Tuesday, July 13, 2004


The first two definitions of “feelings” in my dictionary are 1. The sensation involving perception by touch and 2. An affective state of consciousness, such as that resulting from emotions, sentiments, or desires.

Considering these two definitions of feelings prompts these thoughts about human consciousness and its relation to the rest of the natural world.

1. Vision is the dominant sense of modern humans. The largest part of the sensory processing portion of the brain is devoted to sight, and this part of the brain has been the most studied. And it seems that when philosophers throughout history have tried to develop their models of how humans interact with the world and gain knowledge, they usually have vision at the forefront of their thinking.

An emphasis on vision biases one toward a passive conception of the human mind. We are seen as a vessel waiting to be stimulated by the influx of data from the world. The problem then becomes, how do we then process that data? How does that input get translated into output by cognitive processing? This way of approaching the study of human consciousness and brain functioning has been dominant.

All of our attributes arose through evolution. The prototypes and predecessors to our human-style consciousness can be found in our evolutionary past. However, in terms of evolution, it is the sense of touch which is primordial.

While lacking our nervous system, it seems clear that early organisms knew the world by touching it. They sensed opportunities for food, they felt out where the warmth of the sun was stronger, they sensed the possibility of danger. Touch is an active sense. One reaches out to the world: by touching you change the world and you change yourself.

I think progress in understanding human consciousness benefits from taking on the perspective given by this primordial sense of touch. This is the view of humans as active agents in the world, co-evolving with our environment. Contemplative, reflective, passive self-consciousness is newer on the evolutionary scene and while this mode is a crucial part of who we are, it obscures our more fundamental nature.

2. A few years ago, I read a book which put forth a model of how human consciousness worked. When I got to the end, I realized the author had never mentioned emotions. Feelings, emotions, affect -- these are integrated throughout human consciousness. The idea that the “higher” analytic cognitive functions are completely separate from emotions is a misconception. More recent accounts of the human mind, such as those found in the books of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, show that emotion cannot be separated without degrading other cognitive functions.

Emotions are indeed markers of our evolutionary past as well as a crucial part of our present. We say that animals have instincts rather than higher thought processes. Many would deny that animals have any consciousness as we think of it in humans. Well, I am confident animals experience feelings as they interact with their environment. As we go down the scale to simpler or more primitive organisms, presumably feelings get simpler and more primitive.

And here the two definitions of feelings appear to me to converge. When the first primitive organisms felt their environment, they experienced a feeling.

Human subjective experience, at its core, is a complex of feelings which arise through our interaction with the world.

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