Saturday, February 25, 2012

Damasio (2000) The Feeling of What Happens

Now I never understand why I thought reading Antonio Damasio's latest book, Self Comes to Mind, was enough to understand his ideas. This book, The Feeling of What Happens (2000), deserves careful reading even after the publication of Self Comes to Mind.

So this blog article on The Feeling of What Happens is a squeal to my summary article on Self Comes to Mind. I never claim that the following summary is complete or perfect. (I omitted technical aspects of neurology, in particular. Still worse, I inserted some speculation of mine here and there.) Those who are interested are strongly advised to read the original book.

The summary consists of four parts. The first part is a synopsis of Damasio's agenda as I understand it. The second part is about the terminology about which we need to be very clear, for Damasio uses many ordinary words (like image, emotion, or feeling) in his own (but very technical and theoretical) way. The third part describes the three kinds of self. The final part is about language and other issues, which are my professional interests.

1 Synopsis

As I understand, Damasio's agenda is to distinguish different stages of human mind from the viewpoint of emotions, feeling of them, and all that follow in the body. He explains the emergence of consciousness (core consciousness) in the second-order act of feeling of feelings of emotions, i.e. "The Feeling of What Happens (in the Body)." This core consciousness produces a sense of self (core self). He also explains the expansion of consciousness (extended consciousness), that produces a new kind of self, autobiographical self, the self we usually identifies ourselves with.

These layered notions with some technical terms may look really complicated. But they are not. I'll try to explain as best as I can.

1.1 An emotion, the feeling of the emotion, and the feeling of the feeling of the emotion

Without technically defining emotion and feeling yet, I now introduce three layers of bodily reactions. The layers consist of the fundamental one (emotion), its first-order nonconscious representation (feeling of the emotion), and a second-order conscious representation (feeling of the feeling; Knowing that we have a feeling of that emotion).

If we borrow his expressions on pages 8 and 282 combined, we can explain the three layers as follows:

a transient change of the organism specifically caused by objects*

A feeling of the emotions:
the representation of that transient change in organism state
in terms of neural patterns and ensuring images

Knowing that we have the feeling of the emotions:
those images made conscious by a sense of self in the act of knowing

*"Objects" will be defined soon in the next section.

Another explanation is given on page 37 in terms of noncousciousness and consciousness, which can be summarized like below:

A state of emotion,
which can be triggered and executed nonconsciously

A state of feeling,
which can be represented noncounsciously

A state of feeling made conscious,
i.e., known to the organism having both emotion and feeling

These two nonconscious stages and one conscious stage of human mind are necessary concepts to explain the emergence of consciousness and self. Let's examine consciousness and self in 1.2 and 1.3., respectively.

1.2 Two related issues of consciousness

An interesting point about consciousness is that it has two issues which are related to each other. If we use the prototypical case of vision as an example of consciousness, and use the movie metaphor for vision (p. 11), we can express the two issues as follows.

(1) How the movie-in-the-brain is generated

(2) How the brain also generates the sense
that there is an owner and observer for that movie

The first issue is how I not just react to the object that is the source of the vision just as many biological beings do, but also have the vision. This issue is closely related to the second one, which is how I know that it is I that possesses and experiences the vision. As I imagine (I regret I don't have exact biological knowledge), the amoeba may have neither issues; the dragonfly may have the first issue but not the second; and we humans, and probably dogs, have both.

"The movie-in-the-brain" is images of an object. Damasio defines these two terms and explains the two issues.

I regard the problem of consciousness as a combination of two intimately related problems. The first is the problem of understanding how the brain inside the human organism engenders the mental patterns we call, for lack of a better term, the images of an object. By object I mean entities as diverse as a person, a place, a melody, a toothache, a state of bliss; by image I mean a mental pattern in any of the sensory modalities, e.g., a sound image, a tactile image, the image of a state of well-being. Such images convey aspects of the physical characteristics of the object and they may also convey the reaction of like and dislike one may have for an object, the plans one may formulate for it, or the web of relationships of that object among other objects. (...)

Now, the second problem of consciousness. This is the problem of how, in parallel with engendering mental patterns for an object, the brain also engenders a sense of self in the act of knowing. (p. 9)

So, when we're interested in consciousness of humans, Damasio argues that we need to explore not only images but also self, a state of consciousness that knows that it has the images. But this self (or this state of consciousness) is based on more fundamental layers.

