The Feeling of What Happens:  Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness

Harcourt Brace & Company


Antonio R. Damasio


chapter nine feeling feelings


“…emotions cannot be known to the subject having them before there is consciousness. (Damasio/FWH/279)”


“We know that we have an emotion when the sense of a feeling self is created in our minds.  Until there is the sense of a feeling self, in both evolutionary terms as well as in a developing individual, there exist well-orchestrated responses, which constitute an emotion, and ensuring brain representations, which constitute a feeling.  But we only know that we feel an emotion when we sense that emotion is sensed as happing in our organism.  (Damasio/FWH/279)”

This is such an important – and up to now – such a missing piece of my “story.”  I had the terrible experiences, but I did not have the sense of a feeling self!!!!

When early caregiving happens correctly, the interactions the infant is having with its early caregivers instruct the forming brain patterns in such a way that this “feeling self” naturally grows, evolves and develops.

In my case, with the terrible experiences I had with my mother, I did not develop a “feeling self.”

Plain and simple!

An infant has to know that what it is feeling is ITS OWN feeling and not somebody else’s!


“The sense of “happening in the organism” comes from representing the proto-self and its changes in second-order structures.  The sense of the “emotion as object” comes from representing, in structures  (Damasio/FWH/279) subserving second-order representations, the activity pattern in the induction sites of emotion. (Damasio/FWH/280)”

“Following what was outlined for other objects, I propose that:  (1) the inaugural proto-self is represented at second-order level; (2) the “object” that is about to change the proto-self (the neural-activity pattern in emotion-induction sites) is represented at second-order level; (3) the ensuing changes in proto-self (enacted by “body loop” or “as if body loop” mechanisms) are also represented at second-order level.  (Damasio/FWH/280)”

“Feeling an emotion is a simple matter.  It consists of having mental images arising from the neural patterns which represent the changes in body and brain that make up an emotion.  But knowing that we have that feeling, “feeling” that feeling, occurs only after we build the second-order representations necessary for core consciousness.  As previously discussed, they are representations of the relationship between the organism and the object (which in this case is an emotion), and of the causal effect of that object on the organism.  (Damasio/FWH/280)”

“The process that I am outlining is precisely the same we discussed for an external object, but it is difficult to envision when the object in question is an emotion, because emotion occurs within the organism, rather than outside of it.  (Damasio/FWH/280)”

“The process can only be understood when we keep in mind some of the notions introduced in the chapters on emotion (chapter 2) and on the organism (chapter 5), namely:  (1) that there are several brain sites whose activity pattern induces the cortege of actions that become an emotion, and (2) that the activity pattern can be represented within second-order brain structures.  Examples of emotion induction sites include nuclei in the hypothalamus, brain stem, basal forebrain, amygdala, and ventromedial prefrontal cortices.  Examples of second-order structures include thalamus and cingulate cortices.  (Damasio/FWH/280)”  [cc to brain parts emotion file]

“It may sound strange, at first, that feelings of emotion – which are steeped in the representation of body states, only come to be known after other representations of body state have been integrated to give rise to a proto-self.  And it sounds strange, for certain, that the means to know a feeling is another feeling.  The situation becomes understandable, however, when we realize that the proto-self, feelings of (Damasio/FWH/280) emotion, and the feelings of knowing feelings emerged at different points in evolution and to this day emerge at different stages of individual development.  Proto-self precedes basic feeling and both precede the feeling of knowing that constitutes core consciousness.  (Damasio/FWH/281)”


  1. The “as if” mechanisms are not only important for emotion and feeling, but also for a class of cognitive processes one might designate as “internal stimulation.” 2 {ch 9]   (Damasio/FWH/281)”

“The changes related to cognitive state are generated when the process of emotion leads to the secretion of certain chemical substances in nuclei of the basal forebrain, hypothalamus, and brain stem, and to the subsequent delivery of those substances to several other brain regions.  When these nuclei release neuromodulators in the cerebral cortex, thalamus, and basal ganglia, they cause a host of (Damasio/FWH/281) significant alterations of brain function.  The most important alterations I envision include (1) the induction of particular behaviors (such as bonding and nurturing, playing and exploring); (2) a change in the ongoing processing of body states (as an example, body signals may be filtered or allowed to pass, selectively inhibited or enhanced, and their pleasant or unpleasant quality altered); and (3) a change in the mode of cognitive processing (an example of the latter, in relation to auditory or visual images, would be a change from a slow to a fast rate of image production or a change from sharply focused to vaguely focused images, a change which is an integral part of emotions as disparate as those of sadness or elation).  (Damasio/FWH/282)”

