The Feeling of What Happens:  Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness

Harcourt Brace & Company


Antonio R. Damasio


chapter ten Using Consciousness


“…what possible advantage can organisms derive from knowing that those emotions and feelings are taking place?  Why is consciousness beneficial?  Might we have been equally successful as living creatures without knowing that we have feelings?  (Damasio/FWH/296)”

“…both the thoughts currently present in our minds and the behaviors we exhibit are the result of a vast amount of processing of which we are not aware.  (Damasio/FWH/297)”

“…there can be specificity underneath consciousness.  (Damasio/FWH/301)”

“In the narrow sense of knowing, the brain does know the following implied associations:  things that are rewarding cause pleasant states; things that are punishing cause unpleasant states; thus a certain object that is a consistent source of punishment is to be avoided.  (Damasio/FWH/302)”

Well, that pretty much describes the “unsolvable paradox” in disorganized attachment, where the infant has to rely on, and is in fact biologically biased to want to be with its caregiver when distressed, even if the caregiver is the source of the distress.

“In this arrangement, the facts of past experience do not need to be made conscious.  They do need to be connected by appropriate neural patterns with the current situation so that their preset influences can be exerted as a covert bias. 5 [ch 10]  Yet, conscious humans can go beyond the state of processing described above.  Not only can humans become conscious of the biases, i.e., know, in the broad sense, they can also reach appropriate conclusions through conscious reasoning and use those conclusions to avoid unpleasant decisions.  (Damasio/FWH/302)”

This must be fundamentally tied to disorganized attachment and peritrauma of infant abuse.  There was no chance of using conscious reasoning to avoid unpleasant events!

PTSD does not rely on this slower conscious decision making process.

“We know from the situation of patients who lose the covert biasing system – patients with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex or to the amygdala – that the decision apparatus is impoverished to a dramatic degree.  This indicates that the nonconscious system is deeply interwoven with the conscious reasoning system such that the disruption of the former leads to an impairment of the latter.  (Damasio/FWH/302)”

“But in the situation of a person without neurological disease, in which both the nonconscious and conscious systems are present and normal, it is apparent that the conscious component extends the reach and efficacy of the nonconscious system.  Consciousness allows the player to discover if the strategy is correct and, in case it is not, to correct the strategy.  Moreover, consciousness allows the player to represent the context of the game and decide if he or she should stop playing it or wonder about the possible value of the situation for the player or for the examiner.  (Damasio/FWH/302)”  [cc to files]

This is a crucial area to realize infant abuse damage in relation to its operation – or lack thereof.  Infant abuse during brain forming stages damages this process.

PTSD damages this process even in those who were fine before a trauma.  The operation of this system has to be connected to early attachment experiences.

I will have to track these two regions via Schore.

I had nothing to make a decision about.  It was not allowed.  Nothing I could do or not do would change or alter anything.

In addition, we can wrongly assign functionality to things we do try when we are very young and try to fix things.  It reminds me of when I lived in Taos and worked graveyard shift stocking at Wal-Mart and all the lights went out – as it turned out, for hundreds of miles.  Many months later I met a young mother with a 4 ½ year old son.  He had gone to the bathroom and forgotten to turn the light off when he left the room.  She had gotten exasperated and mad at him “How many times have I told you to turn the lights off? Etc”  At the instant he returned to the bathroom and flipped the switch off all the power went out.  His mother, of course joking had said to him, “See!  Now look what you have done!”  He ran to the window and looked out and saw the whole world in darkness.  Nothing could then change his mind.  He really thought he had that power.  After all, the evidence was all there.

Like I could kill that shrew in punishment for all the shrews in the world that my mother hated, like that could change or help anything?  In the poppy fields of life where everything looks so perfectly beautiful, and on the insides of us the shrews gnaw away at our guts, at our lives. The Wizard of Oz, being a hoax, and all of us knowing that we are so powerless – but Dorothy wasn’t.  She was a heroine.  Had my mother seen that movie before she had her dark rainbow dream?  I never saw it until Jered saw it at Claude’s when I was 32 years old.

Magical thinking, like “People love babies.  Nobody could hurt a baby.”



