I continue to be fascinated by the fact that feelings are not just the shady side of reason but that they help us to reach decisions as well.
Interestingly enough, not all feelings result from the body’s reaction to external stimuli. Sometimes changes are purely simulated in the brain maps.
The problem that we, as living organisms, face – and not we only, humans, but any living organism faces – is the management of life.
Why do we have a brain in the first place? Not to write books, articles, or plays; not to do science or play music. Brains develop because they are an expedient way of managing life in a body.
We do not merely perceive objects and hold thoughts in our minds: all our perceptions and thought processes are felt. All have a distinctive component that announces an unequivocal link between images and the existence of life in our organism.
I got interested in the emotions after studying patients who had lost the ability to emote and feel under certain circumstances. Many of those patients also had major impairments in their ability to make decisions.
In ‘Self Comes to Mind’ I pay a lot of attention to simple creatures without brains or minds, because those ‘cartooned abstractions of who we are’ operate on precisely the same principles that we do.
Consciousness permits us to develop the instruments of culture – morality and justice, religion, art, economics and politics, science and technology. Those instruments allow us some measure of freedom in the confrontation with nature.
To me, body and mind are different aspects of specific biological processes.
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.
There is no such thing as a disembodied mind. The mind is implanted in the brain, and the brain is implanted in the body.
Having a self, even a simple self, allows you to look into the world and put a mark over what is more important and less important. It’s a way of classifying the world in terms of your own needs.
When you deal with something like compassion for physical pain, which we know is very, very old in evolution – we can find evidence for it in nonhuman species – the brain processes it at a faster speed. Compassion for mental pain took many seconds longer.
Imagine, for example, birds. When they look out at the world, they have a sense that they are alive. If they are in pain, they can do something about it. If they have hunger or thirst, they can satisfy that. It’s this basic feeling that there is life ticking away inside of you.
You still have only one self and one identity. However, self, identity and personality are not things, they are not objects, and they certainly are not rigid. Instead, they are biological processes built within the brain from numerous interactive components, step by step, over a period of time.
Of necessity, the autobiographical self is not just about one individual but about all the others that an individual interacts with. Of necessity, it incorporates the culture in which the interactions took place.
Some of us, for better or worse, develop very stable, consistent, and largely predictable machineries of self. But in others, the self machinery is more flexible and more open to unexpected turns.
When we talk about emotion, we really talk about a collection of behaviors that are produced by the brain. You can look at a person in the throes of an emotion and observe changes in the face, in the body posture, in the coloration of the skin and so on.
When you experience the emotion of sadness, there will be changes in facial expression, and your body will be closed in, withdrawn. There are also changes in your heart, your guts: they slow down. And there are hormonal changes.
Rather than being a luxury, emotions are a very intelligent way of driving an organism toward certain outcomes.
Writing long hand is the last refuge. One needs the time it takes to put pencil to paper and let it run along the ruled line.
For pure joy, I look at a small painting by Arbit Blatas. An ocean liner is at the center of the composition, perhaps ready to depart. It holds the promise of discovery.
I cannot listen to Beethoven or Mahler or Chopin or Bach when I write because those composers require you stop what you are doing and listen.