Consciousness begins with feelings, not thinking | Hanna Damasio ? (2023)

Forget ‘I think therefore I am’. In a new theory of embodied consciousness, the neuroscientists Antonio Damasio and Hanna Damasio propose that feelings are the source of consciousness. Long dismissed as secondary to reason, feelings are where consciousness begins. Without them, consciousness is impossible, they argue – with radical implications for the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness and the future of AI.

Please pause for a moment and notice what you are feeling now. Perhaps you notice a growing snarl of hunger in your stomach or a hum of stress in your chest. Perhaps you have a feeling of ease and expansiveness, or the tingling anticipation of a pleasure soon to come. Or perhaps you simply have a sense that you exist. Hunger and thirst, pain, pleasure and distress, along with the unadorned but relentless feelings of existence, are all examples of ‘homeostatic feelings’. Homeostatic feelings are, we argue here, the source of consciousness.

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In effect, feelings are the mental translation of processes occurring in your body as it strives to balance its many systems, achieve homeostasis, and keep you alive. In a conventional sense feelings are part of the mind and yet they offer something extra to the mental processes. Feelings carry spontaneously conscious knowledge concerning the current state of the organism as a result of which you can act to save your life, such as when you respond to pain or thirst appropriately. The continued presence of feelings provides a continued perspective over the ongoing body processes; the presence of feelings lets the mind experience the life process along with other contents present in your mind, namely, the relentless perceptions that collect knowledge about the world along with reasonings, calculations, moral judgments, and the translation of all these contents in language form. By providing the mind with a ‘felt point of view’, feelings generate an ‘experiencer’, usually known as a self. The great mystery of consciousness in fact is the mystery behind the biological construction of this experiencer-self.

In sum, we propose that consciousness is the result of the continued presence of homeostatic feelings. We continuously experience feelings of one kind or another, and feelings naturally tell each of us, automatically, not only that we exist but that we exist in a physical body, vulnerable to discomfort yet open to countless pleasures as well. Feelings such as pain or pleasure provide you with consciousness, directly; they provide transparent knowledge about you. They tell you, in no uncertain terms, that you exist and where you exist, and point to what you need to do to continue existing – for example, treating pain or taking advantage of the well-being that came your way. Feelings illuminate all the other contents of mind with the light of consciousness, both the plain events and the sublime ideas. Thanks to feelings, consciousness fuses the body and mind processes and gives our selves a home inside that partnership.


Feelings carry spontaneously conscious knowledge concerning the current state of the organism as a result of which you can act to save your life


That consciousness should come ‘down’ to feelings may surprise those who have been led to associate consciousness with the lofty top of the physiological heap. Feelings have been considered inferior to reason for so long that the idea that they are not only the noble beginning of sentient life but an important governor of life’s proceedings may be difficult to accept. Still, feelings and the consciousness they beget are largely about the simple but essential beginnings of sentient life, a life that is not merely lived but knows that it is being lived.

But how do we know? Thanks to ‘interoception’, the hidden sense that allows us to glean, via bodily feelings, a picture of our interior. It is the important and commonly overlooked department of our organisms charged with both sensing the process of life regulation and adjusting it as needed for life to continue. Exteroception, which includes vision, hearing, touch, taste and smell and is charged with bringing into our minds the entire world that surrounds us, tends to dominate the world of the senses. Proprioception, the sense which allow us to become aware of our bodies in space, and of the movement of our muscles, bones and joints, attracts plenty of attention as well. But interoception is the seemingly modest but real magician, hiding in plain sight.

The machinery of interoception is less sophisticated than that of exteroception and proprioception. It is made of simpler neurons that are often devoid of myelin, assembled in central nervous system structures that are often not protected by a blood-brain barrier, and make use of chemical molecules such as dopamine and serotonin whose chemical actions are slow by comparison with the lightning speed of glutamate or GABA, two of the molecules used by the modern systems that help us perceive the outside world. The good side of all this simplicity is, of course, the intimate contact that interoception allows between the neural elements and the non-neural flesh, a contact so close, in fact, that the two partners, both entirely inside the body, seem to fuse with each other to produce the most intimate of feelings: the feeling of life itself.

