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What’s on your mind? Reflections on why we need feelings.

Updated: Jan 12

What’s on your mind? Reflections on why we need feelings.

by Mariam Hamouda

Writing my first blog was a real challenge for me.

First of all, I had to understand what Antonio Damasio was trying to say in his book “Feeling and Knowing. Making minds conscious.”

Not an easy quest.

After listening to some of his talks on the internet, and rereading passages from the book I slowly grasped his message.

My next problem was where to start. In my first draft, I ended up giving a dense summary of what I understood he was saying, but it was neither pleasant to read nor could I make clear what the main message was.

But, putting my own thoughts on paper on a subject I haven’t studied in depth makes me feel like I am overstepping a bit. Then, I realised, I have already stepped deep into the subject.

I was reflecting on my own feelings. Being conscious about feeling uncomfortable.

Damasio wrote this book in an attempt to tackle the "hard problem" of what consciousness is from an unusual neurobiological perspective which seems to set him apart from most of his colleagues.

He does so be taking an approach where his search does not start by looking at the highest cognitive levels (as cognitive scientist would do), but by concentrating on the lowest level of the nervous system, in which the nerves are directly “in touch” with our body.

By communicating what’s going on inside of us (interoception) we experience feelings like hunger, thirst, well-being or discomfort, sickness, and pain, even desire.

These feelings, he argues, are necessary for us to become aware of ourselves, of our own existence, which is what we call being conscious. The awareness of how the state of our body is, is revealed to us by having these fundamental feelings.

Damasio explains, without the evolutionary development of a nervous system, we would have no mind, consciousness, nor feelings.

When organisms became more complex the nervous system developed out of the need to better coordinate all of its functions.

In the end it is all about survival and the optimisation of homeostatic regulations to keep the organism alive.

To regulate our body we need, among other things, perception to know whether our body is in a state of well-being or not.

We all know that we perceive objects outside of our body with our five senses (sight, taste, smell, hearing, touch) to gather information about what’s going on around us.

What makes feelings so special is that they carry information from inside our bodies.

Feelings, says Damasio, are interactive internal perceptions. This means the actual object of our perception, giving rise to our feelings, is located within the same organism/body that perceives.

Another big difference to external perceptions is the fact that in interoception the nervous system interacts directly with our body (the nervous system is literally in touch with our inside) and is not separated from the object we are perceiving like it is from the objects outside our body.

I really cannot say if looking at feelings in this way is so new, because haven’t read around this subject.

What I did notice was, that Damasio mentions pain in a purely cursory and biomedical sense, seeing pain as a sign for disease or trauma that via our feelings motivates us to act in search for remedy.

Knowing how complex and intricate the process behind pain is, I felt that perspective was left out, then again, this book is about how we become conscious through feelings, not how we experience pain.


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