The Human Condition

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The Feeling of What Happens

Antonio Damasio

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He observes the difference between having an emotion, the feeling the emotion causes, and being aware of the emotion. I note that being aware of the emotion is evidently not very important for what emotions do, as people are often unaware of emotions. Emotions can influence our behavior even if we are unaware of them.

Finished reading “The Feeling of What Happens”. Definitely interesting, although not all that good a book due to a lot of time repeating the same ideas in an overly abstract way without any support. His main concern is with what he calls “Core Consciousness”, which is not the verbal storyteller that Dennet and I have been thinking of. It is more the sense of situational awareness of being in a situation (perhaps from memory) and sensing the implications of the situation for self, and some possible responses.

Certainly from Dennet (and others), a crucial function of the brain is detect potential dangerous interactions with the environment so that they can be avoided.

The most interesting part of this is how it ties in with emotions. He believes the nonintuitive idea that a situation generates an unconscious emotional response in the body and on brain regulatory functions such as alertness, and then we unconsciously glean the feeling of the emotion from observing these effects on our internal self-model, which he calls the “proto-self”. Forms of this idea are evidently quite old, going back to the beginnings of psychology and William James, and we also read something else that advocated the same idea. Damasio calls this the “Somatic marker hypothesis” (which also seems to include the idea that our feelings unconsciously bias our decisions, and that effective decision making depends on this.)

All this seems very consistent with evidence about how emotions and decision-making actually work (as opposed to how philosophers want them to work.) It has been amply shown experimentally that our decisions are unconsciously biased. Also, though I'm not sure to what degree it may be experimentally shown, it is clear that “body work” interventions strongly affect feelings. As well as the various therapeutic traditions, there are also the experiments about how forcing a smile, or even mechanically lifting the corners of the mouth with a pencil improves mood. Damasio also cites various medical evidence, especially about how depriving body feedback from spinal injury or “locked-in” syndrome results in apparent reduction in emotional intensity.

Although clearly an “inefficient” design (as one critic complained), I note that this is exactly the sort of solution we would expect evolution to come up with. Preserving the modularity of existing systems by layering function on top.

This is also very much along the lines of the “smart subconscious” view, though it seems that perhaps Damasio is overplaying the conscious aspects by preferring to think of Brigadoon-like passive memory and subconscious processing as consciousness-like narratives that we just don't happen to attend to.

Core consciousness is “not being unconscious”, and seems to be a evolutionarily fairly old process that many animals share “Extended consciousness” elaborates this by biographical knowledge and ability hold various “images” in mind, which seems to be present in some of your smarter animals. Humans add an involuntary verbal narrative. He argues that consciousness is not primarily verbal, which is clearly true of his consciousness. Core consciousness is tightly integrated with emotion, body sense, and feeling.

Two interesting points about the actual architecture of the brain that seem fairly well substantiated are that there are several centers of emotion for different emotions (overlapping with the centers for consciousness and body model) which receive processed sensory information and send signals out to the viscera, facial muscles, etc. Also, it seems that memory in the form of sensory images is distributed in the processing areas for that sense. Damage to vision processing not only affects your ability to process vision, e.g. to recognize faces, but also to recall faces.

So, I find the somatic marker hypothesis compelling, and also believe that he is clearly right about there being a nonverbal process of sensory interpretation w.r.t. The body, and that this is tied to emotion, and that it can operate on memory as well. I want to integrate this with the verbal storyteller/explainer. They clearly are compatible, but I'd like a better sense of how they fit together.

I guess one issue is that he sees the verbal process as a translation of the non-verbal consciousness, while at the same time notes that the storyteller often makes stuff up. Where does this stuff come from? I think that the basic issue is that though Damasio refers to the nonverbal consciousness as a “narrative”, it doesn't get much more complex than “something coming at me, move!” or with memory, “I'm hungry, how about that nice berry patch I went to yesterday, which way is that?” The thing is that the nonverbal layer of consciousness has feelings, judgments and salient memories thrown up in it, and there is no explanation why.

This nonverbal layer is clearly important for providing an arena for intuitive judgments and emotional biases to take place. However, the verbalization process is clearly also biased in verbal emotional cues, word choice, etc. Also, in storytelling and argument, it often seems that the words just “pop up” without any preliminary imaging, and the words that pop up tend to be ones that advance the story.

There seems to be more of a conscious nonverbal process when working with sensory images, spatial information, and stuff related to action. But for examples like the car speeding toward you, it seems like your consciousness is just watching the implementation of whatever fight-or-flight response that you unconsciously arrived at, at least for the first turn and dash. This kind of real-time motor/spatial problem solving (local path planning) is something that you normally just set a goal and let it run, monitoring it to see if it seems to be working, or if we need to change the goal.

With the somatic marker theory, it's interesting that consciousness seems to be in the same situation as the storyteller, in that it is trying to explain something that the brain has already done for us. I'm not sure how different core consciousness is seeming from just sensory attention. It seems that what he feels is the most important difference is the “sense of self”, consciousness as a feeling, and the feeling of knowing. The sense that this is first person, and happening to me rather than someone else. All this doesn't make much sense to me. What the hell is the feeling of knowing? And of course it's happening from my perspective, as that's both far easier and far more useful than perceiving from someone else's perspective.

But to say that it's just attention begs the question of “who” is doing to attending. Clearly each sense's processing has ability to detect salient features and bring them to attention, and this can be guided by consciousness. Clearly one of the first kinds of interpretation that any animal is going to do is to evaluate the sense impression for any imminent effects on “me.”

I guess you could say that the role of core consciousness is to orchestrate attention to personally relevant subjects, to make this information available for unconscious (emotional) analysis, and to associate sensed objects or potential occurrences with feeling labels for other conscious examination.

I feel like I'm being sucked down into the toilet of thinking-about-consciousness. I think that there is something to the idea that the evolutionary purpose and best function of verbalization is explanation and persuasion, and not balanced rational analysis, so it isn't surprising that we get into trouble when we make a decision by conducting an internal debate (confirmation bias, etc.) I also have a hunch that it's valuable to learn what we know about the architecture of the brain. I also think that decisions are generally made (and emotions generated) by neural oracles using an opaque fuzzy process. I think that consciousness is perhaps mainly about the control of attention, chains of thought, planning and execution. The sequential stuff. One of the more sophisticated levels of thought is the process of herding the chains of thought toward a particular goal. That is, we need to guide the search in the conceptual space.

What does anyone even mean when they say that they make a conscious decision? Sure you're conscious of exploring some ideas, recalling some evidence, then stopping (at time t) and making a decision. But in what sense is the decision itself conscious? It just seemed right. I guess what it means to say that a decision was “unconsciously biased” is that the decision took into consideration factors that were not part of the conscious foreplay. That is, there's a theory of consciousness that says that if you consider some stuff, then make a decision, that the decision was based only on the stuff you considered. But clearly that's not the way that it works, though there is some conscious biasing of the decision because the things you considered are more salient and will be given more weight. That is, by following some chains of thought we activated some stuff that helps support the decision-making, so it was valuable. Consciousness is valuable as an aid to decision-making because it allows us to explore temporal or conceptual sequences.

Especially if we're going to have to justify the decision we'll tend to verbalize during the decision-making process. Then we tend to cut off the exploration when we find the “right rationalization”, that is, we find an argument that seems sufficiently compelling and seems consistent with our understanding. This does tend to lend a spurious air of certainty to the conclusion.