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This simplicity is indicative of how evolutionarily ancient interoceptive processes are: their neurons and centers show their age, and their chemical molecules are old-fashioned. This is why we propose that feelings produced by interoception were foundational to consciousness and changed the destiny of evolution by allowing the deliberate governance of life.

Are other living organisms conscious or is consciousness an exclusively human feature? Actually, consciousness is ubiquitous in the world of the living. We would say that plenty of non-human organisms are conscious, provided they have the biological machinery that we have just described for humans. But is consciousness present in single-cell organisms? And what about plants? We venture to say that they are not conscious. They ‘sense and detect’ conditions in their surroundings, for example – they run their lives intelligently – but they do not know that they do so. The reason why they do not is that they lack a nervous system. The nervous system is a critical participant in the life process, at once an attentive spectator and an active partner, helping regulate life and generate feelings and the consciousness consequent to them.

Are artificial intelligent devices conscious in some way? Not at all! Even the smart chatbots that are currently attracting so much attention lack any sign of consciousness of the kind that we have just described in living creatures. Once again, consciousness is about feelings and feelings are about life; about the struggle to maintain a program of exchanges with the surrounding environment within certain parameters. None of this applies to current AI devices. They are truly artificial. Access to all the knowledge in the world, and to all the smart devices that may help manipulate that knowledge, cannot produce feelings and consciousness.


Feelings produced by interoception were foundational to consciousness and changed the destiny of evolution by allowing the deliberate governance of life


Where does all of this leave us with regard to the by-now classic ‘hard problem of consciousness’? The hard problem concerns the difficulty of having a physical entity, such as the brain, produce a non-physical process called the mind and, most importantly, a mind whose contents can be experienced, that is, made subjective. Our account of consciousness addresses the hard problem and proposes a candidate mechanism to account for conscious experiences. Time will tell if our solution is correct.


Consciousness begins with feelings, not thinking | Hanna Damasio ? ›

In a new theory of embodied consciousness, the neuroscientists Antonio Damasio and Hanna Damasio propose that feelings are the source of consciousness. Long dismissed as secondary to reason, feelings are where consciousness begins.

What is Damasio's theory of consciousness? ›

Damasio argues that our conscious experiences are influenced by the emotional responses that are generated by our body's interactions with the environment, and that these emotional responses play a crucial role in shaping our conscious experience.

What is the feeling of consciousness? ›

Consciousness occurs when mind contents, such as perceptions and thoughts, are spontaneously identified as belonging to a specific organism/owner. Conscious minds are said to have a self that experiences mental events.

What is the source of consciousness? ›

All consciousness arises from the brainstem, and it starts as feelings. While people with damaged or even missing cerebral cortices display many signs of consciousness, even a small amount of damage to a part of the brainstem called the reticular activating system reliably obliterates consciousness.

What is the scientific definition of consciousness? ›

Consciousness, at its simplest, is sentience and awareness of internal and external existence.

What was one aim of Damasio? ›

Damasio et al. aimed to build a replica model of Gage's skull (using the actual skull as a guide) so that they could show exactly where the iron rod entered and exited Gage's head.

What were the major conclusions of Damasio's work? ›

Antonio Damasio's research in neuroscience has shown that emotions play a central role in social cognition and decision-making. His work has had a major influence on current understanding of the neural systems, which underlie memory, language, consciousness.

Is consciousness linked to emotion? ›

Not only is consciousness important to aspects of emotion but structures that are important for emotion, such as brainstem nuclei and midline cortices, overlap with structures that regulate the level of consciousness.