1.3 Three stages of self

The self (or the consciousness) that we identify ourselves with is, according to Damasio, autobiographical self (extended consciousness), which are based on core self (core consciousness), which are further based on proto-self (nonconsciousness).

Proto-self / Nonconsciousness**

Core self / Core consciousness

Autobiographical self / Extended consciousness

**In Self Comes to Mind, Damasio introduces the primordial feelings to refer to the first-order feelings of emotions. Primordial feelings are at the stage of proto-self, which are not conscious yet.

The emergence of core self (core consciousness) and autobiographical self (extended consciousness) are explained as follows:

the nonconscious neural signaling of an individual organism begets the proto-self which permits core self and core consciousness, which allow for an autobiographical self, which permits extended consciousness. (p. 230)

I believe we can summarize the distinction of emotion / first-order feeling (primordial feeling) / second-order feeling (conscious knowing), the two related issues of consciousness (images and self), and the three stages of self (proto-, core, and autobiographical) in the following way.

A state of emotion
that initiates a state of feeling (primordial feeling)
as a first-order neural, noncouscious representation in the brain,
that produces Proto-self / Nonconsciousness (primordial feeling)

(2a) IMAGE
A state of feeling made conscious
as a second-order neural, conscious representation in the mind,
that produces Core consciousness and
(2b) (CORE) SELF
Core self,
which further produces
Autobiographical self via Extended consciousness
as third-order linguistic, conscious representation

With this understanding as Damasio's agenda, let's see some of his technical terms in the next section.

2 Terminology

Here, I confirm Damasio's definitions of emotion, image, and somatic signaling, and I clarify the perception of an object and the body loop / as if body loop.

2.1 Definition of emotion

Of Damasio's terms, emotion probably requires the most careful attention because it is quite different from its ordinary sense. In our ordinary language, emotion means primary or universal emotions (eg. happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, or disgust), secondary or social emotions (eg. embarrassment, jealously, guilt, or pride), and background emotions (eg. well-being or malaise, calm or tension, and others) (pp. 50-51).

However, Damasio uses emotion as a very technical term. Below are four of the five features that Damasio introduces to define emotion as he intends to (Feature #3 is omitted here because it is a technical description of the brain structure.

1. Emotions are complicated collections of chemical and neural responses, forming a pattern; all emotions have some kind of regulatory role to play, leading in one way or another to the creation of circumstances advantageous to the organism exhibiting the phenomenon; emotions are about the life of an organism, its body to be precise, and their role is to assist the organism in maintaining life.

2. Notwithstanding the reality that learning and culture alter the expression of emotions and give emotions new meanings, emotions are biologically determined processes, depending on innately set brain devices, laid down by a long evolutionary history.

3. (Omitted)

4. All the devices can be engaged automatically, without conscious deliberation; the considerable amount of individual variation and the fact that culture plays a role in shaping some inducers do not deny the fundamental stereotypicity, automaticity, and regulatory purpose of the emotions.

5. All emotions use the body as their theater (internal milieu, visceral, vestibular and musculoskeletal systems), but emotions also affect the mode of operation of numerous brain circuits: the variety of the emotional responses is responsible for profound changes in both the body landscape and the brain landscape. The collection of these changes constitutes the substrate for the neural patterns which eventually become feelings of emotion. (pp. 51-52)

In brief, emotions in Damasio's technical definition are 1) chemical and neural responses that are regulatory; 2) mostly biological rather than cultural; 4) automatic; and 5) the basis of feelings of emotion.

2.2 Definition of image

A quotation from p. 9 has already defined image as a "mental pattern in any of the sensory modalities". Here is another definition.

By the term images I mean mental patterns with a structure built with the tokens of each sensory modalities -- visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and somatosensory. (p. 318)

But the last modality, somatosensory, deserves a special attention because, once again, our ordinary understanding may betray what Damasio intends to mean by the term.

2.3 Definition of somatic signaling

Somatosensory modality is (of course) about somatic signaling. The standard meaning of somatic is given, for example, in Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition as follows.

1. of or relating to the soma: somatic cells
2. of or relating to an animal body or body wall as distinct from the viscera, limbs, and head
3. of or relating to the human body as distinct from the mind: a somatic disease

The second meaning excludes visceral signaling from somatosensory modality, but that is not what Damasio means by somatic signaling (or more commonly, body signals). Somatic signaling, according to Damasio, includes the internal and visceral, as well as the musculoskeletal and, of course, the tactile.

