Palazzo Strozzi
  Bill Viola, Christian Nold, Yves Netzhammer
Teresa Margolles, Valerio Magrelli, William Kentridge
Katharina Grosse, Andrea Ferrara, Elisa Biagini
Maurice Benayoun, Antonella Anedda
Forword by James M. Bradburne
Emotional Systems by Franziska Nori

"What feelings are" Antonio Damasio
"Emotion, Rationality and Art" Ronald de Sousa
"Empathy, Movement and Emotion" David Freedberg
"The Emotions"
Peter Goldie
"The Emotional Brain" Joseph LeDoux
"Things Such as Might Happen" Martha Nussbaum
"The Theory of Emotives: A Synopsis" William M. Reddy

  For many years the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has been investigating the cerebral mechanisms that underlie sentiments and emotions. In this essay he seeks to define the distinctive term ‘sentiment’ as the perception, and mental representation, of the body; and as a vital, physical language that is a function of the mind: the visualisation of the body, therefore, by means of the brain.Moreover, in light of the discovery of ‘mirror neurons’, Damasio is able to perfect his argument that neuronal substrates underpin mental processes and the perception of emotions, as well as the transformation of compassion into a feeling of empathy.
  What feelings are
Antonio Damasio
  In my attempt to explain what feelings are, I will begin by asking the reader a question: When you consider any feeling you have experienced, pleasant or not, intense or not, what do you regard as the contents of that feeling? Note that I am not inquiring about the cause of the feeling; or about the intensity of the feeling; or about its positive or negative valence; or about what thoughts came into your mind in the wake of the feeling. I really mean the mental contents, the ingredients, the stuff that makes a feeling. In order to get this thought experiment going let me offer some suggestions: think of lying down in the sand, the late-day sun gently roasting your skin, the ocean lapping at your feet, a rustle of pine needles somewhere behind you, a light summer breeze breezing, 78° F and not a cloud in the sky. Take your time and savour the experience. I will assume you were not bored to tears and that instead you felt very well, exceedingly well, as a friend of mine likes to put it, and the question is, what did that ‘feeling well’ consist of? Here are just a few clues. Perhaps the warmth of your skin was comfortable. Your breathing was easy, in and out, unimpeded by any resistance in the chest or at the throat. Your muscles were so relaxed that you could not sense any pull at the joints. The body felt light, grounded but airy. You could survey the organism as a whole and you could sense its machinery working smoothly, with no glitches, no pain, simple perfection. You had the energy to move, but somehow you preferred to remain quiet, a paradoxical combination of the ability and inclination to act and the savouring of the stillness. The body, in brief, felt different along a number of dimensions. Some dimensions were quite apparent, and you actually could identify their locus. Others were more elusive. For example, you felt well-being and an absence of pain, and although the locus of the phenomenon was the body and its operations, the sensation was so diffuse that it was difficult to describe precisely where that was happening in the body. And there were mental consequences of the state of being just described. When you could direct your attention away from the sheer well-being of the moment, when you could enhance the mental representations that did not pertain directly to your body, you found that your mind was filled with thoughts whose themes created a new wave of pleasurable feeling. The picture of events you eagerly anticipated as pleasurable came into mind, as did scenes you enjoyed experiencing in the past. Also, you found that your cast of mind was, well, felicitous. You had adopted a mode of thinking in which images had a sharp focus and flowed abundantly and effortlessly. There were two consequences for all that good feeling. The appearance of thoughts with themes consonant with the emotion; and a mode of thinking, a style of mental processing, which increased the speed of image generation and made images more abundant. You had, as Wordsworth did up in Tintern Abbey, ‘sensations sweet felt in the blood and felt along the heart’ and found that these sensations were ‘passing even into [your] purer mind in tranquil restoration’. What you usually regard as ‘body’ and as ‘mind’ blended in harmony. Any conflicts now seemed abated. Any opposites now seemed less opposite.
I would say that what defined the pleasurable feeling of those moments, what made the feeling deserve the distinctive term feeling and be different from any other thought, was the mental representation of parts of the body or of the whole body as operating in a certain manner. Feeling, in the pure and narrow sense of the word, was the idea of the body being in a certain way. In this definition you can substitute idea for ‘thought’ or ‘perception’. Once you looked beyond the object that caused the feeling and the thoughts and mode of thinking consequent to it, the core of the feeling came into focus. Its contents consisted of representing a particular state of the body. The same comments would apply entirely to feelings of sadness, feelings of any other emotion, feelings of appetites, and feelings of any set of regulatory reactions unfolding in the organism. Feelings, in the sense used in this book, arise from any set of homeostatic reactions, not just from emotions. They translate the ongoing life state in the language of the mind. I propose that there are distinctive ‘body ways’ resulting from different homeostatic reactions, from simple to a complex state of pain, and thus distinctive core feelings. There also are distinctive causative objects, distinctive consequent thoughts, and consonant modes of thinking. Sadness, for example, is accompanied by low rates of image production and hyper-attentiveness to images, rather than by the rapid image change and short attention that goes with high happiness. Feelings are perceptions, and I propose that the most necessary support for their perception occurs in the brain’s body maps. These maps refer to parts of the body and states of the body. Some variation of pleasure or pain is a consistent content of the perception we call feeling.
