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?