“…it is possible…that the third kind of change – the change in the mode of cognitive processing – is only made conscious in humans because it requires an especially high-level representation of neural events:  the sort of metarepresentation of aspects of brain processing that only prefrontal cortices are likely to support.  (Damasio/FWH/282)”

“In short, emotional states are defined by myriad changes in the body’s chemical profile; by changes in the state of viscera; and by changes in the degree of contraction of varied striated muscles of the face, throat, trunk, and limbs.  But they are also defined by changes in the collection of neural structures which cause those changes to occur in the first place and which also cause other significant changes in the state of several neural circuits within the brain itself.  (Damasio/FWH/282)”

To the simple definition of emotion as a specifically caused transient change of the organism state corresponds a simple definition for feeling an emotion:  It is 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/FWH/282)”

“There is nothing vague, elusive, or nonspecific about emotional responses, and there is nothing vague, elusive, or nonspecific about the representations which can become feelings of emotions.  The substrate (Damasio/FWH/282) for emotional feelings is a very concrete set of neural patterns in maps of selected structures.  (Damasio/FWH/283)”



“…the complete course of events, from emotion to feeling to feeling of feeling, may be partitioned along five steps, the first three of which were outlined in the chapter on emotion.

[] “1.  Engagement of the organism by an inducer of emotion, for instance, a particular object processed visually, r3esulting in visual representations of the object.  The object may be made conscious or not, and may be recognized or note, because neither consciousness of the object nor recognition of the object are necessary for the continuation of the cycle.  (Damasio/FWH/283)”

[] 2.  Signals consequent to the processing of the image of the object activate neural sites that are preset to respond to the particular class of inducer to which the object belongs (emotion-induction sites).

[] 3.  The emotion-induction sites trigger a number of responses toward the body and toward other brain sites, and unleash the full range of body and brain responses that constitute emotion.

[] 4.  First-order neural maps in both subcortical and cortical regions represent changes in body state, regardless of whether they were achieved via “body loop,” “as if body loop,” or combined mechanisms.  Feelings emerge.

[] 5.  The pattern of neural activity at the emotion-induction sites is mapped in second-order neural structures.  The proto-self is altered because of these events.  The changes in proto-self are also mapped in second-order neural structures.  An account of the foregoing events, depicting a relationship between the “emotion object” (the activity at the emotion-induction sites) and the proto-self, is thus organized in second-order structures.  (Damasio/FWH/283)”

“This perspective on emotion, feeling, and knowing is unorthodox.  First, I am suggesting that there is no central feeling state before the respective emotion occurs, that expression (emotion) precedes feeling.  (Damasio/FWH/283)  Second, I am suggesting that “having a feeling” is not the same as “knowing a feeling,” that reflection on feeling is yet another step up.  Overall, this curious situation reminds me of E.M. Forster’s words:  “How can I know what I think before I say it?”  (Damasio/FWH/284)”

“The inescapable and remarkable fact about these three phenomena – emotion, feeling, consciousness – is their body relatedness.  We begin with an organism made up of body proper and brain, equipped with certain forms of brain response to certain stimuli and with the ability to represent the internal states caused by reacting to stimuli and engaging repertoires of preset response.  As the representations of the body grow in complexity and coordination, they come to constitute an integrated representation of the organism, a proto-self.  Once that happens, it becomes possible to engender representations of the proto-self as it is affected by interactions with a given environment.  It is only then that consciousness begins, and only thereafter that an organism that is responding beautifully to its environment begins to discover that it is responding beautifully to its environment.  But all of these processes – emotion, feeling, and consciousness – depend for their execution on representations of the organism.  Their shared essence is the body.  (Damasio/FWH/284)”



Feelings signal results of the emotion life regulation and survival promotion mechanism

“It might be argued that emotions without feelings would be a sufficient mechanism to regulate life and promote survival.  It might be argued that signaling the results of that regulatory mechanism would hardly be necessary for survival.  But that is simply not the case.  (Damasio/FWH/284)”