Alongside the perception of the body there is the perception of thoughts with themes consonant with the emotion, and a perception of a certain mode of thinking, a style of mental processing. How does this perception come about? It results from constructing meta-representations of our own mental process, a high-level operation in which a part of the mind represents another part of the mind. This allows us to register the fact that our thoughts slow down or speed up as more or less attention is devoted to them; or the fact that thoughts depict objects and events at close range or at a distance. My hypothesis, then, presented in the form of a provisional definition, is that a feeling is the perception of a certain state of the body along with the perception of a certain mode of thinking and of thoughts with certain themes. Feelings emerge when the sheer accumulation of mapped details reaches a certain stage. Coming from a different perspective, the philosopher Suzanne Langer captured the nature of that moment of emergence with the following words: When the activity of some part of the nervous system reaches a ‘critical pitch the process is felt’.1 Feeling is a consequence of the ongoing homeostatic process, the next step in the cycle.
The above hypothesis is not compatible with the view that the essence of feelings (or the essence of emotions when emotions and feelings are taken as synonyms) is a collection of thoughts with certain themes consonant with a certain feeling label, such as thoughts of situations of loss in the case of sadness. I believe the latter view empties the concept of feeling hopelessly. If feelings were merely clusters of thoughts with certain themes, how could they be distinguished from any other thoughts? How would they retain the functional individuality that justifies their status as a special mind process? My view is that feelings are functionally distinctive because their essence consists of the thoughts that represent the body involved in a reactive process. Remove that essence and the notion of feeling vanishes. Remove that essence and one should never again be allowed to say ‘I feel’ happy, but rather, ‘I think’ happy. But that begs a legitimate question: What makes thoughts ‘happy’? If we do not experience a certain body state with a certain quality we call pleasure and that we find ‘good’ and ‘positive’ within the framework of life, we have no reason whatsoever to regard any thought as happy. Or sad.
As I see it, the origin of the perceptions that constitute the essence of feeling is clear: there is a general object, the body, and there are many parts to that object that are continuously mapped in a number of brain structures. The contents of those perceptions also are clear: varied body states portrayed by the body-representing maps along a range of possibilities. For example, the micro and macrostructure of tensed muscles are a different content from those of relaxed muscles. The same is true of the state of the heart when it beats fast or slow, and for the function of other systems – respiratory, digestive – whose business can proceed quietly and harmoniously, or with difficulty and poor coordination. Another example, and perhaps the most important one, is the composition of the blood relative to some chemical molecules on which our life depends, and whose concentration is represented, moment by moment, in specific brain regions. The particular state of those body components, as portrayed in the brain’s body maps, is the content of the perceptions that constitute feelings. The immediate substrates of feelings are the mappings of all those body states in the sensory regions of the brain designed to receive signals from the body.
Someone might object that we do not seem to register consciously the perception of all those body-part states. Thank goodness we do not register them all, indeed. We do experience some of them quite specifically and not always pleasantly – a disturbed heart rhythm, a painful contraction of the gut, and so forth. But for most other components, I hypothesise that we experience them in ‘composite’ form. Certain patterns of internal milieu chemistry, for example register as background feelings of energy fatigue, or malaise. We also experience the set of behavioural changes that become appetites and cravings. Obviously we do not ‘experience’ the blood level of glucose dropping below its lower admissible threshold, but we rapidly experience consequences of that drop at the level of how other systems operate (the musculature, for example) and how certain behaviours are engaged (e.g., appetite for food).
Experiencing a certain feeling, such as pleasure, is perceiving the body as being in a certain way, and perceiving the body in whatever way requires sensory maps in which neural patterns are instantiated and out of which mental images can be derived. I caution that the emergence of mental images from neural patterns is not a fully understood process […]. But we know enough to hypothesise that the process is supported by identifiable substrates – in the case of feelings, several maps of body state in varied brain regions – and subsequently involves complex interactions among regions. The process is not localised to one brain area.