Is conscience a feeling or emotion? ›

In its late Classical sense it means 'shame', a public emotion, an emotion one feels when ones actions do not measure up to a widely shared norm of good conduct. In its early Christian sense it means 'guilt,' a more inward or self-generated (or at least personally embraced) sense of personal wrongdoing.

Can consciousness exist without a brain? ›

The prevailing consensus in neuroscience is that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain and its metabolism. When the brain dies, the mind and consciousness of the being to whom that brain belonged ceases to exist. In other words, without a brain, there can be no consciousness.

What are the three main concepts of consciousness? ›

A simplified, reductionistic and easily definable concept of consciousness is proposed; consciousness is proposed to consist of three main components: vigilance, mental contents, and selective attention.

What is the basic element of consciousness? ›

The key elements of consciousness, i.e. wakefulness and awareness of environment and self that are positively correlated in the physiological states. A complete dissociation between such elements is clearly seen in vegetative state. Notably, individuals suffering from coma are unconscious and cannot be awakened.

How did humans develop consciousness? ›

Consciousness probably evolved as a way for organisms to go far beyond responding merely reflexively to stimuli—to be able to respond more flexibly, and in a more delayed and planned manner.

Is consciousness a form of energy? ›

Recent neuroscientific evidence can be interpreted in a way that suggests consciousness is a product of the organization of energetic activity in the brain. The nature of energy itself, though, remains largely mysterious, and we do not fully understand how it contributes to brain function or consciousness.

Is consciousness a brain process? ›

Consciousness is a brain process resulting from neural mechanisms. H2. The crucial mechanisms for consciousness are: representation by patterns of firing in neural groups, binding of these representations into semantic pointers, and competition among semantic pointers.

What is the best explanation of consciousness? ›

Consciousness is your individual awareness of your unique thoughts, memories, feelings, sensations, and environments. Essentially, your consciousness is your awareness of yourself and the world around you.

What is Antonio Damasio known for? ›

Neuroscientist and best selling author Antonio Damasio is an internationally recognized leader in neuroscience. His research has helped to elucidate the neural basis for the emotions and has shown that emotions play a central role in social cognition and decision-making.

What did Antonio Damasio study on emotions and decision-making? ›

Damasio holds that all decisions cannot be made solely on reason and therefore the absence of emotion and the "somatic marker" lead to the inability to make decisions because one aspect of the decision-making process is missing.

What Damasio calls the self? ›

As for this fleeting self, Damasio has unsurprisingly dubbed it “core self” since as early as 1999, in his famous The Feeling of What Happens [Damasio 1999].

What arises from the brain as it interprets an emotion according to Dr Damasio? ›

Damasio has strived to show that feelings are what arise as the brain interprets emotions, which are themselves purely physical signals of the body reacting to external stimuli. Born in 1944 in Lisbon, Portugal, Damasio has been chair of the University of Iowa's neurology department since 1986.

Where do feelings come from heart or brain? ›

Feelings have so much to do with the heart, as they do with the brain. It's actually a two-way relationship. Our emotions change the signals the brain sends to the heart and the heart responds to the brain in complex ways.

Do emotions begin with a bodily reaction? ›

According to the Cognitive Appraisal Theory, thinking must occur before experiencing emotion. Thus, a person would first experience a stimulus, think, and then simultaneously experience a physiological response and the emotion.

What role do emotions play in consciousness? ›

Emotions play a central role in the evolution of consciousness, influence the emergence of higher levels of awareness during ontogeny, and largely determine the contents and focus of consciousness throughout the life span.

Is thinking part of consciousness? ›

The conscious mind involves all the things you are currently aware of and are thinking about. It is somewhat akin to short-term memory and is limited in capacity. Your awareness of yourself and the world around you is part of your consciousness.

Do thoughts have consciousness? ›

In this view, thoughts include only nonsensory mental attitudes, such as judgments, decisions, intentions and goals. These are amodal, abstract events, meaning that they are not sensory experiences and are not tied to sensory experiences. Such thoughts never figure in working memory. They never become conscious.

