Friday, December 28, 2012

Emotions and Feelings according to Damasio (2003) "Looking for Spinoza"

1 Affect (Emotions and Feelings)

Emotions and feelings, or affect in general, are not just romantic notions. These are foundations of our cognition, and in order to understand them, neurological and physiological understanding is necessary with a good philosophical perspective. Damasio, a prominent neuroscientist, offers an enlightened picture of our cognition by taking issues of emotions and feelings scientifically in "Looking for Spinoza". Below is my attempt to summarize the book. Figures and tables are designed by me unless it is indicated otherwise.

Damasio distinguishes "emotions" and "feelings" although they are often used interchangeably with no particular distincitions in the ordinary language. Emotions are the foundation for feelings; Both emotions and feelings are "part of the basic mechanisms of life regulation" (p. 28), but feelings contribute to life regulation at a higher level. Being at a more basic level, emotions are taken to be more physiological (and thus publicly observable), whereas feelings are taken to be more psychological (and therefore private). A metaphorical way to explain the contrast is "Emotions play our in the theater of the body. Feelings play out in the theater of the mind." (p. 28). (This may be aspect dualism, but not substance dualism; basically Damasio takes monism just as Spinoza did)

Emotions are divided into emotions-proper and emotions in the broad sense (Note: Damasio doesn't use the latter term). Emotions-proper are subdivided into social emotions, primary emotions, and background emotions. Emotions in the broad sense, on the other hand, include homeostasis, pain and pleasure responses, and drives motivations. The levels of feeling and different types of emotions can be represented as below.



Social Emotions
Primary Emotions
Background Emotions

Emotions in the Broad Sense
Drives and Motivations
Pain and Pleasure Responses

This level-representation should not taken to imply that a certain level is severed from other levels. On the contrary, levels below contain and influence levels above. Feelings and emotions are nested.

This Nesting Principle (p. 37) can be graphically represented in the following way.

Speech and proposition are my addition to feelings and emotions in the above figure of Damasio's scheme. Speech arises from feelings and emotions in the body (see more technical definitions below), and from speech we abstract a proposition. The contrast between the two terms here is that whereas speech in communication is an embodied expression, a proposition in linguistics and logic is an disembodied abstraction.

Below is another graphical representation of feelings and emotions (emotions in the broad sense are omitted for the sake of simplicity). This representation emphasises that down-level emotions influence upper level emotions and feelings, and they all together constitute the basis of speech. The contrast between speech and proposition is expressed in their mode of being: Embodied Mind (Body-Mind) vs Disembodied Mind.

Given these schematic representations above, let's examine emotions and feelings more technically.

2 Emotions

Although emotions are divided into emotions in the broad sense and emotions-proper in this section, it is important to understand what is common in all kinds of emotions. They are all biological life-regulation phenomena and serve for our survival and well-being.

From chemical homeostatic processes to emotions-proper, life-regulation phenomena, without exception, have to do, directly or indirectly, with the integrity and health of the organism. Without exception, all of these phenomena are related to adaptive adjustments in body state and eventually lead to the changes in the brain mapping of body states, which form the basis for feelings. (p. 49)

With this explanation, we should cease to regard emotions as an exclusively human, possibly romantic, notion. As life-regulation phenomena, emotions are observed in many types of living creatures: "All they require is a simple perceptual apparatus -- a filter to detect the emotionally competent stimulus and the capacity to emote" (p. 50).

Having said that, let's see the workings of human emotions in the broad sense in the next section.

2.1 Emotions in the Broad Sense

Emotions in the broad sense include, from a more basic level to a higher, homeostasis, pain and pleasure responses, and drives and motivation.

2.1.1 Homeostasis

Homeostasis, a general feature of a living system to maintain itself, include metabolism, reflex (see also "reflex arc"), and immune system, according to Damasio (p. 31). (Reflex here includes not only the startle reflex, but also tropism and taxis).

Homeostatic responses are induced by different kinds of perturbation or sensory signals that a living system detects. Below is a list of sensory signals that humans make use of (This list is adapted from Figure 3.5a on p. 107.

If homeostasis, a biological mechanism, constitutes a fundamental level of emotions that initiates the other and higher levels of emotions, emotion in general is also biological (at least in nature). Damasio's sense of emotion is technical and should not be confused with emotion in the ordinary sense. (In fact, in order to avoid confusion, I wish I could use the notation of e-motion, at least for the emotion in the broad sense).