In brief, the essential content of feelings is the mapping of a particular body state; the substrate of feelings is the set of neural patterns that map the body state and from which a mental image of the body state can emerge. A feeling in essence is an idea – an idea of the body and, even more particularly, an idea of a certain aspect of the body, its interior, in certain circumstances. A feeling of emotion is an idea of the body when it is perturbed by the emoting process. […], however, the mapping of the body that constitutes the critical part of this hypothesis is unlikely to be as direct as William James once imagined.

It also is apparent that the brain can simulate certain emotional body states internally, as happens in the process of turning the emotion sympathy into a feeling of empathy. Think, for example, of being told about a horrible accident in which someone was badly injured. For a moment you may feel a twinge of pain that mirrors in your mind the pain of the person in question. You feel as if you were the victim, and the feeling may be more or less intense depending on the dimension of the accident or on your knowledge of the person involved. The presumed mechanism for producing this sort of feeling is a variety of what I have called an ‘as-ifbody- loop’ mechanism. It involves an internal brain simulation that consists of a rapid modification of ongoing body maps. This is achieved when certain brain regions, such as the prefrontal/premotor cortices, directly signal the bodysensing brain regions. The existence and location of comparable types of neurons recently has been established. Those neurons can represent, in an individual’s brain, the movements that every brain sees in another individual, and produce signals towards sensorimotor structures so that the corresponding movements are either ‘previewed’, in simulation mode, or actually executed. These neurons are present in the frontal cortex of monkeys and humans, and are known as ‘mirror neurons’. I believe the ‘as-if-body-loop’ mechanism that I postulated in Descartes’ Error draws on a variant of this mechanism.
The result of direct simulation of body-states in bodysensing regions is no different from that of filtering of signals hailing from the body. In both cases the brain momentarily creates a set of body maps that does not correspond exactly to the current reality of the body. The brain uses the incoming body signals like clay to sculpt a particular body state in the regions where such a pattern can be constructed, i.e. the body-sensing regions. What one feels then is based on that ‘false’ construction, not on the ‘real’ body state.
Ralph Adolphs’ recent study speaks directly to the issue of simulated body states. The study was aimed at investigating the underpinnings of empathy and involved more than one hundred patients with neurological lesions located at varied sites of their cerebral cortex. They were asked to participate in a task that called for the sort of process needed for empathy responses. Each subject was shown photographs of an unknown person exhibiting some emotional expression and the task consisted of indicating what the unknown person was feeling. Researchers asked each subject to place himself or herself in the person’s shoes to guess the person’s state of mind. The hypothesis being tested was that patients with damage to body-sensing regions of the cerebral cortex would not be capable of performing the task normally.
Most patients performed this task easily, precisely as healthy subjects do, except for two specific groups of patients whose performance was impaired. The first group of impaired patients was quite predictable. It was made up of patients with damage to visual association cortices, especially the right visual cortices of the ventral occipitotemporal region. This sector of the brain is critical for the appreciation of visual configurations. Without its integrity, the facial expressions in the photographs cannot be perceived as a whole, even if the photos can be seen in the general sense of the term.
The other group of patients was the most telling: it consisted of subjects with damage located in the overall region of the right somatosensory cortices, namely, in the insula, SII, and SI regions of the right cerebral hemisphere. This is the set of regions in which the brain accomplishes the highest level of integrated mapping of body state. In the absence of this region, it is not possible for the brain to simulate other body states effectively. The brain lacks the playground where variations on the body-state theme can be played.
It is of great physiological significance that the comparable region of the left cerebral hemisphere does not have the same function: patients with damage to the left somatosensory complex perform the ‘empathy’ task normally. This is one more finding that suggests that the right somatosensory cortices are ‘dominant’ with regard to integrated body mapping. This also is the reason why damage to this region has been consistently associated with defects in emotion and feeling, and with conditions such as anosognosia and neglect, whose basis is a defective idea of the current body state. The right versus left asymmetry in the function of the human somatosensory cortices probably is due to a committed participation of the left somatosensory cortices in language and speech.
Other supporting evidence comes from studies in which normal individuals who were viewing photographs depicting emotion immediately and subtly activated the muscular groups of their own faces that would have been necessary for them to make the emotional expressions depicted in the photographs. The individuals were not aware of this mirror-image ‘presetting’ of their own muscles but electrodes distributed across their faces picked up on electromyographic changes.
In summary, the body-sensing areas constitute a sort of theatre where not only the ‘actual’ body states can be ‘performed’, but varied assortments of ‘false’ body states can be enacted as well, for example, as-if-body states, filtered body states, and so on. The commands for producing as-if-body states are likely to come from a variety of prefrontal cortices as suggested by recent work on mirror-neurons in both animals and humans.


This text is an excerpt taken from the third chapter of Antonio Damasio’s book Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain (Orlando: Harcourt Inc., 2003). The chapter in the original language was provided by Damasio himself.