“Having feelings is of extraordinary value in the orchestration of survival.  Emotions are useful in themselves, but the process of feeling begins to alert the organism to the problem that emotion has begun to solve.  The simple process of feeling begins to give the organism incentive to heed the results of emotion (suffering begins with feelings, although it is enhanced b knowing, and the same can be said for joy).  The availability of feeling is also the stepping stone for the next develop- (Damasio/FWH/284) ment – the feeling of knowing that we have feelings.  In turn, knowing is the stepping stone for the process of planning specific and nonstereotyped responses which can either complement an emotion or guarantee that the immediate gains brought by emotion can be maintained over time, or both.  In other words, “feeling” feelings extends the reach of emotions by facilitating the planning of novel and customized forms of adaptive response.  (Damasio/FWH/285)”

In my case there was no hope.  Nothing I did affected anything directly in my environment from birth.  I could not PLAN a response.  Not even the “stereotypical” responses that I had at my disposal did any good.  There were no gains.  There was no hope of maintaining them over time, because they did not exist.

I was deprived of this level of being human.

“Now consider this:  Knowing a feeling requires a knower subject.  In looking for a good reason for the endurance of consciousness in evolution, one might do worse than say that consciousness endured because organisms so endowed could “feel” their feelings.  I am suggesting that the mechanisms which permit consciousness may have prevailed because it was useful for organisms to know of their emotions.  And as consciousness prevailed as a biological trait, it became applicable not just to the emotions but to the many stimuli which brought them into action.  Eventually consciousness became applicable to the entire range of possible sensory events.  (Damasio/FWH/285)”



“…core types of emotion studied by Darwin.  Fear, anger, sadness, disgust, surprise, and happiness have been found to be universal emotions in terms of their facial expression and recognizability….the feelings that are most often considered are those which constitute the conscious readout of those major emotions.  ….we continuously have emotional feelings although those feelings are not necessarily part of the set of six “universal feelings” that hail from the six universal emotions.  Most of the time we do not experience any of the six emotions, which is certainly a blessing given that four of them are unpleasant.  Nor do we experience any of the so-called secondary social emotions, a good (Damasio/FWH/285) thing, too, since they hardly fare any better in terms of pleasantness.  But we do experience other kinds of emotion, sometimes low grade, sometimes quite intense, and we do sense the general physical tone of our being.  (Damasio/FWH/286)”

“I have called the readout of this background perturbation “background feelings,” a term I first used in Descartes’ Error, because these feelings are not in the foreground of our mind.  Sometimes we become keenly aware of them and can attend to them specifically.  Sometimes we do not and attend, instead, to other mental contents.  In one way or another, however, background feelings help define our mental state and color our lives.  Background feelings arise from background emotions and these emotions, although more internally than externally directed, are observable to others in myriad ways:  body postures, the speed and design of our movements, and even the tone of our voices and the prosody in our speech as we communicate thoughts that may have little to do with the background emotion.  For this reason, I believe it is important to broaden our notion of the source of feelings.  (Damasio/FWH/286)”

Prominent background feelings includefatigue; energy; excitement; wellness; sickness; tension; relaxation; surging; dragging; stability; instability; balance; imbalance; harmony; discord. (Damasio/FWH/286)”

These could be put on one of those circumplex arrangements except for excitement, which seems like it would stand across from boredom..

Why does he not include anxiety here?  I would include foreboding as mine.  Does he consider these components of fear?

“The relation between background feelings and drives and motivations is intimate:  drives express themselves directly in background emotions and we eventually become aware of their existence by means of background feelings.  The relation between background feelings and moods is also close.  Moods are made up of modulated and sustained background feelings as well as modulated and sustained feelings of primary emotions – sadness, in the case of depression.  Finally, the relation between background feelings and consciousness is just as close:  background feelings and core consciousness are so closely tied that they are not easily separable.  (Damasio/FWH/286)”

“It is probably correct to say that background feelings are a faithful index of momentary parameters of inner organism state.  The core ingredients of that index are (1) the temporal and spatial shape of the (Damasio/FWH/286) operations of the smooth musculature in blood vessels and varied organs, and of the striated muscle of heart and chest; (2) the chemical profile of the milieu close to all those muscle fibers; and (3) the presence or absence of a chemical profile signifying either a threat to the integrity of living tissues or conditions of optimal homeostasis. 3 [ch 9]  (Damasio/FWH/287)”

I would think PTSD figures here.

