Home

Feeling Feelings: Background Feelings (Langer, Stern and Damasio)

May 10, 2007


We know that we feel an emotion by sensing something happening in our organism (Damasio 1999:279). When the sense of the feeling self is created in our minds through consciousness, then we can know that we feel an emotion. Our proto-self interprets activity patterns of changes to our organism and represents them as knowable patterns necessary for our core consciousness. Mental images arise from neural patterns representing biological changes in our body and brain (1999:280). Without this second level representation into knowable emotions these neural patterns would be simply noise.

Changes related to the body and cognitive states are related to different mechanisms in different sites of the brain although they are both constituted by a collection of neural patterns in a number of brain circuits and involve changes in the body’s chemical profile (1999:281).

Damasio summarizes this feeling an emotion,

[I] s the representation of that transient change in organism state in terms of neural patterns and ensuing images. When those images are accompanied, one instant later, by a sense of self in the act of knowing, and when they are enhanced, they become conscious. They are, in the true sense, feelings of feelings (Damasio 1999:282).

Damasio argues that this cognitive state, when we know we are feeling our emotions, allows us to plan specific, nonstereotyped responses to the emotive bodily state — to choose to pay attention or not to the biochemical changes in our organism. Damasio claims then that this endowment of consciousness of the knowing subject, provides a marked advantage in evolutionary terms over those creatures who have emotions but lack subjective knowledge and therefore the incentive or ability to solve complex problems of survival (1999:284-5).

Damasio distinguishes between core consciousness and extended consciousness. Core consciousness is only slightly above “other foundational capacities, such as action, emotion, and sensory representation, which we share with several nonhuman species (1999:311).” Consciousness begins with a ‘vague, elusive and yet unmistakable’ feeling, a mental image ‘like some kind of pattern built with nonverbal vocabulary or signs of body states.’ (1999:312). The transient core self, which emerges in core consciousness is ‘ceaselessly re-created for each and every object with which the brain interacts’ (1999:17).

Extended consciousness at its most complex and elaborate level provides the key to the examined life (Damasio 1999:5). I interpret this as meaning that extended consciousness allows us to nurture ethical relationships of mutual respect between ourselves and the other-I. The more traditional sense of self “linked to a notion of identity and corresponds to a nontransient collection of unique facts and ways of being which characterizes a person” is what Damasio calls the autobiographical self. The autobiographical self depends on systematized memory and organized recording of the organism’s unique biography.

The recognizable universal Darwinian core emotions are fear, anger, disgust, surprise and happiness. Damasio suggests that most of the time we do not experience these emotions or the secondary or social emotions but we do experience low-grade background feelings. Background emotions such as ‘fatigue, energy, excitement, wellness, sickness, tension, relaxation, surging, dragging, stability, instability, balance, imbalance, harmony and discord (1999: 286) are intimately linked to consciousness, moods, drives and motivations. Core emotions can be experienced as a burst pattern with a rapid onset-intensity-release pattern or a wavelike pattern. Sadness in some forms and background emotions are wavelike patterns. A particular background emotion that is fairly frequent or sustained over a long period of time is better described as a mood not simply a background emotion (1999:341). Damasio acknowledges resonance between his notion of background feelings and developmental psychologist Daniel Stern’s concept of vitality affects and the work of Susanne Langer.

Damasio uses the term image to refer to a mental image as synonym for mental pattern. He distinguishes between this mental pattern or mental image (as in feeling states) and the neural pattern or map of the processing of neural activities as studied in current neuroscience. Damasio’s notion of mental images refers to unconscious images and conscious images that are only accessible through qualia or first-person perspective. Consciousness is an entirely private, first-person phenomenon which occurs as part of the mind (1999:12). Neurologists are able to access neural patterns and maps through advanced technologies so that most individuals will never see this image of their own neural architecture (1999:318). The brain is constantly constructing mental images or mental patterns with a structure composed of ‘visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory and somatosensory modalities’. So Damasio’s images are in no way limited to visual pictures.

For Damasio, the notion of the mind is as a process of continual flow of mental images that become conscious and may be logically interrelated. He uses the notion of thought to describe this flow of mental images that moves forward in time concurrently, convergent or divergent (1999:318).

