Thursday, 14 August 2014

Emotion and Consciousness: Damasio's Hypothesis

Isaura Peddis
This week PhD student Isaura Peddis writes about her research. Isaura is supervised by Iain Law and Lisa Bortolotti in the Philosophy Department, and her thesis is provisionally entitled 'The Importance of Empathy'.

I am a first year PhD student interested in emotions, particularly in empathy. In the last couple of months, I have researched the cognitive and feeling theories of emotions. During my research, I came across Damasio’s theory of emotions, which I will shortly summarise here. In my opinion, his idea well introduces the important role of consciousness for emotions, as it is a key factor for empathy and any actions deriving from this feeling. This is a topic that I will particularly focus on in my dissertation.

Antonio Damasio thinks that, to feel an emotion, an organism must satisfy three prerequisites. Firstly, the organism has to have a body and represent it through its mind; this excludes plants which do not have neural patterns to process the reaction of the stimuli like a brain would. Secondly, the organism has to have a nervous system able to map body structures and body states and transform this information into a mental representation. Thirdly, the brain creates the neural patterns that generate emotions through a constant interaction with the objects that provoke those emotions (Damasio, 2004: 109-110). Therefore, in simple words, an emotion is a change that happens into our body and is trigged by the interaction that an organism has with a particular object. Through our sensory perception and thoughts, we elaborate a mental representation of the relation between the body and the object, and this causes the bodily changes that we feel and normally label as emotions.

Damasio thinks that emotional responses are present in us because of evolution. They are a sort of help for the organism, which prepares it to react fast in certain situations. In fact, there are cases where the body is more predisposed to have certain reactions when faced with certain objects that possess particular characteristics. Among those features is size, a large animal for example; a large span, like flying eagles; the type of motion, like in the case of reptiles; certain sounds, as growling (Damasio, 2006: 135). Nevertheless, our emotional capacities go further than evolution. In fact, emotional patterns can change, disappear and new ones emerge in the course of our lives; this is due to the interaction of the organism with the environment, other people and the experiences these interactions cause (Damasio, 2000: 57).

However, all those elements described by Damasio will be useless if the organism is not conscious of the changes happening to the body. In fact, Damasio uses the word consciousness to indicate “the unified mental pattern that brings together the object and the self”(Damasio, 2000: 9); “consciousness is an entirely private, first-person process we call mind”(Damasio, 2000: 10). Consciousness is the feeling that what I do, feel and think consists of actions carried out by me and not by another identity; consciousness is the sense of taking part in the actions that I do and not a witness who undergoes them.

It seems, according to the description Damasio makes of consciousness, that the activity of being conscious takes place only after an emotion started. Consciousness is like the birthday boy who arrives last at the party. Everything has been set up for him, food, music, gifts and so on, but all those efforts made by the host will be fruitless if they forget to invite the guest of honour. Consciousness is a little bit like the birthday boy of my example; it shows up when the rest has been prepared and, without it, I will not be aware of the bodily changes triggered by the emotion. In fact, when we first interact with an object, whether through our senses or a mental, unconscious representation, the image of the object makes us react in a physical and cognitive way. Only thereafter do we become conscious of the fact that we are feeling an emotion.


Damasio AR. (2000) The feeling of what happens body, emotion and the making of consciousness, London: Vintate.

Damasio AR. (2004) Looking for Spinoza: joy, sorrow and the feeling brain, London: Vintage Books.

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