Emotions, feelings, and action programs

Sean Carroll’s latest Mindscape podcast features an interview with neuroscientist Antonio Damasio:

When we talk about the mind, we are constantly talking about consciousness and cognition. Antonio Damasio wants us to talk about our feelings. But it’s not in an effort to be more touchy-feely; Damasio, one of the world’s leading neuroscientists, believes that feelings generated by the body are a crucial part of how we achieve and maintain homeostasis, which in turn is a key driver in understanding who we are. His most recent book, The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures, is an ambitious attempt to trace the role of feelings and our biological impulses in the origin of life, the nature of consciousness, and our flourishing as social, cultural beings.

Listening to Damasio reminded me of his specific use of the word “emotion” and the definitional issues that always arise when trying to discuss emotions, feelings, and affects.  For some people, these words all mean more or less the same thing.  For others they have distinct meanings.

Damasio’s use of the word “emotion” refers not to the conscious feeling, but to the underlying automatic reaction that causes it.  Early in the evolution of central nervous systems, these automatic reactions led directly to action.  But as animals evolved distance senses such as vision, smell, and hearing, these automatic reactions became more a predisposition toward a certain action, one that could be allowed or inhibited by higher reasoning systems.

On the blog, I’ve longed referred to these early automatic reactions as “reflexes” to communicate their non-conscious or pre-conscious nature, although I know use of that specific word has its issues, mostly because I’m conflating spinal cord programs with brainstem ones.  I’ve also seen the phrase “reflex arcs” used.  Damasio, in the interview, calls them “action programs”, which seems like a pretty good name.

The problem is that using the word “emotion” to refer specifically to the action program seems prone to confusion.  The word “emotion” may have originally meant externally caused motion (e-motion), but it seems like in our society it’s become hopelessly entangled with the conscious feeling, the information signals from the action program to our higher faculties.

It’s why I often avoid the word “emotion” now.  When I do use it, it’s generally to refer to the entire stack, from the triggered action program, to the habitual allowing or inhibition of the action, to the feeling that acts as an input to our reasoning faculties, the ones that decide which reflexes or habits to allow and which to inhibit.

“Affect” seems fraught with the same difficulties.  In some cases it refers to the action program, other times to the feeling.  So I use it somewhat in the same manner as “emotion”, although to me the word “affect” has broader applicability.  It seems strange to call pain or hunger an emotion, but calling them an affect feels suitable.

Damasio’s view that emotions evolved to drive an organism to maintain its homeostasis has always made a lot of sense to me.  After all, what else is pain, hunger, or fear but impulses to motivate a creature to maintain that homeostasis, to ensure that its energy levels and other parameters remain within a range of parameters that maximize its chance of survival.

The only impulses that don’t quite seem to fit are those related to reproduction.  It doesn’t seem like reproduction, in and of itself, has much to do with homeostasis.  Indeed, given that males often have to fight for the right to mate, and the burden pregnancy puts on female bodies, it can outright threaten homeostasis in many circumstances.

Here I think we have to back up further and ask why maintaining homeostasis is desirable for an organism, why survival matters.  This brings us back to the selfish gene.  (“Selfish” here being a metaphor for the naturally selected effects of genes that preserve and propagate their pattern.)  An organism is essentially a survival and gene propagation machine.  So, selfish genes lead to homeostasis, which leads to action programs, which cause feelings, so that an animal’s reasoning ability can optimize their chances for survival.

Of course, once an animal has the ability to reason, it can figure out ways to satisfy its feelings in a manner that doesn’t necessarily accomplish the agenda of its genes.  Birth control is the obvious example.

Anyway, I like the sound of “action program”.  Although the term “reflex arc” can work too, signalling their similarities with spinal cord reflexes but also the added complexity, although the word “arc” might throw some people.  Of course, others will see the word “program” as a fighting word.

Ultimately definitions are what society makes them.  Any thoughts on these terms?  Or on alternatives?

23 thoughts on “Emotions, feelings, and action programs

    1. I think we have to be cautious in interpreting animal behavior in terms of human emotions. I definitely think they have emotions, but they’re at a more primal level than the ones we experience. But there’s no doubt they experience anger, fear, and playfulness, among others.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. “So, selfish genes lead to homeostasis, which leads to action programs, which cause feelings, so that an animal’s reasoning ability can optimize their chances for survival.”

