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It All Comes Down to Feelings

The emergence of subjectivity in the form of integrated sensory images of bodily boundaries and position, as well as states of affairs in the external world accompanied by evaluative, “valenced” feelings, offered such a major advantage — a “dramatic leap” — over the simple unconscious “sensing” and “registering” of the first life-forms that sentience proliferated. With the emergence of subjective experience, new concepts, those of psychology, are needed to explain the phenomenon. “We can think of feelings as mental deputies of homeostasis,” Damasio writes. “Feelings are for life regulation, providers of information concerning basic homeostasis or the social conditions of our lives.”

In creatures like humans, feelings provide the individual with feedback about general well-being, a sense of how specific regions of the body, the gut, the nose and throat are faring, as well as an awareness of social relations. According to Damasio, subjectivity bound by feelings and memory produces what we call consciousness.

Despite the fact that Damasio is a famous neuroscientist he has always worried about “traditional neuro-centric, brain-centric, and even cerebral-cortex-centric accounts.” This was one of the central arguments of his earlier book “Descartes’ Error,” in which he bemoaned “the abyssal separation of mind and body.”

Feelings are essential and they involve the entire body. This is one reason Damasio is skeptical of both “the prevalent view … that subjectivity is unlikely to have emerged in any creature besides sophisticated humans,” as well as the search among fellow neuroscientists for the specific place in the brain where consciousness happens. Consciousness is a global, organismic property, not a local brain property, he argues, and it is ubiquitous. All mammals are conscious. Birds have experiences. Octopuses do not have spines or centralized brains but have feelings, and some social insects might well have them, too. Feelings are an evolutionary solution nature has come up with as a way of preserving life.

Some philosophers will wonder why Damasio doesn’t dwell on and repeat endlessly, as they do, that consciousness is a mystery, that no one has offered a satisfying account of how feelings, experience, subjectivity and consciousness emerged, and how experience is produced. Yet “satisfying” and “satisfactory” are different concepts, and no matter how intuitively puzzling a fully naturalistic theory of consciousness may seem, we have every reason to think that Damasio has the right idea about how experience emerged. The design of nervous systems provided organisms with a unique, private, subjective perspective. The system is designed to deliver certain information in an experiential format to its owner, and only to its owner.

Late in the book, Damasio wonders whether we can expect feelings to help us through our current cultural crises. His answer is that humans will always aim for homeostasis, and feelings will provide the guide for regaining equilibrium. But he points out that “the physiological rationale and primary concern of basic homeostasis is the life of the individual organism within its boundaries. … Basic homeostasis remains a somewhat parochial affair, focused on the temple that human subjectivity has designed and erected — the self.” This problem, the problem of self-interest, is not a scientific problem. Calling attention to it is a suitable way to end this brave and honest book. We are gregarious social animals. The homeostatic imperative seeks stability for itself and those near and dear. If recognizing this worries us, it is thanks to the fact that we are conscious beings who feel and care, including about the costs of feeling and caring in the self-centered, parochial way we do.

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