(1) The internal milieu and visceral division (interoceptive):
by chemicals flowing in the bloodstream; nerve pathways; and the state of smooth muscles

(2) The vestibular and musculoskeletal division (proprioceptive or kinesthetic):
by the central nervous system; and the state of striated muscles which join the bones

(3) The fine touch division:
by the specialized sensors in the skin

(Summary based on descriptions on pp. 149-153)

This definition of Damasio's may sound rather unusual but it is certainly more technical, for in fact, we all feel the visceral and the musculoskeletal. We probably pay too much attention to the five senses (hearing, sight, smell, taste, and touch) and disregard other subtle senses that do not have their specialized sensory organs (ear, eye, nose, tongue, and skin).

Incidentally, Michizo NOGUCHI, a great reflective practitioner of body movements (Noguchi Taiso), emphasized the importance of these subtle senses (the sense of gravity, in particular) in our movements. (His phenomenological descriptions of the body movements are extremely insightful from the view point of Budo (martial arts) and I'm currently taking a detailed note on his works. (See this article if you're interested). In the meantime, for those of you who might be interested in him, here is some videos of Noguchi Taiso.

Anyway, somatic signaling includes the visceral and the musculoskeletal as well as the five senses. This inclusion becomes very important when we think of language, for example, whose basis is images and ultimately somatic signals.

2.4 No Pure perception of an object

Although we've been talking about an image caused by an object, we should not think that an image is a pure perception uncontaminated by other sensations. When we see something, for example, we of course sense the vision, but also sense the body movement that makes the vision possible; the body movement involves vestibular and musculoskeletal sensation, which also involve internal milieu and visceral sensation.

There is no such thing as a pure perception of an object within a sensory channel, for instance, vision. (...) To perceive an object, visually or otherwise, the organism requires both specialized sensory signals and signals from the adjustment of the body, which are necessary for perception to occur. (p. 147)

It may be interesting to examine synesthesia from this viewpoint.

2.5 The body loop and the as if body loop

Next is the concepts of the "body loop" and the "as if body loop", both of which are about changes of the body state. The body loop is an ordinary biological mechanism where bloodstreams and nerve pathways pass information about the body state. The other, the as if body loop, is probably peculiar to humans which possess quite an evolved brain. The brain represents the "body maps" that is a reflection of the real body state. By manipulating the body maps, the brain simulates potential body movements "as if" the body really moved. The as if body loop is an obvious advantage for future actions.

(1) The "body loop":
by humoral signals (chemical messages conveyed via the bloodstream) and
neural signals (electrochemical messages conveyed via nerve pathways)

(2) The "as if body loop":
by sensory body maps under the control of the prefrontal cortices and other neural sites

(Statements based on the description of pp. 79-80)

The body maps are often simply called map or neural pattern. These correspond to image or mental pattern (p. 317). Later, in Self Comes to Mind, Damasion uses the terms image, map, and neural pattern almost interchangeably. (2010, p. 55)

2.6 Private feeling and publicly observable emotion

The final terminological clarification is about the nature of emotion and feeling. Emotion, as chemical and neural responses, is publicly observable, whereas feeling, as perceived in core consciousness, is only subjective phenomenon and private in its nature.

Emotion: publicly observable responses

Feeling: private, mental experience of an emotion

(Based on the description on p. 42.)

3 Three kinds of self

Now that we confirmed Damasio's terminology, let's see the definitions of the three kinds of self, proto-self, core self and autobiographical self.

3.1 Proto-self

Here is a definition of the proto-self from Table 6.1, one of the most important tables in this book.

The proto-self is an interconnected and temporarily coherent collection of neural patterns which represent the state of the organism, moment by moment, at multiple levels of the brain. We are not conscious of the proto-self. (p. 174. Table 6.1. Kinds of Self)

The proto-self is a transient body map that is not yet consciously known to the owner of the body.

Next is a bit detailed definition, which clearly states that the proto-self is first-order representations in various parts of the brain and that it forms the basis of further body awareness.

