Emotions and feelings may seem to many of us like trivialities—sensations that get in the way of the real work the brain has to do. But in recent decades, the work of neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio has shown that, far from being trivial, emotions and feelings are crucially important to human functioning. Through the study of patients who have suffered injuries to the parts of the brain that govern emotions, Damasio has found that people who lack an emotional reaction to a situation struggle to make a good decision in that situation—even if those people are otherwise quite intelligent.
Part of this surprising insight comes from differentiating between emotion and feeling. To Damasio, emotions are the physical reactions we have to certain stimuli—for example, the rapid heartbeat and tense muscles that signify fear. Feelings, he says, are the thoughts we have in our mind after those emotions occur, a reaction to the signals sent by the body. The brain can also create a feeling without the emotional body sensation, for example when we feel joy as we watch someone else triumph. We use the feelings we have to gauge situations and make decisions about risk and reward. It is from our feelings that we make sense of the world.
In an interview with Scientific American Mind, Damasio explains further:
Damasio: My interest now extends way past the question of decision making. In our lab, we are working more intensely with social feelings such as sympathy, shame or pride—they form a foundation for morality. Neurobiology doesn't simply help us to better understand human nature but also the rules of social interaction... Consciousness, much like our feelings, is based on a representation of the body and how it changes when reacting to certain stimuli. Self-image would be unthinkable without this representation. I think humans have developed a self-image mainly to establish a homeostatic organism. The brain constantly needs up-to-date information on the body's state to regulate all the processes that keep it alive. This is the only way an organism can survive in an ever changing environment. Emotions alone—without conscious feelings—would not be enough. Adults would be as helpless as babies if they suddenly lost their self-image.
The interaction between the world and our body-mind system—the province of emotions and feelings—thus plays an incredibly important role in constructing the self, making decisions, culture, and morality. Keep that in mind, then, the next time you wish you weren't so emotional.
photo by roboM8