2.1.2 Pain and Pleasure Responses

Damasio uses "pain and pleasure behaviors" for this category (p. 32), but I do not like connotations that are associated with the word "behaviors" (particularly in the sense of behaviorism) and choose to use the word "responses" instead. In fact, this preference seems reasonable because Damasio uses "responses" as a synonym and his examples in this category include "protection of the affected body part (holding a hand that has been wounded; hugging the chest or abdomen); and facial expression of alarm and suffering" (pp. 32-33).

2.1.3 Drives and Motivations

Examples of drives and motivations that Damasio gives are "hunger, thirst, curiosity and exploration, play and sex." These examples, however, may betray expectations by those who believes that the concept of motivation, in particular, is more psychological than somatic.

To avoid confusion, we may choose to call them appetite and desire as Damasio suggests according to Spinoza.

[T]he word appetite designates the behavioral state of an organism engaged by a particular drive; the word desire refers to the conscious feelings of having an appetite and the eventual consummation or thwarting of the appetite. (p. 34; emphasis added)

2.2 Emotions-Proper

Beyond the level of, or included in the category of, the emotions in the broad sense are emotions-proper, which Damasio subdivides into background emotions, primary emotions, and social emotions.

2.2.1 Background Emotions

Background emotions are whatever subtle motions and responses in the body that are initiated by the emotions in the broad sense (and related phenomena), and they make our "state of being". They are probably more faint and transient than primary emotions and social emotions, but the interactions of these are perhaps the basis of our feelings when asked "How are you?".

Damasio explains about background emotions:

When I developed this notion, I began seeing background emotions as the consequence of deploying certain combinations of the simpler regulatory reactions (e.g., basic homeostatic processes, pain and pleasure behaviors, and appetites), according to the nesting principle noted earlier. Background emotions are composite expressions of those regulatory actions as they unfold and intersect moment by moment in our lives. I imagine background emotions as a largely unpredictable result of several concurrent regulatory processes engaged within the vast playground that our organisms resemble. These include metabolic adjustments associated with whatever internal need is arising or has just been satisfied; and with whatever external situation is now being appraised and handled by other emotions, appetites, or intellectual calculation. The ever-changing result of this cauldron of interactions is our "state of being," good, bad, or somewhere in-between. When asked "how we feel," we consult this "state of being" and answer accordingly. (p. 44)

2.2.2 Primary Emotions

More conspicuous than background emotions are primary emotions. Damasio also call them "basic emotions," for the examples are "fear, anger, disgust, surprise, sadness, and happiness -- the emotions that first come to mind whenever the term emotion is invoked" (p. 44).

2.2.3 Social Emotions

More complicated than primary emotions are social emotions such as "sympathy, embarrassment, shame, guilt, pride, jealousy, envy, gratitude, admiration, indignation, and contempt" (p. 45). They are based on primary emotions, background emotions, and emotions in the broad sense, but are more complicated than those because they are not individual notions, but require relationships with other human beings.

3 Feelings

From emotions both in the narrow and the broad senses comes feelings. Damasio suggests a thought experiment in order for us to understand what he means by feelings: Think of "lying down in the sand, the late-day sun gently warming your skin, the ocean lapping at your feet, a rustle of pine needles somewhere behind you, a light summer breeze blowing, 78 degrees F and not a cloud in the sky" (p. 83).

Apparently, you'd experience a lot of different sensations (mostly background emotions and partly primary emotions) and you'll realize that "your mind was filled with thoughts whose themes created a new wave of pleasurable feeling" (p. 84). Feelings are more distinct than emotions, but what is rather surprising for those regard thoughts as mostly linguistic (e.g., analytic philosophers or the first generation cognitive scientists) is that feelings involve (largely non-linguistic or only proto-linguistic) thoughts. With a certain feeling in the thought experiment, you'd have found:

The appearance of thoughts with themes consonant with the emotions; and a mode of thinking, a style of mental processing, which increased the speed of image generation and made images more abundant. (p. 84)

In a feeling, your body and mind are blended, for feeling is "the mental representation of parts of the body or of the whole body as operating in a certain manner" (p. 84).

Here is how Damasio defines feeling:

Feeling, in the pure and narrow sense of the word, was the idea of the body being in a certain way. In this definition you can substitute idea for "thought" or "perception." (p. 85)
Damasio likes the word "idea" because it was used by Spinoza, as we'll see later. Of course Damasio is happy to define feeling completely without this word.

My hypothesis, then, presented in the form of a provisional definition, is that a feeling is the perception of a certain state of the body along with the perception of a certain mode of thinking and of thoughts with certain themes. (p. 86)
Although they are on a higher level, feelings are physiological and biological just like emotions. They serve for the living system for its survival and well-being. For example, joy "signify optimal physiological coordination and smooth running of the operations of life" and also "a greater ease in the capacity to act" (p. 137). On the other hand, sorrow signify "states of functional disequilibrium" or "signis of physiological discord," -- "a less than optimal coordination of life functions" (p. 138).