The proto-self is a coherent collection of neural patterns which map, moment by moment, the state of the physical structure of the organism in its many dimensions. This ceaselessly maintained first-order collection of neural patterns occurs not in one brain place but in many, at a multiplicity of levels, from the brain stem to the cerebral cortex, in structures that are interconnected by neural pathways. These structures are intimately involved in the process of regulating the state of the organism. (p. 154)

3.2 Core self and core consciousness

When the proto-self, the first-order neural map, changes significantly (i.e., to the extent that the difference becomes important information for the survival of the body), the change (difference) manifests itself in core consciousness.

core consciousness occurs when the brain's representation devices generate an imaged, nonverbal account of how the organism's own state is affected by the organism's processing of an object, and when this process enhances the image of the causative object, thus placing it saliently in a spatial and temporal context. (p. 169)

As the core consciousness is noticeable, it demands not just its object (the change in the proto-self) but also its subject, something that notices the object. The subject is the core self.

The core self inheres in the second-order nonverbal account that occurs whenever an object modifies the proto-self. The core self can be triggered by any object. (...) (p. 174. Table 6.1. Kinds of Self)

This core self is second-order, for it is based on the proto-self, the first-order neural map.

The emergence of both the object and the subject of the core consciousness sounds almost tricky. But this account explains the sensation that we sometimes feel: I'm here and now as long as I perceive something (A different version of "Cogito ergo sum" (French: Je pense, donc je suis; English: I think, therefore I am)). Demasio quotes T.S. Eliot to impress the subject-object integration of the core consciousness (in fact, as the first quotation on the cover page of the book).

Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hits followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.

"Dry Salvages" from Four Quartets

Although we're usually not conscious of primordial feelings, we notice the difference in the changes of primordial feelings. And in that act of noticing, we sense ourselves as the agent of noticing. What is noticed and what notices emerge at the same time.

Below is Damasio's exegesis of T.S. Eliot. His passage, "a paragon of effective scientific writing" according to Dallas Morning News , cannot be paraphrased by me and it must be directly quoted:

You Are the Music while the Music Lasts: The Transient Core Self

You know that you are conscious, you feel that you are in the act of knowing, because the subtle imaged account that is now flowing in the stream of your organism's thoughts exhibits the knowledge that your proto-self has been changed by an object that has just become salient in the mind. You know you exist because the narrative exhibits you as protagonist in the act of knowing. You rise above the sea level of knowing, transiently but incessantly, as a felt core self, renewed again and again, thanks to anything that comes from outside the brain into its sensory machinery or anything that comes from the brain's memory stores toward sensory, motor, or automatic recall. You know it is you seeing because the story depicts a character -- you -- doing the seeing. The first basis for the conscious you is a feeling which arises in the re-representation of the nonconscious proto-self in the process of being modified within an account which establishes the cause of the modification. The first trick behind consciousness is the creation of this account, and its first result is the feeling of knowing. (pp. 171-172)

In another part, Damasio uses a metaphor of (nonverbal) story-telling and says that the subject (story-teller) is demanded and thus appears as the story (significant changes in the body state) is being told.

The mapping of the object-related consequences occurs in first-order neural maps representing proto-self and object; the account of the causal relationship between object and organism can only be captured in second-order neural maps. Looking back, with the license of metaphor, one might say that the swift, second-order nonverbal account narrates a story: that of the organism caught in the act of representing its own changing state as it goes about representing something else. But astonishing fact is that the knowable entity of the catcher has just been created in the narrative of the catching process. (p. 170)

Related article of mine to this issue is "Where is Self, and what is it?" No, it's rather "How is Self?": Luhmann's theory of autopoiesis. In the article I quoted Luhmann, which I copy below.

The term “subject” does not designate a substance that, by its pure being, shoulders everything else, the subject is rather self-referentiality itself as the foundation of cognition and action. (1997a, 868)

Translated by Moeller, Hans-Georg (2011). Luhmann Explained: From Souls to Systems (Ideas Explained) (p. 170). Open Court. Kindle Edition.

Als Subjekt bezeichnet man nicht eine Substanz, die durch ihr bloßes Sein alles andere trägt, sondern Subjekt ist die Selfstreferenz selbst als Grundlage von Erkennen und Handeln.

The original in Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft (2, p. 868) .

3.3 Extended consciousness and Autobiographical self

Core consciousness, which is about here and now, can be extended by memories to become extended consciousness, which can produce, here and now, the past and the future.