He describes the limitations of our minds to attend to all the mental images constructed by our brains. He offers the metaphor of a multiple layered subterranean underneath the conscious mind of unconscious mental image, those that our minds did not attend to, a layer of neural patterns and relationships among neural patterns which subtend all conscious and unconscious mental images and a layer of neural machinery which holds records of neural patterns in memory (1999:319).

In spite of his status as leader of thought in consciousness studies, Damasio adopts a humble stance. He reminds us that as science helps us understand consciousness better and ravel some of the mysteries of the mind, there is still enough awe at nature to keep us modest for the foreseeable future (1999:28). It is not through neuroscience, psychology or biology that we will explain the origin of the universe or the meaning of life.

BibliographyDamasio, Antonio R. Descartes’ Error.

Damasio, Antonio R. 1999. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. New York: Harcourt.

Langer, Susanne. 1942. Philosophy in a New Key: a Study in the Symbolism of Reasons, Rite and Art. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Stern, Daniel. 1985. The Interpersonal World of the Infant: a View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology. New York: Basic Books.

2 Responses to “Feeling Feelings: Background Feelings (Langer, Stern and Damasio)”

  1. Dr. Mezmer Says:

    Perhaps Damasio’s work is not novel after all!

    Neal Miller’s Somatic Marker

    In 1935, the psychologist and learning theorist Neal Miller conducted the following experiment.

    To human subjects he presented in unpredictable order the symbols T (followed by electric shock) and 4 (not followed by shock). The shock was followed by a large galvanic response (GSR) that was soon conditioned not only by seeing the symbol T, but by anticipating it. From this and subsequent experiments Miller concluded that organisms should “behave ‘foresightfully’ because fear (i.e. anxiety), would be mediated by cues from a distinctive anticipatory goal response.” Miller further concluded that the ‘learned drive’ of fear or anxiety, as marked by the GSR, obeys the same laws as do overt responses”.

    In other words anticipatory somatic changes mediate not choice, but avoidance, and may be described fully by learning principles.

    Compare this experiment to the IGT experiment, where an individual again is confronted with a succession of symbols (in this case, markings on a card), and with unpredictable aversive consequences and similar changes in an equivalent somatic measure, the SCR. In this case the unpredicted aversive consequences were large negative card values occurring from time to time. If it is assumed that unexpected ‘bad information’ is painful as well, then both experiments assume equivalence.

    The difference between both experiments is not in their structure, which are more or less equivalent, but rather in the interpretation of the role of the galvanic skin response as a dependent measure. Specifically, the GSR for the Miller experiment correlated with a subjective response that was interpreted as anxiety or fear. For Damasio, the subjective response to arousal as marked by the SCR was subtler, or a mildly or non aversive ‘gut feeling’. In other words, if one assumes that the level of arousal was higher for Miller’s subjects than Damasio’s, the level of arousal could lead to distinctly different interpretations as to the role of arousal. Thus, it is easy to see how Miller assumed that tension based arousal (or anxiety) mediated avoidance, and why Damasio assumed that arousal mediated choice. In other words, if turning a bad card in the IGT experiment signified not a loss of play money but a loss of real money or a painful shock, then avoidance and not choice would have been a more likely interpretation.

    So we are left with the original question: what is the role of autonomic arousal? If arousal is dependent upon learning, as both Miller and Damasio hold, what is its function: avoidance, choice, or some mixture of the two that is dependent upon the level of arousal?

    One way to ascertain the role of avoidance is to simply examine whether elevated autonomic arousal occurs under response contingencies that either eliminate the ability to avoid or obviate the need to avoid. If results under a response contingency are all bad and unavoidable, then we have Seligman’s learned helplessness, and if all results are good and thus create no need to avoid, then we have Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘flow’ response. Both are marked by low autonomic arousal as marked by a reduction in SCR and a corresponding lack of reported tension, anxiety, or fear. Thus it may be construed that avoidance is an essential function of autonomic arousal. This of course does not directly challenge Damasio’s position, but raises the avoidance hypothesis front and center as an alternative explanation for his findings.

    Source:

    Miller, N. E. (1971) Selected Papers, Atherton, Chicago

    pp-123-171


  2. For more of this see Dr. Mesmer’s bad psychology page


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: