Antonio Damasio is a prestigious neuroscientist of Portuguese origin who has devoted much of his life to studying the neurological basis of the mind. In his book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, he describes the idea that emotions motivate the human mind.
In the work Emotion and consciousness Damasio finished consolidating his thesis. His long experience and research led him to the conclusion that feelings are actually the engine of the mind, and not knowledge or reason as such.
What is meant by this statement? Our conduct is motivated by our emotional sphere and not so much by what we think with our more rational side. Damasio says that everything created by human civilization is the fruit of feelings.
Feelings motivate the mind
It is easy to find the relationship between our feelings and certain actions of ours, like when writing a poem. However, Antonio Damasio says that the conquest of outer space, microscopic research and even commercial decisions are the result of what one or more people feel.
The neuroscientist says that modern means of exploring the brain have allowed him to corroborate his thesis. Through magnetic resonance imaging, for example, it is possible to obtain very detailed images of the whole brain and study it thoroughly.
Today we know the human brain much better thanks to these scans, and not only through the observable behavior, as was the case before. What does this have to do with Damasio’s statement? Let’s see it together.
Damasio: mind, emotions and feelings
Antonio Damasio describes emotions as automatic devices with which we come into the world. They work on their own and need no thought to be activated. There are primary or basic emotions, such as fear, anger, satisfaction, sadness, etc. Other emotions are social and therefore more complex.
Emotions have been with us from birth, but when a person enters the world and grows up, he learns to associate them with certain objects or events. For example, the object “dog” can be associated with the emotion “happiness”; or the “gathering of people” event can be associated with the emotion “fear”. The connection between an object or event with an emotion is what configures the feelings.
On the other hand, emotions can manifest on a physical level. Fear causes an increase in heart and respiratory rate, paleness, etc. Feelings are a symbolic reality. Likewise, emotion creates a sequence of actions, while feeling is associated with the outcome of that chain.
Thus, when we see a dog, we can feel “happiness” and this feeling of well-being leads us to give the animal a caress. Or we see a group of people and the “fear” emotion is activated, so we run away from that place. The emotion is what arises in the first instance, the feeling corresponds to the decision to perform a certain action.
Starting from this basic functioning, we arrive at very complex emotions and feelings. Based on this, Antonio Damasio argues that feelings motivate the mind. From a biological point of view , feelings provide “homeostatic regulation”.
This regulation refers to the state of equilibrium of an organism. Damasio says they operate as “informants”. If a person feels cheerful when he wakes up and wants to start the day, it means that his homeostatic balance is good. If, on the other hand, her mood is low or she feels angry, it is a sign that this balance needs to be restored.
In one case there will be more willingness to act and face challenges, even if they are complex. In the other, the opposite will be true. This illustrates how feelings ultimately push the mind in one direction rather than another.
In both cases there will be an inclination towards certain actions. Based on previous knowledge and experience, everything will translate into concrete manifestations: a day of work, the project of a rocket, the conquest of power, and so on.