4 Body-Mind

Feelings and emotions, prerequisites of thought and speech, are based in the body. We now conclude that the mind is a product of the body; Psychology requires the body in its ecological environment. Our mind is not disembodied, as Descartes claimed; It is embodied mind, or to use the term by Dewey, body-mind.

Damasio presents four steps for an organism to feel and think as we do. (pp. 109-110)

(1) A means of representing the body: In order for an entity to have feeling that is consciously known to itself, it not only has to have a body, but also a means to represent the body state. Humans of course have the nervous system for such representation.

(2) Transformation of neural representations into mental patterns or images: The entity must be able to transform the neural representation of the body state into mental patterns or images, for without the latter, the entity would have no experience of qualia. (I believe that this step is most crucial and controversial in refuting dualism. See my article "Consciousness as a process that is entailed by molecular interactions" if you're interested).

(3) Mental patterns or images must be known to us in consciousness: This is another tricky step, for feeling (mental pattern that is known consciously) and consciousness look synonyms to each other. Damasio elaborates:

In plain terms, we are not able to feel if we are not conscious. But it so happens that the machinery of feeling is itself a contributor to the processes of consciousness, namely to the creation of the self, without which nothing can be known. The way out of the difficulty comes from realizing that the process of feeling is multitiered and branched. Some of the steps necessary to produce a feeling are the very same necessary to produce the protoself, on which self and eventually consciousness depend. But some of the steps are specific to the set of homeostatic changes being felt, i.e., specific to a certain object. (p. 110)

(For more information of the protoself, please read A summary of Damasio’s “Self Comes to Mind”).

(4) The brain must be not only passive but also active: The body state is represented in the neural map, and transformed into mental patterns to be known to us in consciousness: All of these happen in our nervous system: the brain. The brain is not just passive, though, for if it is there is little point of making the body state known in consciousness. Just like an amoeba, we could just react without paying extra cost to produce consciousness. Consciousness becomes advantageous when we use conscious feeling to actively guide our action. We may do something until we feel good or right. In other words, although the mind is created by the body, the mind can guide the body. The embodied mind, or the body-mind, is not a slave to the body. (May I say here that the mind emerges from and operates on a dialectic relationship between the body and the brain?)

Damasio uses the term body-mindedness of the mind.

The mind exists because there is a body to furnish it with contents. On the other hand, the mind ends up performing practical and useful tasks for the body -- controlling the execution of automated responses in relation to the correct target; anticipating and planning novel responses; creating all sorts of circumstances and objects that are beneficial to the body's survival. The images that flow in the mind are reflections of the interaction between the organism and the environment, reflections of how the brain's reaction to the environment affects the body, reflections of how the body's adjustments are faring in the unfolding life state. (p. 206)

For this idea of the body-mindedness of the mind, Damasio pays tribute to Spinoza who said in the proof following Proposition 13 in Ethics "The object of the idea constituting the human mind is the body, and the body as it actually exists. ... Wherefore the object of our mind is the body as it exists, and nothing else." (p. 212)

Proposition 26 may have important implications in our epistemology.

The human Mind does not perceive any external body as actually existing except through the ideas of the modification (affections) of its own body.

The above statement is a little bit confusing because "body" has two meanings: the first body in "external body" refers to things around us and the second in "its own body" refers to our human body. Damasio offers a better translation:

From my current perspective, to say that our mind is made up of ideas of one's body is equivalent to saying that our mind is made up of images, representations, or thoughts of our own parts of our own body in spontaneous action or in the process of modifications caused by objects in the environment. The statement departs radically from traditional wisdom and may sound implausible at first glance. We usually regard our mind as populated by images or thoughts of objects, actions, and abstract relations, mostly related to the outside world rather than to our bodies. (pp. 213-214, emphasis added)

In our folk epistemology, we believe we receive input directly as it exists in the physical world that is categorically independent of human beings. Yet, the 'input' we believe we've received is actually the effect that our body created. The external thing can only irritate the body. Sometimes, no external thing exists as in the case of a hallucination. Sometimes, extremely dangerous external 'input' like radioactive rays cause a lot of damage in our body, but nevertheless not detected by us as such. Our mental activities are only created by and through our body. Our mind does not represent the world as it is (or "Thing-in-itself" as Kant would say). It represents the world by and through our body.

How can we talk about our mind without considering our body in this world!

Related articles:
A summary of Damasio’s “Self Comes to Mind”
'Feeling' of language as a sign of autopoiesis
Damasio (2000) The Feeling of What Happens
Another short summary of Damasio's argument on consciousness and self

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