    Beautifully summarised.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Good catch! Damasio’s discussion relates to a lot of what we’ve been discussing lately. It also happens to fall neatly into my paradigm.

    ”The word “emotion” may have originally meant externally caused motion (e-motion), but it seems like in our society it’s become hopelessly entangled with the conscious feeling, the information signals from the action program to our higher faculties.”

    I think Damasio spelled it out well. First there is input which generates the emotion, the action plan. The action plan is a set of actions which happen, i.e., the output. When we talk about the feeling of the emotion, we’re talking about the feeling from the results of those actions. The results of those actions become the inputs for “feelings” which we associate with the emotion.

    Regarding homeostasis and reproduction, you’re missing what is being homeostatically controlled, namely sexual satiation. For most people there is a thing known as too much sex. As for birth control, here you have the magic of planning. Most creatures have more than one “terminal goal”, such as maintaining a level of food satiation, sexual satiation, curiosity satiation (bored/over stimulated), physical comfort (hot/cold), pain avoidance, etc. These goals can compete, as when you have the choice to go talk to those potential sexual partners or else get something to eat. But with planning, i.e., the creation of instrumental goals, we can serve more than one goal at a time. (Dinner Date!).


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks James.

      “Regarding homeostasis and reproduction, you’re missing what is being homeostatically controlled, namely sexual satiation. ”

      I don’t know. Satiation of the other desires strikes me as the organism’s state reaching a threshold where additional satisfaction isn’t required to maintain homeostasis. In other words, it’s a tool of homeostasis rather than an endpoint. But I’m not sure how sexual satiation in particular meets up with that.

      On the terminal goals (I actually don’t like that name. I prefer “primal goals”), it’s important to understand that those goals and the action programs are one and the same. We don’t have an action program because we want to attain some goal, from the inside, we just have them. The are the primal goals. They exist because they’re adaptive, we but for us, we have them because we have them.

      But you’re right that there are large numbers of those action programs, and they often conflict. (Actually, now that I’m using it, I’m feeling more drawn back to my usual word, “reflex”. ) I think one of the prime purposes of our planning facilities is to break the ties between all those reflexes, to decide in any particular situation which should be allowed and which inhibited.

      I’m on board with the rest of your comment.


      1. ”… it’s important to understand that those goals and the action programs are one and the same. We don’t have an action program because we want to attain some goal, from the inside, we just have them. The are the primal goals.“

        I think this is not correct. The goal belongs to the thing that designed the mechanism. The goal of regulating the temperature belongs (is originally associated) to the person who designed the thermostat. The goal is not part of the thermostat, and is certainly not the action programs. The action programs are how the goal is achieved, potentially. As to the goal’s relation to the thermostat, the goal explains why the thermostat was created (final cause).



      2. On homeostasis, I’m not sure you are characterizing it correctly. A system is homeostatic if it tends to direct some measurable physical state toward a specific “desired” state. Measured deviations from the desired state tend to induces changes in the direction of the desired state. Satiation is essentially the achievement of the desired state. I think you said something like this, but then you said satiation was a tool, which doesn’t make sense.

        I guess my point is: I will wager that, just like there is a physiologically measurable value that determines the state of hunger (blood sugar? Interoception from the gut?), and just as there is such for respiration (blood oxygen?), there will be one that affects, even if only subtly, sexual desire.



        1. On goals, remember the different types we discussed on another thread? I’ll describe them again, although a bit differently this time:
          1. The programmer’s goals.
          2. The programmed goals.
          3. Intermediate goals in service of 2.

          1 comes from outside of the system. The system can come up with 3 that will meet the demands of 2 without meeting the demands of 1, even though the reason 2 exists is to meet 1. Obviously in the case of organic systems, “the programmer” is evolution in a teleonomic sense.

          On homeostasis and sexual desire, that still seems a bit strained to me, too much of a back flip to work it into the homeostasis paradigm. And per my conversation with ontologicalrealist, I forgot about altruistic behavior, which also seems like a poor fit for homeostasis. However, since altruism arises from kin altruism, it’s all a good fit for the selfish gene paradigm.