Is it possible to be conscious without feeling emotions? ›

Sure. Most folks incorporate emotional responses into the general field of cognition we call “consciousness”. But there are folks who have no or very little emotional “affect”. Psychopaths, for instance, have greatly attenuated emotional responses.

Are feelings conscious or subconscious? ›

Emotion is an innate, powerful, and principally unconscious process. It alerts us to problems but doesn't bother us with processes that don't require conscious attention.

Is there pure consciousness? ›

Pure consciousness is our spiritual essence. Being infinite and unbounded, it is also pure joy. Other attributes of consciousness are pure knowledge, infinite silence, per-fect balance, invincibility, simplicity, and bliss. This is our essential nature.

Could consciousness exist beyond matter? ›

In our standard view of things, consciousness exists only in the brains of highly evolved organisms, and hence consciousness exists only in a tiny part of the universe and only in very recent history. According to panpsychism, in contrast, consciousness pervades the universe and is a fundamental feature of it.

Is consciousness a force? ›

Consciousness—a hallmark of humans, mammals, birds, and even octopuses—is that mysterious force that makes all those neurons and synapses “tick” and merge into “you.” It's what makes you alert and sensitive to your surroundings, and it's what helps you see yourself as separate from everything else.

At what age do we become conscious? ›

Consciousness requires a sophisticated network of highly interconnected components, nerve cells. Its physical substrate, the thalamo-cortical complex that provides consciousness with its highly elaborate content, begins to be in place between the 24th and 28th week of gestation.

What is the highest level of consciousness? ›

lucid dreaming; out-of-body experience; near-death experience; mystical experience (sometimes regarded as the highest of all higher states of consciousness)

What is divine consciousness? ›

This particular term refers to a state of consciousness that transcends normal human consciousness. The terms transcendental consciousness, higher consciousness, and super-consciousness are all terms that often can be used interchangeably with the term divine consciousness.

What does Buddhism say about consciousness? ›

The Buddha taught that consciousness is always continuing, like a stream of water. Consciousness has four layers. The four layers of consciousness are mind consciousness, sense consciousness, store consciousness, and manas. Mind consciousness is the first kind of consciousness.

What is the Buddhist theory of consciousness? ›

The word "consciousness" in Buddhism was translated from the Sanskrit word "vijnana", and refers to one's self-awareness and one's capability to discern the various energies that influence their lives.

Why are humans self aware? ›

It is developed through an early sense of non-self components using sensory and memory sources. In developing self–awareness through self-exploration and social experiences one can broaden one's social world and become more familiar with the self.

Who was the first human to gain consciousness? ›

Consciousness began with humans, homo sapiens, around 200,000 years ago. Consciousness began when human culture became advanced, around 3,000 years ago (Julian Jaynes). Consciousness does not exist, as it is just a scientific mistake (behaviorism} or a “user illusion” (Daniel Dennett).

What is in the unconscious mind? ›

The unconscious mind can include repressed feelings, hidden memories, habits, thoughts, desires, and reactions. Memories and emotions that are too painful, embarrassing, shameful, or distressing to consciously face are stored in the enormous reservoir that makes up the unconscious mind.

What is the difference between mind and consciousness? ›

The Vedantha philosophy has considered mind as the subtle form of matter where in the body and its components are considered the grossest forms. Consciousness, on the other hand, is considered finer than 'mind matter' and is considered all pervasive, omnipresent and omniscient.

What is the purest form of energy? ›

And that dark energy itself may be the purest form of energy, existing independent of particles, but as far as any effect other than the expansion of the Universe, that energy is inaccessible to everything else in the Universe.

What part of the brain controls consciousness? ›

The brain stem connects the cerebrum with the spinal cord. It contains a system of nerve cells and fibers (called the reticular activating system) located deep within the upper part of the brain stem. This system controls levels of consciousness and alertness.

