Can You Feel It? How Feelings Rule the World

Money isn't the only thing that makes the world go around, or so says Antonio Damasio, a world famous neuroscientist.

According to Damasio's 2005 book, Descartes' Error, René Descartes got it all wrong when he famously said, "I think, therefore I am." Damasio rejects philosophers tendency to separate the mind from the body. Consider the popular expressions to "put on your thinking cap," or "use your head." We often talk about body, mind, and spirit as if they are separate entities.

This thinking, professor of neuroscience, psychology and philosophy, Damasio writes, leads us away from truly understanding human consciousness. In his new book, The Strange Order of Things, Damasio advocates for the importance of feelings—those stirrings undervalued for centuries in philosophical circles.

Feelings, Damasio writes — including pleasure and pain, hunger and thirst, fear, anger, and our desires for power, prestige, revenge, awe, and transcendence — "are mental stirrings, troubling or glorious, gentle or intense. They can stir us subtly, in an intellectual sort of way, or intensely. Even at their most positive, they tend to disturb the peace and break the quiet."

If there were no feelings, there would be no art, no music, no philosophy, no science, no friendship, no love, no culture. Furthermore, complex life would be unable to sustain itself. Feeling is the engine of the life force. "The complete absence of feeling," he writes, "would spell a suspension of being."

Antonio Damasio

The subjective experience of consciousness is not an exclusively human experience. Second-generation cognitive science agrees that consciousness is embodied, and that what we call "the mind" cannot be cut off from our corporeal existence in the world and our interactions with it. All living beings are conscious, even without a central nervous system, spine, or brain. Even bacteria, Damasio writes, in their "unminded existence...assume what can only be called a sort of 'moral attitude.'" Bacterial behavior, he argues, bears a striking resemblance to human social organization, implying that human unconscious "literally goes back to early life-forms, deeper and further than Freud or Jung ever dreamed of."

"Damasio's argument," writes John Banville in The Guardian, "is that we are directly descended not only from the apes, but from the earliest wrigglers at the bottom of the primordial rock pool."

As Owen Flanagan writes in The New York Times Book Review, summarizing Damasio's argument for the vital function that feelings play in the world: "Feelings are an evolutionary solution nature has come up with as a way of preserving life."

In a world that reveres intellect, rationality, and reason above all else, Damasio's The Strange Order of Things positions the engine of humanity, our very life force, in something else.

"The sick patient, the abandoned lover, the wounded warrior, and the troubadour in love were able to feel."

In other words, don't deny those feelings as lesser than your rational mind. Whether it's the stirrings of love, sadness, or anxiety, your feelings are giving you important information. And they may just keep the world spinning.

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