“Thus, even a phenomenon as simple as background feelings depends on many levels of representation.  For instance, some background feelings that have to do with internal milieu and viscera must depend on signals occurring as early as the substantia gelatinosa and intermediate zone of each segment of the spinal cord, and the pars caudalis of the trigeminal nerve nucleus.  (Damasio/FWH/287)”

I wish he was tying these to specific feelings – he is withholding this information when it would be helpful.

I am suspecting that I had developmental alterations in my brain stem way ahead of, even, the brain changes.

“Other background feelings have to do with the cyclical operations of striated muscle in cardiac function and with patterns of contraction and dilation in smooth muscle which require representations in specific brain-stem nuclei such as the nucleus tractus solitarus and the parabrachial nucleus.  (Damasio/FWH/287)”

“My notion of background feelings is similar to the notion of vitality affects presented by the developmental psychologist Daniel stern, a notion he uses in his work with infants.  (Damasio/FWH/287)”



“…feelings are largely a reflection of body-state changes….  (Damasio/FWH/288)”

“Even in the most typical course of events, the emotional responses target both body proper and brain.  The brain produces major changes in neural processing that constitutes a substantial part of what is perceived as feeling.  The body is no longer the exclusive theater for emotions and consequently the body is not the only source for feelings….Moreover, the body source may be virtual, as it were, it may be the representation of the body “as if” rather than the body “as is.”  (Damasio/FWH/288)”

“The current evidence suggests that most feelings probably rely on all sources – skeletal and visceral changes as well as changes in internal milieu.  (Damasio/FWH/288)”


“…only a part of the body input most relevant for feelings travels in the spinal cord.  First, a considerable part of the relevant information actually travels in nerves such as the vagus, which exit and enter the brain at the level of the brain stem, well above the highest level of the spinal cord possibly damaged by an accident.  Likewise, only a part of the enactment of emotions depends on the spinal cord:  a large proportion of the process is mediated by cranial nerves at brain-stem level (which can act on the face and on viscera) and by other brain-stem nuclei (which can act directly on the brain above their level).  (Damasio/FWH/289)”  [cc to brain part files]

“Second, a significant part of body input actually does not travel by nerves but by way of the bloodstream, again reaching the central nervous system at the level of brain stem, for instance at the area postrema, or higher.  (Damasio/FWH/289)”

“…the spinal cord is a partial conduit for relevant body input.  5 [ch 9]….the higher the placement of damage in the spinal cord, the more impaired feeling is.  This IS important because the higher the section made in the spinal cord, the less input from the body will reach the brain.  Higher sections should correlate with less feeling, lower sections with more.  (Damasio/FWH/289)”


“…some of the critics seem to conceive of the body as that part of the organism that is below the neck, the head being just forgotten.  As it turns out, the face and skull, as well as the oral cavity, tongue, pharynx, and larynx – whose combination constitutes the upper portion of the respiratory and digestive tracts as well as most of the vocal system – provides a massive input into the brain.  This input penetrates the brain at brain-stem level, again at a level higher than that of any spinal cord injury.  (Damasio/FWH/290)”

I keep thinking of all the battering that occurred to my face and head!!  No doubt, also from the time I was very tiny.  It didn’t “just start!”

“Since most of the emotions express themselves prominently in changes of the facial musculature, in changes of the musculature of the throat, and in autonomic changes of the skin in the face and scalp, the representation of the related changes in the brain does not need the spinal cord for anything whatsoever and remains available as a base for feelings, even in patients with the most complete form of spinal cord transection.  (Damasio/FWH/290)”


“…that which is external, such as an emotion, from that which is internal, such as a feeling.  (Damasio/FWH/291)”

“…receive visceral input have been based on signals from the vagus nerve and the spinal cord….a principled distinction [is necessary] between emotion and feeling…[recognize] the sequential, unidirectional enchainment of the process – from inducer, to automated emotion, to representation of emotional changes, to feeling.  (Damasio/FWH/291)”



“The Solace we can take as we confront the sad reality of locked-in patients is that the profound defect of motor control reduces their emotional reactivity and seems to produce some welcome inward calm.  (Damasio/FWH/243)”