  3. “Action programs” is a nice name because it isn’t already owned by existing connotations, and is descriptive, at least partly. But more impressive is the overall view that Damasio brings, which I find refreshing and largely correct. It’s also very similar to yours. I like his distinction between interoception and exteroception and its relation to feelings, consciousness and “hard” problems.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m obligated to point out that Damasio’s writings are actually part of what formed my view. Indeed, I think his writing is a big influence with a lot of the other neuroscientists I’ve read.


  4. SelfAwarePatterns,

    You wrote, ” An organism is essentially a survival and gene propagation machine. ”

    I am curious to know that why do soldiers some times go on suicidal missions? Or why do some people commit suicide?

    If a human is a machine which is programmed to choose his own survival as the highest value then why do some people seek a purpose or meaning to life? Where do such needs arise from?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a complex question. Consider what I said in the post. Our action programs evolved because they’re adaptive in promoting our survival and procreation. However, once they exist, they exist. We live to satisfy those action programs, not to satisfy the reason they evolved. This is a crucial distinction.

      There’s a concept in evolutionary theory called “kin selection”. Essentially, we’re predisposed to help our relatives. But here’s the thing. We don’t have any kind of magical detector to detect who has similar genes. The only way we have to recognize our kin is their proximity to us and the time we spend with them. These mechanisms worked well from evolution’s perspective (speaking metaphorically) when we lived in small hunter gatherer bands.

      But in modern societies, it’s possible for those mechanisms to be hijacked. There’s a reason soldiers often talk about being in a “band of brothers”. A lot of military indoctrination is designed to hijack the intuitions we use to detect our kin and redirect it to the unit. And that can cause soldiers to do things that, in our original ecological niche, we would have only done for actual kin.

      And of course, if things are going right, the action programs may not fire appropriately. Like I said, there’s a disconnect between the programs themselves and the reason they exist. That relation is obvious when you consider typical behavior. But we shouldn’t expect it to cover the behavior of every human everywhere, particularly ones where things aren’t working completely right.

      As to seeking a purpose or meaning for life, I don’t know the full answer. I’m not sure anyone can authoritatively answer that. But again, I suspect it has to do with the mismatch between the ancient lifestyles that shaped our instincts and the modern world. It may just be a consequence of being an animal that evolution made too smart, to the extent we’re aware of our own mortality, and how fleeting happiness can be.

      As I said, a complex question, but hopefully this explains how the evolutionary view isn’t contradicted by altruism.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I need to spend more time reading Damasio.

    Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle thought in terms of two instincts: Eros and Thanatos., Life and Death. Eros, of course, was associated with pleasure, reproduction, but also included thirst and hunger. Thanatos was associated with a drive towards homeostasis, towards releasing bound energy and returning to equilibrium- a drive towards the ultimate homeostasis death.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have to credit Damasio with shaking me out of some simplistic ideas on how the mind and brain work. Unfortunately I find him a tedious read. He often takes a long time to get to the point. I’ve had his latest book in my Kindle account for a year or so now waiting for a time when I can work up the effort for it. I did find his book ‘Self Comes to Mind’ to be worth it.

      Can’t say I’ve ever read Freud directly.


    1. A lot of people have that reaction. I find science endlessly fascinating, particularly the science of the mind, but I’ll admit it isn’t always uplifting or comforting. All I can say is it gets easier with time, at least it did for me, and gives way to an awe and wonder at the workings of nature.


  6. I like what you’ve said here. I agree with how you defined emotions. I wonder if you are familiar with the work on emotions by Lisa Feldman Barrett. She’s a neuroscientist and I think she has this sort revolutionary way to view emotions that at least seems to be similar to the way you’ve discussed it here. I am not sure if this TED talk gives the full story, https://www.ted.com/talks/lisa_feldman_barrett_you_aren_t_at_the_mercy_of_your_emotions_your_brain_creates_them?language=en

    but when I listened to her in a podcast she talked about emotions in the same way that we might talk about color. Like for maybe you and me, red is just red, and there are some various shades of red which we wouldn’t bother differentiating, and maybe we might not even see the difference. But if you were in fashion, slight differences in shades of red might be important, and you might even have names for them. She says it’s the same for emotion, that different cultures have higher nuance for some emotions and less for others, and may have words to express those nuanced versions of sad, or happy. But all of it of course is just labels, but because you’ve been socialized to experienced say sadness in 10 different contexts and have words for them you might have different physiological reactions. I’m probably not explaining it well, but her work is very interesting.

