conference presentations in Educational
Neuroscience. The book unfortunately doesn't have a glossary, and a
glossary would certainly be useful to many readers. It's thus a good
idea to develop your own glossary of unfamiliar terms/definitions when
they first appear in the book because they'll probably come up again
Antonio Damasio (1994) Descarte's Error: Emotion,
Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Putnam.
Antonio Damasio (1999) The Feeling of What Happens:
Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. New York: Harcourt.
Antonio Damasio (2003) Looking for Spinoza: Joy,
Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain. New York: Harcourt
Antonio Damasio (2010) Self Comes to Mind:
Constructing the Conscious Brain. New York: Pantheon, 2010. The
Amazon.com set of publication and reader reviews: http://www.amazon.com/Self-Comes-Mind-Constructing-Conscious/dp/0307378756.
Daniel Golman, (1997) Emotional Intelligence: Why It
Can Matter More Than IQ. New York: Bantam.
Joseph LeDoux, The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious
Underpinnings of Emotional Life (1996). New York: Simon and Schuster.
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