“…consciousness is good for extending the mind’s reach and, in so doing, improving the life of the organism whose hind has that higher reach.  (Damasio/FWH/303)”

“Consciousness is valuable because it introduces a new means of achieving homeostasis.  I am not referring to a more efficient means of balancing the internal milieu than the entirely nonconscious machinery we have long had in place in the brain stem and hypothalamus.  Rather, I am referring to a new means of solving different kinds of problems that are connected, nonetheless, to the problems solved by previously existing means of homeostatic regulation.  In other words, devices in the brain stem and hypothalamus can coordinate, nonconsciously and with great efficiency, the jobs of the heart, lungs, kidneys, endocrine system, and immunological system such that the parameters that permit life are maintained within the adequate range, while the devices of consciousness handle the problem of how an individual organism may cope with environmental challenges not predicted in its basic design such that the conditions fundamental for survival can still be met.  (Damasio/FWH/303)”

I still have to relate this to PTSD – when we cannot identify these “other” environmental changes consciously, when the body continues to do it for us because it overrides any other option we might have consciously.

I was looking into the Beebe book today, where the track mother-infant communication to at least 1/6 of a second interactions, faster than visual can process – so there is an anticipation factor – like in my case where my mother was out-of-control, there was no anticipation factor.  It is a miracle I am as “normal” as I am!  Without the ability to anticipate and “plan” reactions, what else is there?

How could I have learned that I was changing another “object,” my mother?  Could I have allowed her to change me to the degree she could have – because that degree would have destroyed me?

“A fact compatible with this conclusion is the mismatch between the demands of the environment and the degree to which organisms can cope with these demands by means of automated and stereotyped devices.  (Damasio/FWH/303)”

This being true very early for abused infants whose “devices” are supposed to be adequate for what is supposed to be the simplest demands of their very early environments.  When their environment taxes them past their abilities to respond, massive disorganization occurs – disorientation, seen as both PTSD and disorganized insecure attachment patterns.

They are overwhelmed, and also faced with the unsolvable paradox.

A newborn is a nonconscious creature – temporarily, but true.

“Nonconscious creatures are capable of regulating homeostasis internally and equally capable of breathing the air and finding the water and transforming the energy required for survival within the sort of environment to which they are suitably matched by evolution.  Creatures with consciousness have some advantages over those that do not have consciousness.  They can establish a link between the world of automatic regulation (the world of basic homeostasis that is interwoven with the proto-self) and the world of imagination (the world in which images of different modalities can be combined to produce novel images of situations that have not yet happened). (Damasio/FWH/303)”

So this does not include being able to predict and respond to things as they have already happened before?

Aren’t these the dispositions, implicitly, that Damasio talks about?  Isn’t this, then, tied to the ability to remember the future in some way?  How could they be predictions otherwise?

The world of imaginary creations – the world of planning, the world of formulation of scenarios and prediction of outcomes – is linked to the world of the proto-self.  The sense of self (Damasio/FWH/303) links forethought, on the one hand, to preexisting automation, on the other.  (Damasio/FWH/304)”

Again, I could not predict in a crazy world!  I don’t think this link was ever made correctly.

“Consciousness is not the sole means of generating adequate responses to an environment and thus achieving homeostasis.  Consciousness is just the latest and most sophisticated means of doing so, and it performs its function by, in terms of automated responses.  (Damasio/FWH/304)”

There’s no way a newborn is designed to match an environment filled with a dangerous mother!  This infant’s “automated responses” are of no assistance at all in dealing with this situation.  Attachment theorists suggest that there is no ORGANIZED way for the infant to respond.  I don’t think there’s any way, yet we do survive it.  How?

“I would say that consciousness, as currently designed, constrains the world of imagination to be first and foremost about the individual, about an individual organism, about the self in the broad sense of the term.  I would say that the effectiveness of consciousness comes from its unabashed connection to the nonconscious proto-self.  This is the connection that guarantees that proper attention is paid to the matters of individual life by creating a concern.  Perhaps the secret behind the efficacy of consciousness is selfness.  (Damasio/FWH/304)”

“In short, the power of consciousness comes from the effective connection it establishes between the biological machinery of individual life regulation and the biological machinery of thought.  That connection is the basis for the creation of an individual concern which permeates all aspects of thought processing, focuses all problem-solving activities, and inspires the ensuing solutions.  Consciousness is valuable because it centers knowledge on the life of an individual organism.  (Damasio/FWH/304)”

So how did this get to be so important to a social species?  What about our connection to the other, to the others, of our species?  Doesn’t this just create a wide gaping hole into which we sink with our individual aloneness and lonesomeness?  Doesn’t this just keep us apart?  How does it motivate us to be together?