Is consciousness dark energy? ›

The constitution of consciousness as dark energy is radical because it also explains why waves change to photons in the presence of consciousness. Dark energy is surmised by physicists to be Einstein's cosmological constant because it shapes the relativity of spacetime.

Where is our consciousness located? ›

The cortex of each part of the brain plays an important role in the production of consciousness, especially the prefrontal and posterior occipital cortices and the claustrum.

Is memory a form of consciousness? ›

The conscious mind includes everything that we are aware of. Examples are sensations, perception, and memory. A major part of this includes our memory, which is not always part of consciousness but can be retrieved easily at any time and brought into our awareness.

What does psychology say about consciousness? ›

Consciousness describes our awareness of internal and external stimuli. Awareness of internal stimuli includes feeling pain, hunger, thirst, sleepiness, and being aware of our thoughts and emotions.

What are the 4 states of mind? ›

There are four mental states, i.e., random thinking (cancalata), concentrative mind (ekagrata), focused meditation (dharana), and effortless meditation (dhyana) as defined in yoga texts.

Are we conscious while we sleep? ›

We lose consciousness when we fall asleep, at least until we start to dream. This is the default view and it asserts that there is conscious experience in sleep only when we dream.

What are the theories of consciousness? ›

To clarify this complicated landscape, we review four prominent theoretical approaches to consciousness: higher-order theories, global workspace theories, re-entry and predictive processing theories and integrated information theory.

What is consciousness according to Daniel Dennett? ›

Dennett describes consciousness as an account of the various calculations occurring in the brain at close to the same time. He compares consciousness to an academic paper that is being developed or edited in the hands of multiple people at one time, the "multiple drafts" theory of consciousness.

What is the role of emotions in decision-making according to Damasio? ›

It is these vicarious states, according to Damasio, that give mental representations of contingencies the emotional valence that helps an individual to identify favorable or unfavorable outcomes.

Who first suggested that the brain is responsible for thinking feelings? ›

The beginnings

The birth of neuroscience began with Hippocrates some 2500 years ago. While his contemporaries, including Aristotle, believed that the mind resided in the heart, Hippocrates argued that the brain is the seat of thought, sensation, emotion and cognition.

What did Damasio believe was Descartes error? ›

Damásio refers to René Descartes' separation of the mind from the body (the mind/body dualism) as an error because reasoning requires the guidance of emotions and feelings conveyed from the body.

Is self consciousness an emotion? ›

self-conscious emotion

an emotion generated when events reflect on the worth or value of the self in one's own or others' eyes. Self-conscious emotions include shame, pride, guilt, and embarrassment. Also called self-evaluative emotion.

Who said that the self is a thinking? ›

Here's how Descartes explains this phenomenon in his Meditation II . For Descartes, then, this is the essence of your self—you are a “thinking thing,” a dynamic identity that engages in all of those mental operations we associate with being a human self.

What are the 4 types of consciousness? ›

Ultimately, four different gradable aspects of consciousness will be described: quality, abstractness, complexity and usefulness, which belong to four different dimensions, these being understood, respectively, as phenomenal, semantic, physiological, and functional.

What is the first order theory of consciousness? ›

The core idea of first-order representationalism is that any conscious state is a representation, and what it's like to be in a conscious state is wholly determined by the content of that representation.

What does Nietzsche say about consciousness? ›

He argues that consciousness, for Nietzsche, refers to a specific kind of reflective self-consciousness, such that for a mental state to be conscious requires an accompanying higher-order representational state (e.g., a perception or thought) which takes the experience itself as an object.

What does Kant say about consciousness? ›

For Kant, consciousness being unified is a central feature of the mind, our kind of mind at any rate. In fact, being a single integrated group of experiences (roughly, one person's experiences) requires two kinds of unity.

What does Hegel say about consciousness? ›

Consciousness is in general the knowing of an object, whether external or internal, without regard to whether it presents itself without the help of the Mind or whether it is produced through this. The Mind is to be considered in its activities in so far as the determinations of its consciousness are ascribed to it.

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