Extended consciousness goes beyond the here and now of core consciousness, both backward and forward. The here and now is still there, but it is flanked by the past, as much past as you may need to illuminate the now effectively, and, just as importantly, it is flanked by the anticipated future. (p. 195)

Remembrance of the past and simulation of the future are the great advantage for survival in ever-changing complex environment.

Creatures with consciousness have some advantages over those that do not have consciousness. They can establish a link between the world of automatic regulation (the world of basic homeostasis that is interwoven with the proto-self) and the world of imagination (the world in which images of different modalities can be combined to produced novel images of situations that have not yet happened). The world of imaginary creations -- the world of planning, the world of formulation of scenarios and prediction of outcomes -- is linked to the world of the proto-self. The sense of self links forethought, on the one hand, to preexisting automation, on the other. (pp. 303-304)

Extended consciousness, now equipped with the past and the future as well as the present, gives rise to a sense of individual perspective, ownership, and agency (p. 198). It is I who recall the past, imagine the future, and execute and own these mental events. This sense is a sense of autobiographical self.

The autobiographical self is based on autobiographical memory which is constituted by implicit memories of multiple instances of individual experience of the past and of the anticipated future. (...) (p. 174. Table 6.1. Kinds of Self)

I, in the ordinary sense, is the autobiographical self, which is produced by extended consciousness. The extended consciousness is expansion of core consciousness by the use of mental patterns (memories). The core consciousness (and the sense of core self) emerges out of significant body state differences caused by objects at the level of proto-self. I am three-layered and my basis is the nonconscious body. I have the body, therefore I am.

4 Language and other issues

In this last section, we deal with language and other issues which may interest some applied linguists.

We often regard language as a system of disembodied signs. But it is rather a system of the body, a system based on the body state differences. The body state differences are represented in images in the brain, and the images are sources of linguistic expressions. So, we need to understand the the body-brain-language connection to think about linguistic issues. Language is a system of embodied signs, translation of images in the brain, that are originally the body state differences.

Language -- that is, words and sentences -- is a translation of something else, a conversion from nonlinguistic images which stand for entities, events, relationships, and inferences. (p. 107

Although we say a linguistic expressions is a translation of images, it's not that there is one to one correspondence between a linguistic expression and a set of images located in a particular part of the brain. Different features and aspects of a linguistic expression are to be found in different parts of the brain.

The brain forms memories in a highly distributed manner. Take, for instance, the memory of a hammer. There is no single place of our brain where we will find an entry with the word hammer followed by a neat dictionary definition of what a hammer is. (p. 220)

So, the body-brain-language connection is not so simple. The body state changes are constantly transmitted via the body loop and the as if body loop. The changes are also constantly represented in maps and different combinations of various fragments of maps produce linguistic expressions. The body state changes are the first-order patterns, consciously recognized neural patterns are the second-order, and the linguistic expressions are the third order. The three orders are layered and related, but, translations between different orders are not straightforward at all. The three orders, metaphorically speaking, speak different languages. To use Luhmannian expressions, the biological system (an organism), the conscious system (a psychic system), and the linguistic communication system (a social system) are all different autopoiesis systems, that are structurally coupled to one another.

In the case of humans the second-order nonverbal narrative of consciousness can be converted into language immediately. One might call it the third-order. (p. 185)

As we come towards the end of this summary, it is probably a good idea how Damasio's theory of consciousness is different from Gerald Edelman's theory. (See my summary article on Wider than the sky ( and Second nature (

In short, their theories are not entirely different, but, according to Damasio, his theory is more sophisticated and theoretically generative. About Gerald Edelman, he wrote as follows:

his primary consciousness is simpler than my core consciousness and does not result in the emergence of a self. Edelman's higher-order consciousness is also not the same as my extended consciousness, because it requires language and is strictly human. (p. 338. Endnote 10)

However, we should never conclude that Damasio gave the final answer to the issue of consciousness. Far from it. We are only beginning to ask proper questions about consciousness. In the human history, core consciousness is quite a recent issue in comparison with autobiographical consciousness. And before autobiographical consciousness, humans mostly talked about conscience, not consciousness. Probably, core consciousness is something too commonplace and ubiquitous to escape our critical assessment. It is not now, though.

Humans had identified conscience and had an interest in its doings long before they identified extended consciousness as a problem, let alone core consciousness. (...) The preoccupation with what we call consciousness now is recent -- three and a half centuries perhaps -- and has only come to the fore late in the twentieth century. (p. 231)

Related posts:
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