I was so terribly alone as a child.  I got a brain that does not know how to be with others.  Then I fell deeply in love with a man that leaves me alone all the time, and I hate it.  I absolutely hate it, but I cannot stop loving him.  I cannot start hating him.  And I hate that, too.  I hate the whole god damn fucking mess.

“When the mental aspect of self is suspended, the advantages of consciousness soon disappear.  Individual life regulation is no longer possible in a complex environment.  In the full personal and social sense, individuals remain capable of basic and immediate bodily maintenance.  But their connection to the environment on which they depend is broken down, and, because of the breakdown, they cannot sustain such bodily maintenance.  In fact, left to their own devices, death would ensue in a matter of hours because bodily maintenance would collapse.  This, and comparable examples (Damasio/FWH/304) suggest that a state of consciousness which encompasses a sense of self as conceptualized in this book is indispensable for survival.  (Damasio/FWH/305)”

I do not understand what he is saying here.  This simply sounds like mental illness to me, but he is not clarifying exactly what he means by this statement.  He is not defining what he means, the proto-self?

“The imagetic level of “self in the act of knowing” is advantageous for the organism because it orients the entire apparatus of behavior and cognition toward self-preservation…and eventually toward cooperation with the other, as we must wish.  (Damasio/FWH/305)”

How did I survive my childhood without this sense of self in the act of knowing?  How did I make it as long as I did once I left home without it?  Is that the state that I hit head on the night before I was supposed to bring Kerensa home from foster care when she was a month old?  There was an abyss within me.  It is still there.  I do not have a big or strong enough sense of self to fill it up.  I ache deeply all of the time.


“I am often asked if, as a consequence of our greater understanding of consciousness, we will eventually be able to gain access to each other’s mental experiences.  My answer to the question has long been no, and my opinion has not changed…as I see it, no amount of knowledge about the biology behind mental images is likely to produce, in the mind of the possessor of the knowledge, the equivalent of the experience of any mental image in the mind of the organism that creates it.  (Damasio/FWH/305)”

“This is a key issue to clarify in any discussion of the neurobiology of consciousness and mind.  You and I can have an experience of the same landscape, but each of us will generate that experience according to our own individual perspective.  Each of us will have a separate sense of individual ownership and individual agency.  (Damasio/FWH/306)”

“It is nice to know a little bit about how the brain does its job, but it is not necessary at all to experience anything.  It will be even nicer to know more about the brain but not because that will be helpful at all to experience the world.  (Damasio/FWH/306)”

Fine for him to say.  I’m sure his brain works just fine.  But what about the rest of us who struggle with a brain that was not allowed to develop correctly in the first place?  What if we need to understand that because we struggle and suffer constantly in trying to live in a complex world we are not adapted to function in well?  If at all?  It is to the level of difference and of suffering that I want to look for understanding, thinking that perhaps this understanding can be applied to how my brain works so that the suffering can be alleviated somewhat through increased consciousness about its operation.  When it is controlling me at times and in ways that a person with an ordinary brain does not have to experience.

Like an autistic person coming to learn and understand how their brain works, because there is still a person, a self in the middle of this messed up machinery – like the locked-in people – only we have to feel it.

“We will know more and more about the physiology of mental image processing and that will give us a better and better understanding of the mechanisms behind mind and consciousness.  That is perfectly compatible with the fact that such knowledge is not necessary for the experience of any images.  (Damasio/FWH/307)”

“The experience of a particular stimulus, including color, depends not just on the formation of an image but also on the sense of self in the act of knowing.  (Damasio/FWH/308)”

Explaining how to make something mental or something ours in scientific terms is an entirely different matter from making that something mental and ours directly.  (Damasio/FWH/308)”

“Although both mind and behavior are biological phenomena, mind is mind and behavior is behavior.  Mind and behavior can be correlated, and the correlation will become closer as science progresses, but in their respective specifications, mind and behavior are different.  This is why, in all likelihood, I will never know your thoughts unless you tell me, and you will never know mine until I tell you.  (Damasio/FWH/309)”

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