An Evolutionary Anatomy of Affect: Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio on How and Why We Feel What We Feel

An Evolutionary Anatomy of Affect: Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio on How and Why We Feel What We Feel

“A purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity,” William James wrote in his pioneering 1884 theory of how our bodies affect our feelings. In the century-some since, breakthroughs in neurology, psychobiology, and neuroscience have contributed leaps of layered (though still incomplete) understanding of the relationship between the physical body and our emotional experience. That tessellated relationship is what neuroscientist Antonio Damasio examines in The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures (public library) — a title inspired by the disorienting fact that several billion years ago, single-cell organisms began exhibiting behaviors strikingly analogous to certain human social behaviors and 100 million years ago insects developed interactions, instruments, and cooperative strategies that we might call cultural. That such sociocultural behaviors long predate the development of the human brain casts new light on the ancient mind-body problem and offers a radical revision of how we understand mind, feeling, consciousness, and the construction of cultures.

Two decades after his landmark exploration of how the relationship between the body and the mind shapes our conscious experience, Damasio draws a visionary link between biology and social science in a fascinating investigation of homeostasis — the delicate balance that underpins our physical existence, ensures our survival, and defines our flourishing. At the heart of his inquiry is his lifelong interest in the nature of human affect — why we feel what we feel, how we use emotions to construct selfhood, what makes our intentions and our feelings so frequently contradictory, how the body and the mind conspire in the inception of emotional reality. What emerges is not an arsenal of certitudes and answers but a celebration of curiosity and a reminder that intelligent, informed speculation is how we expand the territory of knowledge by moving the boundary of the knowable further into the unknown.

illustrations for the essays of Montaigne

Feelings, Damasio argues, are the unheralded germinators of human culture:

Human beings have distinguished themselves from all other beings by creating a spectacular collection of objects, practices, and ideas, collectively known as cultures. The collection includes the arts, philosophical inquiry, moral systems and religious beliefs, justice, governance, economic institutions, and technology and science.


Language, sociality, knowledge, and reason are the inventors and executors of these complicated processes. But feelings get to motivate them and stay on to check the results… Cultural activity began and remains deeply embedded in feeling. The favorable and unfavorable interplay of feeling and reason must be acknowledged if we are to understand the conflicts and contradictions of the human condition.

Only by understanding the nature and origin of feelings, Damasio notes, can we begin to understand the astonishing array of potentialities which human nature holds — our noblest and basest tendencies, our most generative and most destructive behaviors, and the myriad ways in which our multitudes are in constant interplay and frequent contradiction with one another. Observing that no such understanding can be complete unless it is traced back to the origin of life itself, long predating human beings, he writes:

In the history of life, events did not comply with the conventional notions that we humans have formed for how to build the beautiful instrument I like to call a cultural mind.

Damasio examines the nature of feelings and the origin of cultures through the lens of homeostasis:

Feelings are the mental expressions of homeostasis, while homeostasis, acting under the cover of feeling, is the functional thread that links early life-forms to the extraordinary partnership of bodies and nervous systems. That partnership is responsible for the emergence of conscious, feeling minds that are, in turn, responsible for what is most distinctive about humanity: cultures and civilizations….

Connecting cultures to feeling and homeostasis strengthens their links to nature and deepens the humanization of the cultural process. Feelings and creative cultural minds were assembled by a long process in which genetic selection guided by homeostasis played a prominent role. Connecting cultures to feelings, homeostasis, and genetics counters the growing detachment of cultural ideas, practices, and objects from the process of life.

Every time science has revised the human animal’s place in the order of things — not at the center of the universe, as Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo proved nearly at the cost of their lives; not at the center of “Creation,” as Darwin demonstrated against a formidable tide of dogma — humans have reacted with hostile defensiveness to the perception of their diminished status. Damasio offers a necessary counterpoint to this reflexive tendency as he traces the origin of feelings — a faculty long presumed to be singularly human — to far simpler and older organisms:

Discovering the roots of human cultures in nonhuman biology does not diminish the exceptional status of humans at all. The exceptional status of each human being derives from the unique significance of suffering and flourishing in the context of our remembrances of the past and of the memories we have constructed of the future we anticipate.

Among the curious phenomena Damasio examines is the tendency to revise past experiences in hindsight, amplifying their positive aspects in memory beyond the magnitude of the actual lived experience — a kind of “affectively positive reshaping of remembrances,” to which some people are more susceptible than others. He considers the importance of this phenomenon as it relates to our anticipation of the future, as individuals and as cultures:

What one hopes for and how one faces the life ahead depend on how the past has been lived, not only in objective, factually verifiable terms, but also in the experience or reconstruction of the objective data in one’s remembrances. Recollection is at the mercy of all that makes us unique individuals. The styles of our personalities in numerous aspects have to do with typical cognitive and affective modes, the balance of individual experiences in affective terms, cultural identities, achievements, luck.

How and what we create culturally and how we react to cultural phenomena depend on the tricks of our imperfect memories as manipulated by feelings.

Art by Oliver Jeffers from The Heart and the Bottle, a tender illustrated parable of what happens when we deny our difficult emotions

This world of affect exists as a parallel reality to the physical world through which we move our bodies, and yet it too arises from the physical body and defines the “qualia” at the heart of our conscious experience. In mapping its terrain, Damasio offers a taxonomy of affect that illuminates the crucial difference between emotions and feelings:

The aspect of mind that dominates our existence, or so it seems, concerns the world around us, actual or recalled from memory, with its objects and events, human and not, as represented by myriad images of every sensory stripe, often translated in verbal languages and structured in narratives. And yet, a remarkable yet, there is a parallel mental world that accompanies all those images, often so subtle that it does not demand any attention for itself but occasionally so significant that it alters the course of the…

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