“A remarkable aspect of this tragic condition and one that has been neglected to date is that although patients are plunged, fully conscious, from a state of human freedom to one of nearly complete mechanical imprisonment, they do not experience the anguish and turmoil that their horrifying situation would lead observers to expect.  They have a considerable range of feelings, from sadness to, yes, joy.  And yet, from accounts now published in book form, the patients may even experience a strange tranquility that is new to their lives.  They are fully aware of the tragedy of their situation [I was not aware of mine], and they can report an intellectual sense of sadness or frustration with their virtual imprisonment.  But they do not report the terror that one imagines would arise in their horrible circumstances.  They do not seem to have anything like the acute fear experience by so many perfectly healthy (Damasio/FWH/292) and mobile individuals inside a magnetic resonance scanner, not to mention a crowded elevator. 7 [ch 9]  (Damasio/FWH/293)”

“Under the circumstances, any mental process which would normally induce an emotion fails to do so through the “body loop” mechanism we have discussed.  The brain is deprived of the body as a theater for emotional realization.  Nonetheless, the brain can still activate emotion-induction sites in the basal forebrain, hypothalamus, and brain stem, and generate some of the internal brain changes on which feelings depend.  Moreover, since most signaling systems from body to brain are free and clear, the brain can get direct neural and chemical signaling from organism profiles that fit background emotions.  Those profiles are related to basic regulatory aspects of the internal milieu and are largely uncoupled from the patient’s mental state because of brain-stem damage (only the bloodstream chemical routes remain open both ways).  (Damasio/FWH/293)”

“I suspect that some of the internal-milieu states are perceived as calm and harmonious.  Support for this idea comes from the fact that when these patients have a condition which ought to produce pain or discomfort, they can still register the presence of that condition.  For instance, they feel stiff and cramped when they are not moved by others for a long time.  Curiously, the suffering that usually follows pain seems to be blunted, perhaps because suffering is caused by emotion, and emotion can no longer be produced in the body theater:  it is restricted to “as if body” mechanisms.  (Damasio/FWH/293)”

There is something resonating inside of me about this.  I believe my suffering was blunted, to say the least.  I did not have the corresponding MENTAL connections to understand that what I was experiencing was anything less than normal – for me – and seeing that I was the person in question, suffering did not register.

So how could this possibly be a sort of reverse “locked-in” condition?  My body could have been the “theater” for emotion – but most of my FOCUS was on the physical, in the body, threat to living tissue, very real pain.  I did not have the opportunity to develop any complications regarding, “Gee, this is wrong and shouldn’t be happening to me and why is it happening to me and not to my brothers or sisters and what is wrong with my mother that she treats me this way and what is wrong with my father that he doesn’t stop her from doing it.”

I DID believe her that there was something wrong with me, that I was a terrible child and a curse upon her life, and that I was evil and different completely from my siblings.  But that belief was itself accepted and did not cause me suffering – until, as I mentioned somewhere in all this lately – the voice incident – when consciousness must have begun to dawn – a faint glimmer of consciousness – what I should have had by age 18 months, 2 years, 3 or 4 or 5.

So in the same way I don’t believe any of my emotions or feelings evolved and developed correctly, consciousness among them, suffering among them – and perhaps shame.

I think shame requires some sort of contrast.  I think all the emotions have to differentiate themselves in relationship to and with something else.  Damasio says “between object and organism” where the object causes changes in the organism.

I do remember, as per my focusing experience at work this week, a terrible tension in my body.  What happens when background feelings become THE only main feelings a person has – ever?

“Curare blocks the nicotinic receptors of acetylcholine, the transmitter that is necessary for nerve impulses to contract muscular fibers.  Since the skeletal muscles throughout our face, limbs, and trunk are of the striated type and have such nicotinic receptors, curare blocks neurochemical impulses at the site of all those neuromuscular junctions and causes paralysis.  However, the nerve impulses that lead smooth muscles to respond under the autonomic control of emotions use muscarinic receptors that are not blocked by curare.  Under the circumstances, it is possible for one part of the emotional responses, that which depends on pure autonomic signals, to be enacted in the body theater and be represented back in neural structures.  (Damasio/FWH/294)”

“As a whole, this evidence suggests that the “body loop” mechanism of emotion and feeling is of greater importance for real experience of feelings that the “as if body loop” mechanism that I have proposed as an alternate and complement.  (Damasio/FWH/294)”

“Now, after the vagus nerves of the rats are severed, emotion no longer helps their performance…without the vagus, the rats are also deprived of substantial visceral input to the brain.  It must be the case that the particular visceral input now missing is vital for the sort of emotion that assists learning.  (Damasio/FWH/295)”  [at least in rats]



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