    You also mentioned that birth control as an obvious example of something that doesn’t fit the agenda of our genes, but I guess it’s not obvious to me that is the case. If we were having litters of 100 children or something I could see birth control as being very counter to our genes agenda, but we are a social species, with relatively helpless children until the age of 2. It seems that part of reproduction is making decisions on whether the conditions are suitable for reproduction. Is it a good food year? How mobile is our tribe? Anthropological studies I’ve read said the typical spacing of children between children in hunter gatherer tribes was 4 years, because at 4, the child could keep up with a tribe that was nomadic and often on the move. Birth control, either through infanticide, or abstinence was likely practiced to prevent the tribe from growing too large, or draining limited resources that could impact the viability of the mother or the child.

    I also do think that emotions certainly play a role in survival as it pertains to reproduction. The emotions associated with bonding do mean that there is someone who can directly support you through your pregnancy and can help you raise a child. Perhaps I misunderstood what you are saying. Despite the great physical cost to child bearing and rearing, emotions play a large role in foster love and care of the child and of each other.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Swarn!

      I actually am familiar with Lisa Feldmann Barrett’s views. I did a post a couple of years ago comparing her view with Jaak Panksepp’s. I find a lot to agree with in her theory, although I think at times she’s a bit too absolutist in the sharp distinction she draws between affects and emotions. She sees animals as having affects, but not emotions. But her concept of affect appears to be closer to the action program / reflex arc than the feeling. Anyway, here’s the post: https://selfawarepatterns.com/2017/08/12/the-layers-of-emotion-creation/

      Interesting points on birth control. I can see your point. And you anticipated my objection about how early hunter gatherers ensured that four year gap, by essentially killing unwanted newborns. But if we’re going to consider such behavior as fulfilling the genetic agenda, is there any behavior, aside from outright insanity, that can’t be included?

      Definitely emotions play a large role in child rearing. CARE is one of Panksepp’s seven primary emotions. (Not that I entirely agree with Panksepp either. He attributes consciousness to lower level brain structures, an attribution I find dubious.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. But if we’re going to consider such behavior as fulfilling the genetic agenda, is there any behavior, aside from outright insanity, that can’t be included?

        Sorry for the late response, but I wanted to think about this question a bit more, because it is a good one. I should say that I don’t see infantacide itself as an evolved behavior, but I would say that there is an evolved emotional response to a worry of not being able to effectively care for your child. I don’t think killing unwanted newborns is ever easy because of the strong biological response we have to care for our children but I also think that as a social species we evolved seeing death, starvation, and suffering fairly regularly and so at least some of the time we might make hard decisions in the short term for long term benefit. And we see this behavior in many animal species as well. Other animals will abandon, or sometimes even kill newborns that simply aren’t genetically fit for survival. Perhaps that’s a testament to us as a species to invent birth control so as to avoid having to make such hard decisions all the time. I guess my point is that there are also costs to unabated reproduction and that many species take extreme measures to supporting new life that will make survival difficult for the parent, or when that offspring has a much lower chance of survival. This seems like a biological drive at some level.


        1. That reminds me of something I read a while back, that many hunter-gatherer societies have a woman, when she’s about to give birth, go off alone for the actual birthing. If the child turns out to be malformed or sickly, the society expects her to not return with it, although since she would have to rear it, her decisions are never second guessed. So she might well abandon it if she’s still having to carry her other youngest around.

          So I do agree that deciding how much investment a particular offspring is worth is a real thing. Often it’s a matter of resources, with the weakest runt of a litter usually not surviving simply because it doesn’t have the vigor or strength to find a place sucking the mother’s milk or partaking of whatever food has been brought back.

          Liked by 1 person

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