Piero Scaruffi(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"
Emotion as Body Representation
The Portuguese biologist Antonio Damasio†focused on the relation between memory, emotions and consciousness. He made a distinction between emotions and "feelings". A feeling is the private experience of an emotion, that cannot be observed by anybody else. An emotion is the brain process that we perceive as a feeling.† An emotion can be observed by others because it yields visible effects (whether the facial expression or a movement) and because it arises from a brain process that can be observed and measured.
The difference is crucial. Emotions are fixed genetically, to a large extent: evolution has endowed us with a basic repertory of emotions that help us survive. My personality (which is mostly shaped by my interaction with the environment) may determine how i express and react to those emotions, but the emotions that occur in me are those that i share with my whole species. Emotion is a genetically-driven response to a stimulus: when that stimulus occurs (for example, a situation of danger), a region of the brain generates an emotion (fear) that is spread through the brain and the body via the nervous system and therefore causes a change in the state of both the brain and the rest of the body. This change of state is meant to somehow cope with the stimulus. Some emotions are acquired during development (e.g., through social interaction) but they too are grounded in the universal, primary emotional repertory of the species.
Therefore the relationship between the individual and the environment that has been posited by many thinkers as the cause of emotions is reduced by Damasio†to the interaction between the body and the brain, which is only indirectly related to the interaction between the organism and the environment.† Emotion is, indeed, about homeostatic regulation, is indeed about maintaining equilibrium, but the equilibrium is, more specifically, between external stimuli and internal representations.
Feelings, on the contrary, are "perceptions", except that they are a special kind of perceptions. Damasio†argues that feelings are views of the body's internal organs.† This follows from his theory of what the function of the mind is: the mind is about the body.† The neural processes that I experience as "my mind" are about the representation of my body in the brain. Mental life requires the existence of a body, and not only because it has to be contained in something: mental life "is" about the body.†
Feelings express this function of the mind. This also explains why we cannot control the feelings of emotions: we cannot because we cannot change the state of our body, or, better, we can control emotions† to the extent that we can change the state of our body that caused that emotion.
Of course, that representation of the body is always present in the brain, but it is mostly dormant. It takes a specific stimulus to trigger it and generate an emotion, which in turn yields a feeling.
William James†had already argued that feelings are a reflection of a change in the state of the body. Damasio†gave Jamesí intuition a detailed model: first an external stimulus triggers certain regions of the brain, then those regions cause an emotion, then the emotion spreads around the body and causes a change in the state of the body, and finally the "mind" perceives that change of state as a feeling.
Since feelings are percepts, they must be considered as cognitive as any other percept, as cognitive as an image or as a word.
Damasio's intuitive argument is that the emotional system is spread throughout the body: emotions react to states of all sorts of organs (a huge number of events can trigger an emotion, say, of pain) and operate in turn on all sorts of action, from facial expression to limb movement. Emotions are not only about the brain: they are also about the whole body.
An emotion is registered by the brain when a stimulus is recognized as useful for survival or for well-being or damaging for survival and well-being. This appraisal results in bodily changes, such as quickening heart-beat, tensing muscles, etc. These bodily changes also imply that a map changes in the brain, and this change is the physical implementation of the "feeling". Damasio†finds an analogy between the emotional system and the immune system. The immune system produces antibodies to fight invading viruses; or, better, the invading virus selects the appropriate antibody. An emotional response is basically the antibody that reacts to an invading stimulus, that is selected by that stimulus.
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